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Obama: Education Strategy Beyond NCLB

He doesn't admire NCLB nor accept the status quo: Change is coming.

(Excerpts from prepared text of speech by Barack Obama on June 16, 2008, in Flint, Michigan.)

ALMOST A DECADE INTO THIS CENTURY, we still have no real strategy to compete in a global economy. Just think of what we could have done. We could have made a real commitment to a world-class education for our kids, but instead we passed No Child Left Behind, a law that—however well-intended—left the money behind and alienated teachers and principals instead of inspiring them. It's time for new policies that create the jobs and opportunities of the future—a competitiveness agenda built upon education and energy, innovation and infrastructure, fair trade and reform.

Bipartisan Consensus. This agenda starts with education. Whether you're conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, practically every economist agrees that in this digital age, a highly-educated and skilled workforce will be the key not only to individual opportunity, but to the overall success of our economy as well. We cannot be satisfied until every child in America—and I mean every child—has the same chances for a good education that we want for our own children. And yet, despite this consensus, we continually fail to deliver. Only 20 percent of students are prepared to take college classes in English, math and science. We have one of the highest dropout rates of any industrialized nation, and barely one tenth of our low-income students will graduate from college. That will cripple their ability to keep pace in this global economy, and compromise our ability to compete as a nation.

I don't accept the status quo. It is morally unacceptable and economically untenable. It's time to make an historic commitment to education—a real commitment that will require new resources and new reforms. We can start by investing $10 billion to guarantee access to quality, affordable, early childhood education for every child in America. Every dollar that we spend on these programs puts our children on a path to success, while saving us as much as $10 in reduced health care costs, crime, and welfare later on.

Fixing NCLB. We can fix the failures of No Child Left Behind, while focusing on accountability. That means providing the funding that was promised. More importantly, it means reaching high standards, but not by relying on a single, high stakes standardized test that distorts how teachers teach. Instead, we need to work with governors, educators and especially teachers to develop better assessment tools that effectively measure student achievement, and encourage the kinds of research, scientific investigation, and problem-solving that our children will need to compete.

Obama to Pledge to Future Teachers. And we need to recruit an army of new teachers. I'll make this pledge as President—if you commit your life to teaching, America will pay for your college education.  We'll recruit teachers in math and science, and deploy them to under-staffed school districts in our inner cities and rural America. We'll expand mentoring programs that pair experienced teachers with new recruits. And when our teachers succeed, I won't just talk about how great they are—I'll reward their greatness with better pay and more support.

But research shows that resources alone won't create the schools that we need to help our children succeed. We also need to encourage innovation—by adopting curricula and the school calendar to the needs of the 21st century; by updating the schools of education that produce most of our teachers; by welcoming charter schools within the public schools system, and streamlining the certification process for engineers or businesspeople who want to shift careers and teach.

Reward Excellence in Teaching. We must also challenge the system that prevents us from promoting and rewarding excellence in teaching. We cannot ask our teachers to perform the impossible—to teach poorly prepared children with inadequate resources, and then punish them when children perform poorly on a standardized test. But if we give teachers the resources they need; if we pay them more, and give them time for professional development; if they are given ownership over the design of better assessment tools and a creative curricula; if we shape reforms with teachers rather than imposing changes on teachers, then it is fair to expect better results. Where there are teachers who are still struggling and underperforming, we should provide them with individual help and support. And if they're still underperforming after that, we should find a quick and fair way to put another teacher in that classroom. Our children deserve no less.

College as an American Birthright. Finally, our commitment cannot end with a high school degree. The chance to get a college education must not be a privilege of the few—it should be a birthright of every single American. I want to give tax breaks to young people, in the form of an annual $4,000 tax credit that will cover two-thirds of the tuition at an average public college, and make community college completely free. In return, I will ask students to serve, whether it's by teaching, joining the Peace Corps, or working in your community. And for those who serve in our military, we'll cover all of your tuition with an even more generous 21st Century GI Bill. The idea is simple—America invests in you, and you invest in America. That's how we're going to ensure that America succeeds in this century.

Slough Off Bad Habits. Reforming our education system will require sustained effort from all of us—parents and teachers; federal, state and local governments. Every one of us will have to work at it by studying harder, training more rigorously, working smarter, and thinking anew. We'll have to slough off bad habits, reform our institutions, and re-engage the world. We can do that, because this is America—a country that has been defined by a determination to believe in, and work for, things unseen.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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