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What You Won't Hear in the Presidential Debates: Five Crucial Education Fixes

Students, parents, and teachers want real answers. Will the candidates give them?

So far in the 2012 presidential race, education hasn't been given much attention by the candidates. Late last month, though, both President Obama and Governor Romney headed to MSNBC's Education Nation summit to share their plans for the nation's schools. Here are five issues you didn't hear either candidate address—that students, parents, and teachers across the nation want some honest discussion about and solutions for.

1. An end to high-stakes testing and a turn to high-quality assessment: Current emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests enriches testing companies, but leaves in its wake cheating scandals by teachers incentivized to extract high test scores from students, and students solely focused on numbers that'll help them get into prestigious schools. Where are the quality assessments of students and teachers we keep hearing about, but see too little adoption of?

California's new Common Core Standards law has an overlooked section that specifically promotes "high quality" and "applied assessments" of students, which can include portfolios of student work, performances, presentations, and other ways of demonstrating mastery of material. Students asked to design, research, and present a history or science project cannot cheat their way out of showing and applying knowledge. Why aren't we embracing this kind of testing, which digs deeper and is closer to "real world" demands? What's keeping us from foregrounding what researcher Jon Mueller calls "authentic assessment?"

2. The arts and music, missing in action: With 35 states facing budgets lower than 2008 levels, the arts are squeezed out of most school days. Double-blocking reading and math—due to No Child Left Behind mandates to boost school test scores in those subjects—also means less time for science, history, and even physical education. Yet, research increasingly shows that the arts and music complement and strengthen children's ability to absorb everything from math and science to history and physics.

Even the journal Scientific American has urged that arts be taught alongside the sciences and advocates for STEAM instruction—science, technology, engineering, arts, and math—that emphasizes the creativity inherent in scientific discovery and the rigor of the creative process. President Obama is a staunch supporter of STEM and has promised to launch the training and hiring of 100,000 or more STEM teachers, but we should be insisting on the missing "A" in the equation.

3. Rural poverty and public schools: The White House's lauded Promise Neighborhoods are patterned after the Harlem Children's Zone in densely populated New York City, and surround children and low-income families with support services they might not get elsewhere. This is absolutely necessary to address needs of inner city low-income families, yet 23 percent of the nation’s children attend rural schools and this group is growing and becoming more diverse. How do we help schools in isolated rural areas where transportation hurdles, a dwindling local economy, and decades of decline are also problems? The South, Southwest, and Appalachia are the fastest-growing areas where children attend rural schools and contain states that ought to have rural education as highest priority, though these states often have the lowest capacity to meet needs.

4. Charter school co-locations: Charter schools can demand to occupy the same buildings as existing public schools because federal policies like Race to the Top have lifted state caps on charters, but states have not received equivalent funding to build new schools. There's a big gap here between the fed's wish list and states' capabilities. These co-locations create division and strife within communities since the unequal allocation of space and resources is inevitable and highly visible.

5. Making the decrease in racially segregated schools a priority: Our already racially divided and economically segregated society is only becoming more so when you look at our schools. The Obama administration's own Department of Education just released a study that says 38 percent of black and 43 percent of Latino children increasingly attend "intensely segregated schools"—schools that may be chronically under-resourced and staffed by the least experienced teachers, like those sent to them from programs like Teach For America. Yet, white students attend schools where three out of four peers are also white.

We hear so much about "school choice" that we now have choice without equity. But can we really succeed as a land of equal opportunity if some of our children are denied precisely that? "These trends threaten the nation’s success as a multiracial society," said Professor Gary Orfield, UCLA's Civil Rights Project codirector in a news release. "We are disappointed to have heard nothing in the campaign about this issue from neither President Obama, who is the product of excellent integrated schools and colleges, nor from Governor Romney, whose father gave up his job in the Nixon Cabinet because of his fight for fair housing, which directly impacts school make-up."

Watch for these five issues that are burning up discussions among parent groups and getting others upset enough to walk out on strike, as the Chicago Teachers Union recently did. (To their credit, the CTU won arts and music instructors as part of a longer school day as a concession from Mayor Emanuel.) On the ground, the people most connected to classrooms—parents, students, and teachers—want the people at 40,000 miles up to pay attention. Will they?

This is the second installment in a series of essays provoking a conversation around the invisible issues of Election 2012—those crucial topics that will hide in plain sight as the two candidates square off during the presidential debates this month. Check out Lawrence Lessig's essay on getting dark money corruption out of politics.\n

Photo via (cc) flickr user DonkeyHotey

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