Obama’s Education Strategy Makes Good Political Sense, But to Boost High School Graduation Rates, Something Bolder is Needed

The Obama Administration’s governing skills shifted upward this weekend. Making education the centerpiece of the Administration’s second year is a vast improvement over the first-year focus on endless spending, health reform and cap-and-trade.

It’s not the first time a president has wasted his political capital—take Bill Clinton, for example–in the first year of office, but then learned how to make the system work. Obama now appears to have found the middle of the political spectrum. Some Republicans may carp and criticize the proposed bill but unified partisan opposition is unlikely. Special interests will get their hands on pieces of the legislation, but I am willing to bet that before the year is out the proposed legislation will give the President a chance to claim a clear domestic policy victory.

Obama’s call for mending—not ending–No Child Left Behind (NCLB), strikes the right balance. Of course, the name has to be abandoned. The 2009 Education Next poll (full results available here) showed that the mere mention of NCLB lowered support for the law by 11 percentage points. That same poll has shown that a heavy majority favor testing, accountability, and national standards. Nearly two thirds of public school teachers say they favor one national standard, instead of different standards in each state. The public also supports the merit pay concept the president has proposed.

The Administration’s decision to judge schools by the amount individual students improve from one year to the next can only be applauded as a great improvement over current law. But we should remind ourselves that when NCLB was first passed, data were not available to allow for this kind of accountability system. It is to the credit of the Bush Administration that they initiated a testing regime upon which the Obama team can improve.

That the proposed law focuses more on incentives than on negative consequences has political appeal—even though the pressure on local schools to do well does not really change. No wonder the unions are opposed.

The President needs to take one step further, however, if he wants to find a way to lift four-year high school graduation rates from 70 percent to 100 percent. He must ask Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to launch a major campaign (as part of the I-3 initiative, perhaps) to give schools incentives to take advantage of new technologies that are rapidly coming on line–broadband, powerful computers, 3-dimensional presentation of material (ala Avatar), and open-source curricular development (ala Wikipedia).  For more detail, see my Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning.

Indeed, the Administration has the opportunity to use Title I to act on a recent Brookings proposal. That group (full disclosure—I am a member) has proposed giving incentives to states if they enact legislation that encourage community colleges, universities, charter schools, and other providers to offer virtual courses to high school and middle school students over the internet.  Specifically, students should have the opportunity to decide whether they want to take a course in the classroom or online as part of their pursuit of a high school diploma. If they take the course online, the state money goes to the virtual provider; otherwise, it goes to the local district.

As long as good accountability provisions are in place, a new hybrid form of education can evolve, where students decide whether to take a particular course online or in the classroom. Teachers would be forced to compete for students. A bad classroom biology teacher would lose students to an excellent one teaching online, and vice versa. Imagine a student avatar dissecting a frog avatar online seventeen times over without killing a single amphibian!

Each student could access curricular materials at his or her specific level of accomplishment. Students could learn at their own pace, in their own way. All of a sudden the 100 percent graduation rate in the next decade that the White House imagines would not seem so far fetched.

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