Obama’s Education Reform Plan Lacks Focus

Published May 1, 2009

President Barack Obama’s education plan is “lacking in focus” and like a “puzzle,” according to one of America’s top distance learning and online education experts.

Dr. Alfred Rovai, a professor of education at Regent University in Virginia, also found Obama’s March 10 speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, in which he detailed his education plan, “elitist.”

“If you look at President Obama’s background—Harvard University, Columbia, teaching law at the University of Chicago—he comes from an elite background, so it is no surprise that his speech would not discuss much distance learning or online education opportunities,” Rovai said.

“Law schools are notorious for not being interested in distance education,” Rovai noted. “The president probably has not been exposed to distance education much. It is because of his elitist background.”

Melissa Lazarin, associate director of education policy at the Center for American Progress, disagrees.

“I believe Obama’s education platform during the campaign indicated strong support for distance learning and online education, and I do think that both President Obama and [Education] Secretary [Arne] Duncan’s strong inclination towards innovation provide an opportunity to expand the capacity of distance learning programs,” Lazarin said.

Scattershot Approach

Though Obama’s proposed education reforms include several components free-market advocates like—such as merit pay for teachers and increased support for charter schools—Rovai said his plan lacks a coherent theme, unlike past administrations’ proposals.

“When I reflect back on the Clinton administration, the theme and focus was on Internet connectivity—specifically K-12—and then when you look at the Bush administration they also had a focus. They changed the focus from Internet connectivity to focusing on low achievers in the school system,” he noted. “I am not sure what the Obama administration has in terms of focus.

“The president mentioned teacher merit pay, which was quite surprising considering his political base, and also investment in early childhood education. That’s a big thing, too—you hear a lot about it from the school choice movement. He [also] talked about expanding charter reform, but these components are just that—initiatives. It’s a shotgun approach,” Rovai said.

Disparate Initiatives

Rovai said it’s very hard to see coherence in Obama’s plan.

“Another thing about the president’s plan is his desire to grant universal access to higher education. He thinks that everyone should have at least one year of post-secondary education under their belt, but that is just another initiative. How does that fit? What part of the puzzle is that? This is all a puzzle,” Rovai said.

Lazarin believes the Obama administration did forward a coherent plan.

“President Obama’s speech outlined a bold education plan, and his early efforts have put education front and center, which is remarkable given these trying times. The president has appropriately linked the robustness of our education system with our nation’s economic future. And he’s calling for dramatic reforms in education—not simply incremental steps that will lead to modest improvements. His remarks on teacher effectiveness, reconfiguring the school calendar, charter schools, and rigorous standards and assessments override partisan ideology,” Lazarin said.

Rovai remains unconvinced.

“The president’s education plan is not incremental or sequential, it is an independent series of initiatives that do not seem to me to be linked together at all. I want to see how they are linked together. He has brought up issues that experts over the years have analyzed, and now he says we are going to address all of them, and hopefully if we address all these things we will have a better system.

“I would like to see a greater unifying focus, and know exactly how teacher merit pay is related to investment in early education, and how that is related to charter schools, and so forth. How do all these things fit together?” Rovai wondered.

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For more information …

President Barack Obama’s March 10 speech on education at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-of-the-President-to-the-Hispanic-Chamber-of-Commerce/