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Educators welcome Obama's emphasis on schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 27, 2011 - President Barack Obama's emphasis on education in Tuesday night's State of the Union address was welcome to St. Louis educators who appreciated the recognition he gave to the role of teachers and the importance of good schools in sharpening U.S. competitiveness.

Now, of course, comes the hard part. As the 2014 deadline of the No Child Left Behind approaches, when all American students are expected to be performing at grade level, most educators accept that the standard is unrealistic. Still undecided is what will take its place, in the reauthorization of what is now known as ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

While those details are being sorted out -- as well as philosophical questions about the role of the federal government in local education, how to encourage parents to become more involved in their children's progress and other issues -- the president's plug for the teaching profession was most appreciated.

"If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation," he said Tuesday night to young people wondering what to do when they grow up, "if you want to make a difference in the life of a child -- become a teacher. Your country needs you."

"Our members are thrilled that the president gave teachers that kind of recommendation," said Chris Guinther, president of Missouri NEA. "He recognizes that to make our public schools great, we need great teachers. We're also pleased that he talked about investment in public education as an investment in our future. That recognition is important to have."

Added Sam Hausfather, dean of education at Maryville University:

"One of the great challenges we face in this country is the status in which teachers are held, which is the cause of why we don't have the best and the brightest becoming teachers. Anything that can encourage more people to go into teaching is welcome.

"The major reason teachers leave the profession is their working conditions. That's all part of that professionalism, that status. When teachers are treated as professionals, they stay in the classroom. When they're treated as interchangeable cogs in the machine and as technicians, they tend to leave."

Here's what else people had to say about the president's views on education:

On No Child Left Behind

"The emphasis has been on a very static test score as the way that children and their schools are judged," said Hausfather. "That has caused all kinds of problems with judging schools poorly that are actually doing pretty well.

"I know there is a lot of talk about going to growth models. I'm hoping that No Child Left Behind will move to a multiple-measures approach where you're not just depending on test scores of fairly basic skills of what we do in schools. With a growth model, you are looking at how children progressed and what a teacher has added to that progression in a year.

"But likewise, there also have to be more in-classroom measures, more of an emphasis on community- and district-designed tests that test a wider range of goals for schools. Schools don't exist only for teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. They're also the basis of our democracy, so citizenship is a very important part of what is taught in schools, along with subjects like science, social studies and the arts."

Thomas Walker, executive director for KIPP charter schools in St. Louis, said he strives to maintain high expectations for teachers that can be passed along to their students.

"I don't think the element of accountability will ever leave," Walker said. "I expect to hear more about testing. The challenge there is what kind of testing will be considered appropriate to validate effectiveness.

"I would suggest we need consistent and constant assessment of a child's growth -- not just an end-of-year assessment, but urging schools to demonstrate where children began and how they are moving along. However reauthorization plays out, it will have an impact on accountability and more positive results for charters and for student outcomes."

Guinther also sees a continued emphasis on accountability but hopes the requirements in the new federal education law are more realistic and a more accurate measure of how students are doing.

"The No. 1 problem now is the high-stakes testing and the unfunded mandates," she said. "The way No Child Left Behind was written, it leaves parents out of the mix. We know it's important for students to make progress, but parents have to be involved in schools as much as they can be.

"Parents have to feel that they are an integral part of their children's education. NCLB really veered away from the original intent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It recognized that you have to have accountability, and we absolutely agree with that. But accountability standards have to be reasonable, and goals have to be achievable. There was such a heavy emphasis on testing, that it was going to judge the effectiveness of schools, that we felt there were huge pieces missing."

On Race to the Top

"Missouri did not get a grant from Race to the Top," Hausfather noted, "and I was concerned how much (Obama) highlighted that program. Federal initiatives need to be broad enough that they can cut across all the states, not just the 11 states that won the race to the top.

"I think there were problems with the criteria; they were too prescriptive. One of the things that made it hard for Missouri was that we allow charter schools only in St. Louis and Kansas City, so that push for charters hurt, despite research that has shown charters are not necessarily more effective.

"We are moving forward as a state. Quite a few of the initiatives were started in that application for Race to the Top and I think we're doing a good job in terms of pushing various groups within the state to work collaboratively on the issues raised by the competition. But obviously we have to do it with very little money."

Guinther had strong feelings on Missouri's failure to come up with more money for schools.

"We believe that there are places that Missouri and our nation can look at," she said. "Many of our large corporations have completely evaded their responsibility of paying taxes, with loopholes.

"We need to get over the idea that taxes are bad. Taxes need to be equitable. They can't be regressive. We all have the responsibility to pay taxes, and that includes our large corporations that have huge loopholes that allow them not to pay taxes on their profits. What corporations look at when they come into a community is the workforce and what public policy is in place to train that workforce."

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro acknowledged where Missouri has fallen short.

"In Missouri," she said in an e-mail message, "we know we need to start earlier and work better to ensure students are college and career ready by the time they graduate from high school.

"We now have to out-educate the rest of the world to give our children the best possible chance to succeed.  We not only must raise standards for teaching and learning, but we also need more flexibility and incentives to make the reforms needed. Looking ahead, we also need to recruit the best and brightest to become teachers in our classrooms."

On Education As the Road to Innovation

"We need to teach and encourage students to be innovation and creative," Hausfather said. "That doesn't happen in preparing for standardized tests. We need to judge the creativity and the innovation in the curriculum and opportunities that are given to children to develop more in-depth studies that can reflect the complexity of the world that they are going to be dealing with."

Added KIPP's Walker:

"I was very pleased with his emphasis on innovative practices, which we think at KIPP we are very much a part of, with our extended school days. Our environment is a little unique. We have a high benchmark for our teachers, in terms the quality we are looking for.

"We have to have teachers become a part of the planning in their professional development. I think the president hit the nail on the head when he said that becoming a teacher is an important part of helping education to succeed. We typically encourage our high-performing graduates to go into more lucrative fields. We need to re-establish teaching as a prestigious profession."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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