Education Chicken and Egg at the Presidential Debate

I don’t know about you, but Eduflack was quite surprised to see the final 10 minutes or so of this evening’s presidential debate being devoted to the issue of education.  Kudos must first go to CBS’ Bob Schieffer for asking the right question.  It wasn’t about NCLB or teachers unions or any of the traditional hot-button issues.  Instead, Schieffer asked about the United States spending more per capita on education than any other nation, yet being outperformed by many of our international counterparts.

The initial responses from both candidates should be of no surprise.  Both Barack Obama and John McCain stuck to their campaign’s educational talking points.  For Obama, it was all about early childhood education, teachers, and affordability of higher education (and a tip of the hat to the Illinois senator for calling out parents as part of both the problem and the solution).  For McCain, it was charters, vouchers, and expanded opportunity.
Also of no surprise, neither candidate really addressed the question.  Sure, Obama focused on the need for greater investment in education and the notion that NCLB was severely underfunded.  And McCain called for greater dollars for vouchers, pointing to the DC voucher program as a shining success.
But back to the original question.  What Schieffer was really asking, or should have been asking, is whether greater investment in the schools results in greater achievement, or whether greater achievement gets rewarded with greater investment.  It is the ultimate educational chicken and egg question.
We know that some of our best-funded school districts, at least in terms of per pupil spending, are some of our lowest performers.  Will more dollars turn them around?  Unlikely.  It may help bring some better teachers into the classroom, but real turnaround requires a change in culture and a change in approach.  Both are free, its the implementation that costs money.
I’d like to believe we should reward achievement and encourage innovation.  We invest in what works.  We help fund those programs that can make a difference and boost student achievement.  We reward those schools and those teachers who are boosting student performance.  We should place results first and foremost.  That’s the answer so many families should be hearing.

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