Obama - the 'education President'?

08 Nov 2008 BBC News Online

Obama - the education President?

By Mike Baker
Obama's plans seem to share some of the priorities of Blair's Labour party

Will Barack Obama be 'the education President'?

There are strong indications that he will, including a policy wish list remarkably similar to Tony Blair's agenda when he came to power in 1997.

President-elect Obama certainly won the teachers' vote.

The two big American teacher associations - the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers - threw the weight of their 4.6 million members behind him.

And, despite an extraordinarily low level of interest in education issues in the US media coverage of the Presidential elections, Obama was always keen to focus on school and college issues.

McCain rarely went there.

Obama has promised fewer tick-box style tests and more carrot and less stick for underperforming schools


The differences between their official websites during the campaign were stark: Obama had a detailed education reform programme; McCain restricted himself to a few general principles.

Unlike the UK, the national US government has a relatively small role in running education, which remains the preserve of the states.

Indeed the Republican Party has, at various times, tried to abolish the federal department for education altogether.

President Reagan promised to do so in 1982. The Republican Party tried again in the 1990s and, back in 1994, John McCain spoke in support of its abolition.

Nevertheless, as concern has grown about standards in the public school system, American presidents have increasingly intervened in education issues.

This sense of national crisis led to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which required individual states to test pupils in reading and maths as a condition of receiving federal grants.

This was very similar to the creation of the national curriculum tests in England a few years earlier and, as in the UK, it has proved controversial.

Obama supports the aims of No Child Left Behind law, but wants it reformed.

He believes it has failed because it was not backed by enough money and because it encouraged narrow, standardised testing.

No to vouchers

He will endorse the idea that the federal government should be involved in driving up education standards, but he has promised fewer tick-box style tests and more carrot and less stick for underperforming schools.

So what else does President-elect Obama have in store for schools?

His priorities are: more money for early years education, a target of universal availability of pre-school education, more after-school opportunities, more summer schools for disadvantaged pupils, the recruitment of more maths and science graduates into teaching, and better pay for teachers.

If this sounds very like the Labour government's agenda in 1997, then there are other aspects too that reinforce the comparison.

Because, despite his support from the teacher associations, Obama has supported initiatives opposed by the unions.

The most obvious is his support for so-called charter schools.

These are schools set up by independent groups, outside the network of local authority schools, but which receive state funding.

In other words, they are rather like Tony Blair's City Academies.

However, despite agreeing there is a need to 'experiment' in school provision, Obama has shown no enthusiasm for the other current radical idea in the USA: school vouchers.

McCain supported voucher schemes, which exist in places such as Florida, Arizona and Wisconsin, but they remain very controversial and are strongly resisted by the unions.

If Obama goes for the title of 'education President' he will not be the first to do so. Perhaps surprisingly, a Republican, George Bush senior, first took the label.

'Sense of crisis'

He took on the mantle of 'educator-in-chief' after a 1983 critique of the school system, called A Nation At Risk, stirred up a powerful sense of crisis over pupil achievement.

That sense of a crisis in public school standards is still there.

About 30% of high school students still fail to graduate with a diploma.

International surveys suggest that, in science and maths, 15-year-olds in the USA are well behind the average for advanced nations.

So, as we wait to see what a new President Obama will do, it seems likely that 'education, education, education' - to coin a phrase - may indeed be his priority.

His Presidency will be one that stands for increased federal funding for education and greater federal intervention to tackle educational failure and inequality.

Others before him have tried. Both George Bush senior and Bill Clinton set ambitious goals for education.

Both largely failed. For example, the Goals 2000 target of 90% high school graduation rates remains well out of reach.

The expectations on Obama are high, yet the obstacles are even higher as he faces enormous economic challenges.

But his supporters, not least the teacher associations, will be disappointed if the reality does not live up to his rhetoric on education reform.


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