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Obama and McCain on Education: What Is In Store for Christian Education?

I must say that the election between Obama and McCain is storing up to be a very close race. And why shouldn’t it be? This is democracy at work, a moment that very well may be historical–either by the election of our first female VP, or by the election of our first black President. And on that level, I am very happy to be an American citizen where leadership is not necessarily limited by race or gender in our governmental system. However, both candidates have certain pros and cons to their stance on the issue of education, which I would like to attempt to deal with on this blog (at the possible expense of combining the interests of both Christian schooling and politics, which very well may get me drawn and quartered, depending on the level of tact involved).

The topic of this blog concerns ONLY the issue of the future of Christian schooling, and does not necessarily address the myriad of other issues at stake in this election. I am simply discussing the differences between McCain’s campaign on education and Obama’s campaign on education and what that means for those of us who working in Christian education. Obviously, a vote should depend on a wide variety of philosophical ideals, not necessarily just on one pet issue that a voter feels strongly about.

Today I looked through McCain and Obama’s official websites. Since I found myself so divided, I thought it might help to check out what they, in their own words (or rather in the words of their speechwriters), have decided to stand for should they be elected into office. Today’s Christian voters, it seems to me, have more diverse party affiliations than in year’s past, and are now choosing to vote based upon the quality and quantity of information that they can gather about both candidates. In my efforts to be an informed voter, I thought that I should check it out and decide for myself which candidate appeals to me.

In terms of education, John McCain’s official website states, “Public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child’s education follows that child into the school the parent chooses. The school is charged with the responsibility of educating the child, and must have the resources and management authority to deliver on that responsibility. They must also report to the parents and the public on their progress” (Issues, Education). McCain follows that idea with the concept that “If a school will not change, the students should be able to change schools . . . parents should be empowered with school choice to send their children to the school that can best educate them just as many members of Congress do with their own children” (Issues, Education). 

In terms of Christian schooling, private schools other than charter schools usually start out as fledgling academies using the best possible resources available until they have room and money to grow. I do not hold that all public schools are bad places for students, as some Christian conservatives do, but it is clear that we are at the point where we should finally acknowledge not only the inevitable inequities of school funding and school quality, but we should also acknowledge the fact that each student as an individual is different and education does not necessarily have to be a cookie-cutter base of knowledge. I myself went to a small 25-student Christian school until my senior year of high school, and I found that my gifts and abilities allowed me to make the switch quite fluidly. It’s not the size of the school or the availability of things like baseball fields, football teams and swimming pools that make a child’s education great. Otherwise, why would we have so many successfully homeschooled children? A parent who chooses to homeschool their child is a parent who is going to be the most caring and concerned teacher that their child would ever find in any school. Trust me, those parents feel a strong sense of responsibility toward their child’s education, and are not doing it out of a whim. On that level, the rights of parents to homeschool and the rights of parents to choose a Christian school should be honored. Particularly since all of the original schools and universities in the U.S., including good ole Yale, were seminaries at one time, and literacy once meant that you could read and interpret the Bible. (I especially liked the dig that Congress people are already making the choice to send their kids to outside schools. What would happen if all of Congress were required to send their kids to their local public school?) 

Obama’s website also contains some good information about what he plans to do, such as making math and science education a priority by recruiting strong teachers in those subject areas. He also plans on expanding middle school intervention support to lower the dropout rate and expanding afterschool and summer programs. According to his website, “Obama will address the dropout crisis by passing his legislation to provide funding to school districts to invest in intervention strategies in middle school – strategies such as personal academic plans, teaching teams, parent involvement, mentoring, intensive reading and math instruction, and extended learning time” (Issues, Education). Obama has also promised on his website to “double funding for the main federal support for afterschool programs, the 21st Century Learning Centers program, to serve one million more children” (Issues, Education). Perhaps the most exciting initiative for me, as a teacher is to see that “Obama supports transitional bilingual education” as a means of providing support for English Language Learners.

Although McCain is an advocate for school choice, his targets for public education do not seem clear or specific. It seems as though he is “fixing” the problem by not fixing it. Instead, he is simply giving parents to the freedom to go elsewhere if they are disgruntled with their local public schools. He does believe that “our schools can and should compete to be the most innovative, flexible and student-centered – not safe havens for the uninspired and unaccountable. He believes we should let them compete for the most effective, character-building teachers, hire them, and reward them” (Issues, Education). But other than asking schools to compete for teachers and leaving it up to the free enterprise system of supply and demand, McCain’s policies offer no real answers for public school funding or teacher recruitment problems. However, McCain’s choice stance does work out well for those schools who are working to be recognized and are trying to avoid discrimination in their local communities. Homeschoolers and small Christian schools may want to vote for McCain’s stance on education for this reason.

