Education leaders debate policy on Capitol Hill

“In the 21st century, countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow, and America is already in danger of falling behind.”

With that quotation from President Barack Obama, Dr. Watson Scott Swail opened the National Capitol Summit on Education sponsored by GW’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Tuesday.

The two-day event was scheduled to discuss the various education policy issues and the new administration’s role in enacting them. Throughout the Obama-Biden campaign, the two promised several education proposals, including increased funding for early childhood education and higher education.

“There’s been a lot of talk about the economy, but not a lot of talk about education. Our purpose here today is to have a conversation,” Swail said. He said the summit hopes to create dialogue that will inform policymakers involved with implementing education policy.

Swail was more positive in discussing the $825 billion stimulus package, $140 billion of which is earmarked towards education.

At the forefront of the summit’s meeting on Tuesday was the debate surrounding the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been mired in controversy since it was signed into effect seven years ago by President Bush.

While most of the five experts who were invited to discuss the law spoke favorably of the act’s goal, they also criticized its decisive shortcomings as a result of inadequate funding and implementation.

“Schools change because of the efforts of those within the schools,” former Secretary of Education Rod Paige said. “We can’t expect NCLB to improve all the education issues across the board.”

Roger Baskins, an educational specialist for Fairfax County public schools, did not hide his excitement while describing Obama’s newly appointed Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, as innovative and tenacious.

For Baskins, the paramount issue facing education in the United States is the achievement gap between white and black students. In attending Tuesday’s summit, Baskins said he hoped to understand what issues would be in the forefront in addressing the widening achievement gap.

In the end, however, making changes at the federal level will not be enough, Baskins said.

“It all comes down to local community concern,” he said. “Change is going to have to happen on a local level.”

Paige echoed many of Baskin’s sentiments.

“I’m devastated by the African-American and white achievement gap. It is consistent across the board in all tests including, SAT and state test results,” Paige said.

The problem, he said, is not with academics but rather with leadership. The former secretary emphasized that students today need to know “we have high expectations for them.” Paige added that the widening gap in academic success could be seen as the “new civil rights issue of our day.”

The former secretary said education policy today is suffering because it has not benefited from the insight and experience of those people who know the education system the best: the teachers. As long as those who do not fully understand the educational landscape create policy, the system will not improve, he said.

“Today, our challenge is to find a way to make education policy more effective, however, our sense of urgency needs to be appreciated.”

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