Obama puts the onus on parents

14th November 2008 at 00:00

George Bush was a disastrous president in almost every respect. But not, in fact, for schools. His appointments to the Department of Education were much more experienced and competent than in many other areas of government.

The landmark No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 introduced long overdue accountability and reporting requirements, and has pressed states and local districts to take the needs of disadvantaged students more seriously than before. Some critics object to the idea of accountability; others to federal support for educating poor and minority children. But, in fact, the Act provides an admittedly imperfect framework for school improvement.

One consequence is that although funding and decision-making are still predominantly local, it matters far more now what a president thinks about education than it did 20 years ago. And Barack Obama has thought a lot about education.

But what will the new president-elect do? Traditionally, the Democrats have taken a conservative position on education: leave policy in the hands of school districts, while using federal funds to raise teachers' pay across the board, giving special attention to places with high concentrations of disadvantaged students. But influential Democrats such as Senator Ted Kennedy played a central role in drafting No Child Left Behind, and there is now more debate about reform in Democratic circles than ever before.

Obama is certainly in the reform camp. But what sorts of reform? Two coalitions were formed last summer. The Broader, Bolder Approach argues that the only way to deal with low achievement is through broad social reforms dealing with the disadvantage and poverty that impair children's learning. Immediately, an opposing Educational Equality Project was founded, arguing that schools themselves can close the achievement gap, given the right structures and resources. Politically savvy, Obama endorsed both coalitions.

But his head and heart seem to be with the broader approach. He has been influenced by the work of the economist James Heckman, his former colleague at the University of Chicago. Professor Heckman identifies persistent and concentrated poverty as the biggest source of the difficulties facing education. Children who arrive at school aged five not ready to learn are at a major disadvantage.

He believes that the most cost-effective interventions occur outside the classroom and start long before children arrive at school. Effective interventions are intensive: frequent visits by nurses to help secure post-natal health; education for new parents in their homes on what children need, and how to manage their time and assist their cognitive development; early childhood programmes, with long days, qualified teachers and generous teacher-pupil ratios.

Broader, bolder interventions are familiar in Europe. Think of Every Child Matters and extended schools, but also of post-natal home visits by doctors and nurses (an idea almost unheard of in the US) and, of course, universal health coverage through the NHS. Think even of the symbolic name change of the Department for Education and Skills to the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Left-wingers in the US have long supported such ideas. But Professor Heckman has lent them respectability because of his Nobel prize-winning work on human capital (or skills) development. He is associated with the political right and has provided strong evidence that the cost of broader, bolder programmes would yield benefits in terms of reduced crime and incarceration and increased productivity. In other words, he has shown that social democratic programmes are good for capitalism.

Obama won't have much money for reform. And the most urgent legislative priority, apart from the economy, must be to tackle the expensive, inefficient and unjust healthcare system.

But he has already promised to replicate across 10 major cities a highly successful, comprehensive, home-school programme, based in Harlem and run by the charismatic leader Geoffrey Canada, whose rhetoric consistently emphasises the role of home life in preparing children for school: "The philosophy behind the project is simple. If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can't just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community. And we have to focus on what actually works."

The fact that healthcare reform is such an urgent priority works in favour of the broader, bolder approach. The day after the election, the Democrats announced that the extension of healthcare for poor children - vetoed by George Bush last year - would be their first legislative priority.

Will Obama have much impact on education in the UK? His thinking is more cosmopolitan than is usual for a US president, so there will be more transatlantic policy dialogue and mutual learning. But the biggest influence in the UK will probably be the authority he lends to his message about the role of society in enabling - and sometimes pressurising - parents to fulfil their parental responsibilities.

As he said during the election campaign: "It's time to stop passing the buck on education. It starts in our homes. It starts in our families. No government programme can turn off the TV set, or put away the video games, or read to your children. But we can help parents do a better job."

Harry Brighouse, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, United States.

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