From Student Loans to School Uniforms

Under a new administration, education is the center of attention once more

Much of the year in education was centered on President Barack Obama’s agenda for higher and lower education. Any presidential turnover brings a host of fresh policies, but Obama’s were of special interest because of the high quality of governance promised by his administration. We supported most of his proposals, but noted the omission of several key reforms in higher education. We also expressed concern at the federal government’s inadequate response to the economic crisis’ effects on the Boston school system. Closer to campus, we lamented the continuing distortion of the SAT and its results and hoped that other universities would follow our lead and increase the percentage of their aid that is need-based. We noted several local debates in lower education that may hold greater significance in the future.

We praised Obama both for the educational component of his budget plan and his projected reforms for the public education system. Obama singled out education as a special priority that will not be compromised even as the administration plans to cut the federal budget deficit in half by 2013. While the federal government must exercise more fiscal responsibility in the coming years, it serves no one to have this cost-cutting come at the expense of the country’s future labor force. Obama’s budget also proposes to make student loans available directly from the government, providing a much-needed alternative to the scandal-plagued student loan industry. It makes sense for a disinterested lender like the federal government to help out college students who might otherwise fall victim to predatory loan agencies.

In conjunction with these plans, Obama announced a set of public education reforms in March 2009 that are bold and innovative. His proposal to lift limits on charter schools will provide students in failing school districts with a viable alternative and put pressure on the public schools in such districts to improve. As Obama has stated, charter schools are important “laboratories of innovation” and cities such as New York and Los Angeles have seen marked improvements in public education due to their proliferation.

The reforms also included a plan to introduce merit pay in up to 150 school districts. Merit pay incentivizes good teaching and has great potential to improve underperforming schools. In many professions, a higher level of performance is rewarded with a higher level of pay, and teaching should be no exception. New York City’s Chancellor of Schools, Joel I. Klein, has already instituted a modified version of merit pay: The district gave $14.2 million in bonuses to schools that improved their performance in the 2007-2008 school year. A more effective system would be a hybrid model in which school-wide bonuses were complemented by rewards to individual teachers based on evaluation of their teacher, but Klein’s program is a step in the right direction.

Nevertheless, although we approved of the general direction of Obama’s educational policy, we were disappointed by the omission of several important reforms. To ease the burden of financing a college education, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid should be simplified. At over 100 questions long, the structure of the FAFSA is unnecessarily complicated and turns what is supposed to be a helpful tool into an exercise in frustration. Additionally, laws governing H1B visas should be revised so that all gainfully employed international students can stay and work in the United States after graduation. In today’s competitive global environment it would be a mistake for America to lose talented, enthusiastic workers to other countries because of xenophobic fears or excessive red tape. Furthermore, in a matter of more local concern, we hope that the federal government will assist the Boston public school system in its present hour of need. This year, the district will cut 900 positions, 403 of which are teaching jobs. As a result, class sizes will likely increase and students will get less attention. Federal assistance is needed, and at the very least, Congress should refrain from cutting federal funding for state aid that could be used to shore up school districts.

Outside of the public sphere, we deplored the continued distortion and misuse of the SAT. The College Board’s implementation of the new “Score Choice” policy, which allows students to determine which of their SAT scores will be sent to colleges, was a particularly disappointing choice. Allowing for the opportunity to take the test multiple times consequence-free gives wealthier students an edge, as they tend to be the ones who can afford the time and money to do so. It puts further emphasis on an already overemphasized test. Just this past September, a committee chaired by Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 declared the SAT an incomplete gauge of a student’s college-readiness and we wholeheartedly concurred. Then, upon learning that Baylor University had recently paid almost 900 incoming freshman to retake the SATs in an effort to raise the school’s US News & World Report ranking, we denounced this standardized test-gerrymandering as toxic. Unfortunately, this type of behavior is merely a distasteful product of an unhealthy and unwarranted cultural emphasis on test scores.

Universities should focus their attention instead on the growing financial needs of their enrolled student body. In response to the recession, many schools are anticipating significant tuition increases, but we believe that this is an ill-advised move, given that it decreases college affordability. Merit-based and athletic scholarships should be scaled back in order for schools to focus on need-based financial aid, which should be the clear priority in this difficult economic climate.

Lastly, turning to local matters, this year we commented on several local debates that hold greater significance for the national educational scene. Several public schools made moves to introduce school uniforms this year. Although such an imposition may appear to be in violation of the spirit of free expression, we believe that the benefits of uniforms on school atmosphere and attendance warrant this move. Support for this position can be found in Hartford, Connecticut, which has required its public school students to wear uniforms and has since seen a marked increase in the number of students taking the SATs and investing in their futures.

This year, members of the education establishment questioned the wisdom of using interactive games to teach literacy. Although the introduction of digital mediums of reading may signal the death of the printed tome, we posited that literacy efforts are only effective if they connect with students. These games seem to do this and they should therefore be welcomed as a valuable tool for literacy education. We might have liked to see a similar generational medium enthuse math education in America as we lamented the dismal perception of the subject among America’s youth, and hoped that the field might become more popular and valued in our culture. The U.S. has shamefully low standards for math education, but more widespread introduction of fun math extracurricular activities and more rigorous math curriculums might change this.

Education is the bedrock of a successful nation, and thus it is not surprising that the issues surrounding it have generated strong opinions and healthy debate. But with a new president who pledges to make these issues a priority for his administration and so many individuals who care about ensuring that students get the most out of their schools, one might say that the future of education looks rather bright.