However, assuming that Obama’s promises to fund programs and carry out the well-intentioned by poorly-organized NCLB into the 21st century hold water, he is the more logical candidate to support when it comes to working within our public schools for change. We certainly should be concerned that many students do not have a choice to homeschool or go to a charter school, and are left with only the option of public school. Are we willing to sacrifice the needs of all of those students in order to make a statement about our right to choose? By the way, Obama never mentions in his website about whether he will pass legislation limiting a parent’s right to choose a private or charter school. It might be a good question to ask. He does, however, promise to also provide teacher scholarships to aid in teacher recruitment and create Teacher Residency Programs in order to provide teachers with the preparation they need to succeed. In addition, he is going to campaign for teachers to have “paid common planning time” so that they are better capable of working in collaboration (Issues, Education).

So does this answer all of my questions? Not really. It does, however, give me a good idea of which questions to ask. Do you happen to have any questions concerning McCain and Obama and their views of education? Feel free to comment and we can all try to answer them together.    


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Rubric Grading: Uses and Benefits

Grading can be a time-consuming enterprise. Yesterday and today I stayed at school until 5:30pm grading papers and essays. Especially for the English teacher, grading writing assignments can be a daunting task. For elementary and secondary teachers, the temptation is to spend plenty of time nit-picking on each grammar and spelling error, commenting on all of the transitions and rewording sentence structures for students. Unfortunately, doing the editing work for students we all know is something that we should avoid as teachers. How do we address these problem areas in a way that is conducive to the student’s learning and yet efficient with our time as teachers?

Rubric grading can provide a number of benefits to the writing instructor. Not only can rubrics help the teacher approach the “6 Traits of Good Writing,” a current trend in writing instruction, it can also help teachers provide specific feedback to students without editing their work for them. Using an online rubric generator, such as that offered by Rubistar (http://www.rubistar.4teachers.org/), teachers can choose the criteria that best fits their writing assignment. For example, if students are writing a personal narrative, the teacher can choose the criteria of 6 Traits that best applies, such as “Word Choice” and “Voice.” Or if the assignment is a persuasive essay, you can choose areas of “Organization” and “Content.” If the pre-written criteria doesn’t suit, you can certainly go in and type in your own personalized criteria for the assignment.

Best yet, rubric grading is less time-consuming. Students can easily use it for peer reviewing, and teachers discover that determining that writing project grade to be less subjective and easier to define into letter format.  

However, rubrics are helpful for assignments other than writing projects. Projects of any kind can be given a rubric grade. Digital media projects, for example, are perfect for rubric grading. If students create a blog portfolio or create a Powerpoint presentation, you can grade it using a rubric. If you need criteria for a participation grade, a rubric can help you define your criteria between an A, B or C grade. I use a rubric for grading online bulletin board assignments, which requires students to post responses or comment on another student’s project. (http://www.nicenet.org) Perhaps your students are constructing a model of something; a rubric is an excellent way to give specific feedback on accuracy and appearance of the model. Certainly a rubric keeps you from looking at a student’s work and giving an offhand, cursory, “Um…I think it’s about a…B+… or maybe a B.” It isn’t fair to the students and it isn’t really helping them achieve results.

Finally, a rubric grade assists you with modifying your grading systems to accomodate all learners. Students receive feedback on the areas that need work, but you don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s say that you have a student who happens to have a processing disorder or a form of dyslexia. The essay may be strong in ideas and organization, but be weak in spelling and grammar. The student can feel good about their strengths without being considered failures because of their weaknesses. With a rubric grade, a student earns an F by not doing anything to work toward their grade, either by not turning in the assignment or turning it in incomplete. Effort is always rewarded. Since rubrics are given to students before they begin the project, gifted students are able to work more strategically toward earning a higher grade. It motivates them to see exactly what they have to do to earn an A.

Because of rubrics, teachers can widen their methods of assessment and actually save more time grading them! If you, as a teacher, have never used a rubric before, I suggest you try it at various points during the year. Think of the projects, journal entries, written papers, etc. that you demand of your students and imagine the improvement that you will see in their achievement. To save even more time, google search for rubric generator websites and take advantage of the work that others have already created. Some sites, such as Rubistar, actually allow you to save your rubrics in an account where you can access them at any time. Once you print them out, you can make copies and save them for use next year.  Teachers who used rubrics will be pleasantly surprised at how easy they are to make and use.

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