When it suits her, Hillary Clinton isn’t afraid to distance herself from President Obama’s priorities and achievements. It’s no secret that she’s essentially running as Obama’s third term, but she’s also distinguishing herself from the outgoing president in some key areas — and right now, education is chief among them.
Hillary has stacked her K-12 policy group with major players in the world of teachers’ unions, including Randi Weingarten, president of the second-largest teachers’ union in the country, the American Federation of Teachers.
This is already a key difference between the former Secretary of State and President Obama. During his time in office, Obama was not advised by union leaders, who have been some of the loudest opponents of his education policies over the years.
Teaching to the Test
Given the folks advising Clinton on education issues, it’s widely expected that her administration will break from the last eight years of tradition in a key way: She’s expected to lessen the impact standardized test scores have on policy decisions.
According to a think tank associated with Democrats for Education Reform, there’s already anxiety surrounding the transition from Obama’s administration to Clinton’s. The anxiety seems to stem from an impending pivot toward teachers’ unions and away from the common standards and teacher evaluations favored during the Obama years.
To be more specific, Clinton has signaled her intention to move away from two of Obama’s least popular federal education initiatives: School Improvement Grants and Race to the Top. Together, these programs provided grants valued at $9 billion to help schools improve by evaluating teachers based on how their students perform on tests. This resulted in widespread teacher layoffs and even school closings when students weren’t up to par — decisions that tend to impact lower-income and minority-heavy areas of the country more frequently and more severely.
For historical context, there’s always been achievement gaps based on the racial and socioeconomic demographics of areas serviced by public schools, but they have narrowed quite a bit in recent years. The trouble began with No Child Left Behind, which began the shift toward grade-based accountability, and continued on as Democrats have grown ever more divided on how best to reform America’s schools.
For comparison’s sake, schools are much more likely to succeed and thrive when the emphasis is placed not on student performance directly but instead on making equal funding available to all school districts, and ensuring schools are properly integrated.
Emulating Top-Performing Countries
American teachers — particularly those associated with unions — are becoming optimistic that a Clinton administration will take a greater interests in the needs of teachers, despite the anxiety expected with the transition in administrations.
But Hillary Clinton has another issue she intends to tackle — one that she’s championed for years. So far, most of her efforts on the campaign trail have been focused on initiatives targeting early childhood development, which is when, as science tells us, investments tend to pay the greatest dividends, particularly for children who come from low-income or minority households. Clinton hopes to implement universal preschool for four-year-olds.
Although her policies concerning education are still sparse, even on Mrs. Clinton’s official campaign website, one area that appears more fully realized is her intention to spend $2 billion on state-based programs to dismantle what she refers to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” These programs would seek to curb or end disciplinary practices, such as expulsions and suspensions, that tend to affect black students more frequently than white students. Along with a pledge to “rebuild crumbling public school” buildings, it’s an encouraging and ambitious agenda.
Hillary caught some flak for appropriating the issues and even some of the phrasing first brought to the table by Bernie Sanders. She generally shied away from his suggestions that we learn a thing or two from countries like Finland and Norway, who have measurably higher standards of living than the average American currently enjoys.
Nevertheless, she’s been eyeing the Nordic countries as she set about assembling her education policy, and now appears prepared to emulate some of the policies that have made these countries top performers in terms of student success. They did this in part by reducing testing, which Clinton now echoes with her recurring campaign trail rallying cry of “fewer and better tests.”
Still Plenty of Unknowns
Which of the above policy proposals become tangible reality is anything but certain right now. If she’s elected, it’s clear Hillary Clinton will have quite a lot of work to do, ushering the above proposals over the finish line.
Though still far from certain, it’s somewhat more likely that Clinton will take the White House than it is that Democrats will reclaim one or both chambers of Congress. Whichever combination of party leadership emerges after November, it’s clear that America has some homework to do.
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