As I watch President Obama and Mitt Romney compete, I am appalled by the absence of any substantive analysis of education issues.
When Romney released his education agenda, it was reported with impartiality, as it should have been. But no one asked questions about his claims.
I reviewed his proposals in the New York Review of Books, but I have seen no other effort to analyze his plan and check his assertions. Maybe that happens later. I hope so.
Take the issue of vouchers. Kudos to Trip Gabriel of the New York Times for noticing that Romney avoids using the V word even as he advocates loudly for vouchers. Clearly, his pollsters must have told him that the American public has questions about the wisdom of sending their tax dollars to support religious schools.
The general public is uninformed about the ongoing debacle of vouchers in Louisiana or about the weak evidence for privately managed charters or about the high cost of returning control of federal student loans to commercial banks, which Romney wants to do.
Here is an example of a fact that might easily have been checked but so far has not been. When Romney first addressed education issues, he claimed that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (aka, the federally-funded voucher program) should be considered a national model. He made the ludicrous claim that students in the program gained “19 months” in reading after only three months in the program. That was untrue, but no journalist pointed that out. As I said in my article on the blog of the New York Review of Books, the federal evaluation found no gain in achievement for students in the voucher program. Romney also exaggerated the graduation rate for students in the voucher program, but no journalist noted that either. Will any of Romney’s advisers tell him the truth about D.C.? Will any journalist check the facts on the D.C. voucher program?
President Obama should also be subject to similar journalistic scrutiny. The claims he makes for his Race to the Top program have no evidentiary basis. The main thing that his : Race seems to have accomplished is to have demoralized vast numbers of teachers, which was documented by the Metlife Survey earlier this year. Race to the Top has also generated an army of consultants and edu-entrepreneurs to soak up federal dollars with dubious claims of their ability to turn schools around. And we have yet to hear the debunking of Obama’s demand that states evaluate teachers by the test scores of their students. It’s happening in state after state, but the evidence about its positive effects does not exist, while the evidence of collateral damage accumulates. More teaching to the test, more cheating, more narrowing the curriculum, more experienced teachers leaving the profession, more attacks on the profession, more attacks on teachers’ unions, more profits for the vendors as school budgets shrink.
A few months ago, I published an article in NiemanWatch at Harvard, for journalists. These are questions that journalists and the public should be asking candidates this year. We need a national debate about what the federal government is doing to our public schools. It is not likely to happen between the candidates. It will happen only to the extent that the media is a watchdog.