What You Should Know This Week

Obama’s Education Policy Proposals. Each week, Educating Modern Learners picks one interesting current event – whether it’s news about education, technology, politics, business, science, or culture – and helps put it in context for school leaders, explaining why the news matters and how it might affect teaching and learning (in the short or in the long run). This week (the week of January 12), Audrey Watters looks at the Obama Administration’s plans for education policy.

Barack Obama has two years left in office, and it appears as though education is going to be one of the top policy focuses – for his administration and for the newly installed Congress.

In the run-up to the State of the Union address (next week), Obama has made a number of announcements about policy proposals.

Free Community College

Last week he announced a proposal to make two years of community college free for some students.. There are not a lot of details on how the plan would be funded (the federal government would pick up three-fourths of the cost; states the rest). Students would need to maintain a 2.5 GPA in order to remain eligible.

The proposal is reportedly modeled on a similar plan recently adopted by the state of Tennessee:

“Led by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, the state has signed up more than 90 percent of its roughly 60,000 high school graduates from 2013 for a new community college scholarship.

The Tennessee Promise will cover all the community college tuition and fees that federal grants do not for those students. They must enroll full-time and maintain a 2.0 GPA. The state has signed up more than 7,000 volunteers to serve as mentors to scholarship recipients, who must complete eight hours of community service.”

The average tuition cost for two year colleges, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, is $3,347 (although it varies greatly from state to state). But once you add in textbooks, food, and housing, you get a significantly higher figure: about $16,325 per year, The Chronicle estimates. The maximum amount of a Pell Grant: about $5000.

The proposal could have significant implications on higher education, although as noted above, there are still a lot of questions. Will all adult learners be eligible? Or just recent high school graduates? Will students opt to attend community college instead of for-profit universities? Will these students be shuttled into job training programs? Will four-year colleges adjust how they accept credits from other schools? And even if it is more affordable, what does it mean to push for “college for all”?

Limits on Data-Mining in Ed-Tech

Obama has also proposed a new “Student Digital Privacy Act,” this one modeled after legislation passed in California last year. “The law would ensure that any student data collected by technology in the classroom could be used only for reasons related to education. Companies would not be allowed to sell such information on to third parties for marketing purposes, such as targeted advertising,” reports Slate.

Many companies have already signed a voluntary Student Privacy Pledge, which also lays out “best practices” for what they should and should not do with student data. But that pledge has no teeth, no enforcement mechanism.

Again, there are still a lot of questions and missing details about the President’s new data provisions (along with concerns that the act doesn’t go far enough). Such are the types of ideas and proposals that get featured in the State of Union address, no doubt.

The Future of No Child Left Behind

Meanwhile, Senator Lamar Alexander has released a 400-page draft of a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – better known by the name of its latest version, No Child Left Behind.

As a result, there’s been a lot of talks about how much standardized testing is appropriate, along with what role the federal government should take in using tests to evaluate teachers’ and schools’ performance. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged Congress to keep the requirements for annual testing, as well as the “mandatory intervention for failing schools.”

The Future of School

We’ll likely have to spend the next year or so watching these debates play out over free higher education, over data-mining and education-technology, over standardized testing – policies that could each have significant impact on schools and on students’ experiences in them. But it’s worth asking: do these proposals represent the sort of change we want to see for the future of education? Why or why not? How can we articulate a different vision than the one promoted by industry and politicians? What sorts of policies could get us there?

Image credits: Brian Turner

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Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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