Now that Barack Obama has achieved his electoral goal, he has the opportunity to solve all those problems he pointed out during the presidential campaign, when he correctly noted the poor performance of too many students in America. His proposals to address the achievement crisis, however, are not only expensive, but have not resulted in large gains where they’ve already been tried.
In the October 7 debate, Mr. Obama listed education as one of his top three domestic priority areas. He wants to increase federal spending on education by a hefty $19 billion, including an expansion of the federal government’s role in areas such as early childhood education. How is Mr. Obama going to pay for his education plans, especially in the wake of the obvious squeeze that the Wall Street bailout will place on education and other domestic spending? So far, no good answer has been forthcoming.
If one examined Mr. Obama’s official campaign website, one would find that his education agenda consists of a spending wish list. Funding for some existing programs would double or quadruple, while a batch of new federal education programs would be created. For all the tax dollars that Mr. Obama wants to spend, there will likely be little bang for the taxpayers’ buck.
For instance, contrary to his claims of 10 dollars in societal benefits for every dollar invested, Mr. Obama’s proposed $10-billion expansion of federal preschool programs is unlikely to produce many lasting benefits, mimicking disappointing universal preschool results in several states. As the Reason Foundation’s Lisa Snell and Shikha Dalmia have carefully documented, universal preschool programs in Oklahoma, Georgia and Tennessee have made little difference in the achievement of students.
In addition, Mr. Obama’s prescription for improving the federal No Child Left Behind law seems destined to be largely ineffective. During the final days of the campaign, Obama spokeswoman Melody Barnes said that Mr. Obama supports so-called “portfolio assessment” of student performance. Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, Mr. Obama’s chief education advisor, also backed portfolio assessment in the last week of the campaign. Portfolio assessment usually requires a student to write essays and complete various individual and group projects. These assignments are put into a portfolio for that student and evaluated. Although it may seem more holistic, portfolio assessment has proven to be a costly disaster in states where it has been tried on a large scale.
A RAND study of Vermont’s portfolio assessment system, which used independent scorers, found that they were confused by the guidelines and disagreed among themselves about scoring details. Training a large number of scorers to evaluate portfolios accurately proved difficult. Variation in student tasks from classroom to classroom made reliable results impossible.
Even where Mr. Obama has made forays into real reform areas, such as charter schools, his proposals are problematic. On charter schools, he wants to increase funding but also talks about ambiguous “accountability” strings, which could undercut the very raison d’être of charter schools.
The spendthrift Bush White House and Republican Congress may have prompted many Americans to vote for change. While Americans rightly want to give the new president a chance, they need to be aware of the kind of change likely coming in their direction. So far, what appears to be coming will cost a lot and won’t solve much of anything.