Campus & Community

Envisioning the Ideal Education President

8 min read

In this season of presidential primaries, education has at long last become a critical component of the stump speech, superceding even crime and foreign affairs. Every candidate is eager to visit schools and talk about improving student achievement. But what are some of the real steps–both national and local–that can be taken to improve education? We asked the School’s dean and three senior faculty members to consider this simple question: What is your vision of an ideal “education president?”

Dean Jerome T. Murphy specializes in the politics of education with a focus on government policy. Professor Catherine Snow studies language development in children and the role of adults in facilitating the development of children’s literacy skills. Director of the Urban Superintendents Program Robert Peterkin’s work includes the restructuring of public schools. Senior Lecturer Vito Perrone has written extensively about teachers, teaching, and educational equity.

Jerome T. Murphy: A Historical View

My perspective has been shaped by the close observation of how a hands-on president can make a big difference for children. Back in 1964, fresh from teaching high-school mathematics, I started working as a legislative assistant in Washington, D.C., and got involved in passing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act–the first comprehensive federal funding for schools after years of political stagnation.

The breakthrough was made possible, in part, by President Johnson’s leadership. He understood the educational issues at stake as well as the politics. He recognized that the times were ripe for change. Republican legislators were strongly opposed to federal aid. At every step along the way they raised objections. A key innovation was to have the money follow the student, so that support could go not only to public schools but to parochial schools educating poor kids. This controversial resolution, part of the War on Poverty, came during a very heady period when people had grand beliefs about the capacity of government to resolve some of education’s enduring problems.

If you look at the chief candidates for the presidency today, the most striking thing–as compared with earlier times–is that there isn’t much difference between them. Republican and Democratic education policies now reflect a convergence toward the center about the appropriate federal role. Today people recognize that the federal government can play an important, if limited, role.

An ideal president can, however, use the national platform as a catalyst to promote change in the schools. While federal funding is less than 10 percent of the total expenditure of schools, that 10 percent can play a crucial role, for example, in the huge challenge of improving teacher quality. The president should talk about the importance of teaching and call for major initiatives to improve the quality of the teaching force. The president should help set up incentives–loan forgiveness or differential pay for inner-city schools–to attract good teachers and help them stay in education.

Robert Peterkin: Defining Standards

An education president must fully understand the concept behind high-quality education for all and be more precise and directive about supporting meaningful educational outcomes. In the last 15 years we’ve come to this “all children can learn” mantra with very little concern about putting in place the structures to make this a reality.

I think the standards movement is a prime place for an education president to start probing. Where do we want kids to be? What are the building blocks to get them there? What is standing in our way?

Schools are largely organized the way they have been for the past 100 years: 6 rows, 6 desks, 6 bells. Today’s classrooms look like classrooms of the 1950s, with a teacher in front looking like a repository of knowledge and the kids sort of sucking it in. We’re trying to get the majority of kids through algebra, geography, and calculus this way and kids are showing us, by their failure to reach high standards, that this is not working.

An education president needs to realize that more than just poor, black, and Latino kids are not reaching high standards in this country. Only 4 percent of kids at the 4th-, 8th-, and 10th-grade levels are at the proficient or advanced level at the National Assessment of Educational Progress. So it’s not just a matter of moving the bottom up, but moving the top at the same time.

I think the secret of success is going to be to find those kids who start behind–who don’t go to preschool, who don’t get good nurturing, whose parents can’t afford to bring them to museums and lessons–and ratchet up the support to get them reading on grade level by third grade, taking algebra by eighth grade, and doing all sorts of good things.

Catherine Snow: Teaching Is Like Rocket Science

My ideal vision of an education president is someone who understands that education doesn’t start when kids enter school, who understands that support for families, as well as for excellent educational settings for preschool-aged children, is part of doing a good job of being an education president.

The big difference between children who arrive at school almost certain to succeed and children who arrive at school highly likely to fail is the quality of experience that they’ve had at home and in preschool settings since birth. How many well-educated, interesting people have spent time talking with them? How often have they had the chance to read books with adults? How often have they have had a chance to play with stimulating toys in the presence of people who were prepared to talk with them about what was going on? How often has someone exercised caution and control around what they are watching on television?

A real education president would know that children who don’t have the benefit of excellent preschool environments don’t catch up on their own. In fact they are very likely to fall further behind. They need the best teachers, the most nurturant and supportive and organized and high-functioning schools. Of course it is often precisely the least well-prepared kids who end up in the worst schools with the youngest, most inexperienced teachers. So it’s no surprise that the potential that some of them have to succeed is not fulfilled.

Teaching kids to read in first grade is at least as hard as designing a rocket ship or taking out an appendix; the preservice support and education, as well as the ongoing professional development, that teachers should have has to match in the scope and intensity provided to engineers, doctors, and other professionals. Nobody is a teacher by virtue of having graduated from a teacher education program and done a few months of practice teaching–you become a teacher over the next five or ten years. With professional support, you can become a very good one.

Vito Perrone: Local Context over National Agenda

A real education president will help bring an end to our national obsession with tests and argue in support of multiple measures for assessment–such as portfolios, student work samples, performance-based activities, community reviews, and local, well articulated, and public accountability programs, among others.

A real education president will also recognize that schools and communities differ. To continue talking about schools as if they are all the same gets in the way of a more serious conversation about teaching and learning in schools. Rural schools have different needs from urban schools. Furthermore, an education president ought to understand that small schools have greater potential than large schools for supporting powerful learning for all students, rich and poor, from all racial, cultural, and linguistic communities and also for encouraging genuine parent and community participation.

Schools need to be closely aligned with their local settings. They need to have a connection to local social-cultural values and commitments. Curriculum should be built out of the local context. So much of the educational conversation right now essentially denies local culture and language and imposes on these settings state or national curriculum. I think such efforts will, in the end, work against equity and probably work against the best education that’s possible.

I’m looking forward to an education president who understands the importance of teachers and, as a result, seeks a major investment in the ongoing learning of teachers. Right now we’re suffering a teacher-shortage crisis in this country. Between 1.5 and 2 million new teachers are needed over the next five to ten years. The federal government can be helpful by speaking strongly about the importance of teachers, the importance of the preparation of new teachers, and the importance of sustaining teachers through professional development over time.