Fleeting Glimpse at Higher Ed Policy Come January

July 25, 2008

No matter who’s the next president, expect some scrutiny of schools of teacher education.

Beyond that, it was hard to compare the presidential candidates’ higher education agendas as they were presented at a forum hosted by the New American Foundation in Washington Thursday. The education policy adviser for Sen. John McCain's campaign, Lisa Graham Keegan, demurred on a question of containing college costs (the only question specifically on higher education), indicating that she couldn’t address a topic that the candidate himself hadn’t yet tackled.

Meanwhile, Jon Schnur -- who’s not a member of the Obama campaign staff but, as co-founder and chief executive officer of the New Leaders for New Schools nonprofit organization, has been part of a network of individuals that the campaign consults with -- reiterated Sen. Barack Obama's plan to create a new, fully refundable $4,000 “American Opportunity Tax Credit” and streamline the federal financial aid application process, which is often criticized as confusing. (Under Obama's education plan, students could indicate on their tax forms a desire for their information to be used in calculating financial aid awards, rather than having to fill out a separate form.)

Other than that, much of the discussion focused on K-12 and early education issues Thursday, with one other obvious implication for higher education -- a focus on teacher quality and preparation.

McCain has criticized teacher education before, arguing in a recent speech to the NAACP that there's a need to provide more choice to would-be teachers: “Many thousands of highly qualified men and women have great knowledge, wisdom and experience to offer public school students. But a monopoly on teacher certification prevents them from getting that chance. You can be a Nobel Laureate and not qualify to teach in most public schools today. They don’t have all the proper credits in educational ‘theory’ or ‘methodology’ -- all they have is learning and the desire and ability to share it. If we’re putting the interests of students first, then those qualifications should be enough." (In response, the president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education indicated there are "numerous" paths into teaching).

Also in that NAACP speech, McCain indicated a desire to target funding to would-be teachers who graduate in the top 25 percent of their classes, a proposal that Keegan referenced Thursday, saying that schools of education are attracting students with average SAT scores below those of other university schools and programs. “Quite frankly,” Keegan said, “we need a better mix.”

“The truth is,” said Schnur, “the schools of education in this country … for the most part are doing a very inadequate job of preparing teachers.” Schnur mentioned Obama’s stated plans to expand teacher residency programs that pair new recruits with mentoring teachers in high-need schools, as well as a need to better track outcomes in teacher education.

Obama’s platform calls for a “voluntary national performance assessment so we can be sure that every new educator is trained and ready to walk into the classroom and start teaching effectively.”

The higher education agenda begins, however, "with a transformation of K-12 education," Schnur said Thursday. "We have a massive amount of work to do to ensure that students graduate from high school with the skills and preparation needed."

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