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Politics

2010 Likely to See Major Debate
On Education

Obama has the backing of businesses as he seeks to make big changes.

When it comes to education, Americans may disagree on most of the details, but they do agree on one point: Today’s system is in need of an overhaul. Despite huge hikes in federal, state and local spending on schools in recent decades, policymakers, education advocates and experts, parents, employers and educators concur: The nation’s children need better preparation for 21st century life and careers.

Whatever the system’s good points and whatever its faults, there is strong agreement on the need to revamp for a new decade and radically changing job markets. With unemployment at 10%, many jobs go unfilled because of a shortage of skilled workers. Higher education costs more than too many people can afford and keeps rising much faster than inflation. And too many youngsters are left behind by a system that can’t keep up with changing needs.

What and how to change, however, is the subject of much heated discussion. There’s broad agreement on the need for more accountability, but teachers’ unions will fight tooth and nail anything that makes it easier to fire teachers. Business groups, among others, favor letting other experienced professionals join the ranks of teachers without going through the traditional certification process. Others say no way.

Some advocates want a national curriculum or standards, either embraced voluntarily by the states or required by Uncle Sam, to enforce a consistent set of expectations. Opponents fear undercutting state standards and giving Washington too much sway.

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The debate in Washington is sure to heat up this year, with a new push to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, a project of President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA). Bashed from both the right and the left, NCLB wins plaudits for at least one accomplishment: It established the principle that schools, school officials and districts should be accountable for children’s progress.

Odds are NCLB will be reauthorized -- but with changes. Sanctions now imposed on school districts that don’t meet improvement goals will be eased. There’ll be more carrot and less stick. States will get more flexibility to measure progress over longer time periods rather than having to hit annual targets.

But there’s little chance of any sort of comprehensive reform package akin to a health care overhaul, for example. The obstacles are just too great. Meanwhile, Obama officials aren’t content to sit still. The White House is determined to actively push its agenda of increased accountability, innovation and choice, as well as boosting federal support for both schools and students.

There’s a plan to hike funds for community colleges, and, beginning next year, billions in competitive grant funds will start flowing to states that come up with plans for innovative, promising ways to raise teacher quality, turn around the worst schools, strengthen standards and assessments and make better use of education data. To be eligible for new federal grants, states are racing to make changes, removing barriers to charter schools and allowing the use of student test data in teacher evaluations. Wisconsin, for example, lifted its ban on use of the data last month.

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Many businesses are joining in the effort, and they are, for the most part, enthusiastic about President Obama’s agenda. “This administration, a Democratic administration, which came to office with the strong support of teachers’ unions among others, is very much in sync with our agenda,” says Arthur J. Rothkopf, senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We are supportive of what they are doing.”

The administration is teaming up with industry, universities and foundations to encourage more concentration in science and math. One example: Time Warner Cable aims to connect with more than a million students, bolstering existing after-school science, technology, engineering and math activities.

While U.S. schools could be a whole lot better -- and parents need to accept a lot more responsibility for how their children fare -- don’t forget that test scores aren’t the only measure of success and may not even be the ultimate or most important way of determining quality. Economic growth is also a way to measure how well prepared students are. On that score, the U.S. is doing well and will continue to do so long term, especially relative to other countries -- periodic downturns notwithstanding.