In education-reform debate, where are the specifics?

Graduating students listen to U.S. President Barack Obama speak at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony in Ann Arbor, Michigan in this May 1,...
Graduating students listen to U.S. President Barack Obama speak at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony in Ann Arbor, Michigan in this May 1,...
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Education is the last issue you would expect to hear at Monday night’s final presidential debate, but it’s an important topic that has yet to really be discussed over the course of the campaign.

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney penned op-eds last Friday for Time about their views on higher education. The President wrote about his record so far when it comes to education reform, and Governor Romney wrote about the need to provide better opportunities for children without bankrupting the country.

But both candidates lacked specifics on just how they would go about ensuring that each child is given the opportunity to perform and excel.

Perhaps it’s because education reform is too complicated to simply divide down party lines (not all education leaders have embraced the President’s proposals over the last four years, or his Republican predecessor’s, either). Perhaps it’s because the state of public education in the U.S. is truly a mess – “No Child Left Behind” remains intact, although 34 states and the District of Columbia have all been granted federal waivers. Perhaps it is because cuts in education funding and Pell Grants are just two of the many things Governor Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, don’t actually agree on.

That said, with Monday’s debate focused on foreign policy, it seems the country will have to wait until after November 6 to learn any of the specifics.

On her Saturday show, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry and her panel discussed education reform and the lack of a national discourse about education during the presidential election (see above). “Frankly, good or bad debate performance tells us very little about how either of these men will actually perform in the White House,” Harris-Perry said. “You see, inspiration and charisma do matter, but too often the attention paid to the single influential individual obscures what it really takes to create systemic change.”

Harris-Perry and her guests – TVOne host and educator Dr. Steve Perry, Princeton professor Christopher Achen, and Democratic National Committee national press secretary Melanie Roussell – debated the importance of merit-based pay for teachers, as well as the different ways in which schools can be improved.

“We actively recruit, not from the top of our labor force into teaching, but somewhere from the middle to the bottom of our potential labor force,” Harris-Perry said, “and the main reason the very best students in the very best universities aren’t dying with the burning hunger to go out to be public school teachers is that we pay them almost nothing, and now we are willing to say, ‘not only will you be paid very little, but you’ll have very little job security as well.’”

“That’s not true,” Dr. Perry argued.

“We don’t have a problem recruiting lawyers in this country, we don’t have a problem recruiting surgeons in this country because those are well-compensated positions,” Harris-Perry responded.

Perry disagreed. “But we do. There are more teachers than there are surgeons.”

“Not the good quality ones,” Harris-Perry replied.

Perry responded that the conversation around low teacher pay doesn’t take into consideration all of the facts, and that in some neighborhoods and cities, teachers were making more per year than an average family for the area.

Roussell chimed in with her own experience as the daughter of educators who struggled to improve their public schools. “I knew there were bad teachers in my school who weren’t teaching … My father was a school superintendent, and because they were tenured, there was nothing he could do,” she said.

“I think the key here is getting good pay for good teachers, and having the flexibility within the school system to make the schools work,” Roussell added.

According to national statistics, more than 1 million students each year drop out of high school, and only about 70% of ninth graders will graduate each year. While both President Obama and Governor Romney have agreed to address this crisis, there is still a lot left that needs to be said on exactly how the country will reform the system to ensure equal opportunities for all students.

See below the second half of Saturday’s education conversation on MHP.

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In education-reform debate, where are the specifics?