So, I had an interesting opportunity this morning.

In one of those only-in-Washington salon-type meetings, I was at a breakfast with a senior official who works on the Obama administration’s education policy. Unlike me, most of the attendees work in the education community. There were folks with advocacy groups, teacher groups, non-profits and a couple of universities. And then there was me.

Maybe a lot of what was discussed was standard fare for those folks, but as somebody who’s never really been exposed to education policy before, it was a real eye-opener. And while Health Care Reform has obviously consumed a lot of the oxygen in our very own District of Columbia, it was really encouraging to hear that this Administration still has their eye on the ball on education and a whole range of other topics.

One constant theme that was addressed was the achievement gap—the difference in educational achievement that exists between poor/underserved school districts and middle class or affluent districts. Despite No Child Left Behind, despite all that’s been done to address this gap, the gap is not narrowing. In fact, it’s widening, and more and more children are being left behind.

And as it turns out, this has been a major focus of the Obama administration with respect to the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—known to most of us as the stimulus bill. According to the administration official, 345,000 jobs in education have been either created or saved due to ARRA. (Of course, several DC Teachers might disagree with this, but that’s another story for another time.). While this is good news, it’s also a Catch-22. As we all know stimulus monies run out next year, and there is a real concern that funding will be a problem again, especially if the recovery doesn’t produce the revenues at the local level that would be needed to continue to sustain these jobs.  States and districts are therefore being encouraged to innovate and use stimulus funds in ways that don’t obligate funds for the future.

Another important theme was the President’s belief that education is not just a pathway to a better future; it is, in fact, a prerequisite to living the American dream.  So what are they doing about it?

First off, they are focusing on early childhood education. There are 11 million kids spending time outside of a home setting at some point during the day, whether in day care, after school care, Head Start etc. Given that the achievement gap is pronounced, even at the kindergarten level, the administration is focusing on kids 0-6 through an “Early Learning Challenge Fund,” a joint program between the Secretaries Arne Duncan (education) and Kathleen Sebelius. The program will be investing $10 billion to promote learning in these environments and prepare all children for kindergarten, ensuring that children don’t start off having to play catch up on day one.

At the K-12 level, there will be an effort to improve standards and assessments of student achievement. I was shocked to hear that, from state-to-state, there can be huge differences in what is considered “mastery” achievement at the fourth grade level. A lot of this is due to political pressures created by No Child Left Behind, but it obviously has to be fixed.

Students also have to be engaged differently. The current model says that students need to “check their BlackBerry skills, their Facebook and Social Networking Skills and all of these other skills at the door.” A better solution, according to this official, would be to leverage those skills and find new instructional techniques that make use of what students already know in order to better engage them in learning.

There also has to be a paradigm shift in the way we look at the teaching profession—most notably, we need to start considering teaching as a real profession!

We need to keep good teachers in the classroom. We need to have them take on additional responsibilities with regard to students’ development. We need to provide them with mentoring and professional development opportunities and create a support system as a way of curtailing the current attrition that results in teachers leaving the classroom after 3-4 years. Supporting teachers and improving instruction will go a long way towards helping the 13,000 schools  in America who are  classified as “needing improvement.”

Finally, at the K-12 level, we need to do something to reduce the dropout crisis, finding ways to encourage “overage, under-credited” students to stay in school despite their individual challenges.

And then there’s higher education.

The President has set a goal to restore America’s standing at the top of the world in terms of college graduations by 2020, and they’re focusing on three main areas: affordability, persistence, and completion.

With costs rising, and not every college following Harvard’s lead in taking pains to make college more affordable, the Administration will be looking to increase investment in Community Colleges and engage adult learners. There will be an effort to tag Pell Grants to inflation in order to keep higher education within reach of more students and in order to keep them in school through completion of their degrees.

The question period provided me with more to write about in the future, ranging from the Civic Engagement Gap (raised by somebody from the National Council for the Social Studies) to Arts Education as a measure of the education gap between poor and more affluent schools, to the need for more multi-lingual education. A final thought to consider—the American Education System takes the most multi-lingual inputs of any education system in the world and turns them into the most monolingual outputs.

And that’s one to grow on!

On a related front, a story in today’s Washington Post discusses one way that Fairfax, Virginia schools are addressing their needs—the School Board is considering extending the boundaries used to determine which students walk to school and which students are bussed. As the article points out, this step would not only save money, but would also cut carbon emissions and take a step towards fighting childhood obesity. Amazingly, it costs roughly the same to keep a bus on the road for a year as it costs to keep a teacher in the classroom.  It seems to me that this one should be a no-brainer, though this would also create an entirely new generation of grandparents who will tell future generations of their up-hill-both-way-in-the-snow treks to school.

At least they won’t be doing it barefoot.

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