Columbia U. Hosts McCain, Obama Education Advisers For Debate

This story was written by Alix Pianin, Columbia Daily Spectator

Education advisers to the two major U.S. presidential nominees faced off at Columbia University's Teachers College Tuesday night, where they discussed the merits of their candidates plans in the area and education's role in the current race.

Linda Darling-Hammond, who used to teach at TC, represented Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and Lisa Graham Keegan represented Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). They spoke at TCs Cowin Conference Center to a packed house. TC President Susan Fuhrman moderated the debate, which was conducted in a back-and-forth format.

The debate highlighted the lack of coverage the media has given to the candidates stances on education. Keegan and Darling-Hammond both asserted that each of their candidates put heavy emphasis on education policies.

For both gentlemen, the day after they give these really major announcements, it falls flat ... you dont read much about what theyre saying, and it just doesnt have a second life, Keegan said.

But the two differed in their opinions on the effectiveness of school vouchers, as well the best way to structure teachers pay. While Keegan argued for the use of school vouchers and for McCains support for enabling parents to select from a range of possible schools for their children, Darling-Hammond said vouchers take money that should be available for schools in need. Darling-Hammond also contended that a policy to tie in teachers pay to their students achievements was not effective.

The advisers were also divided in their views of President George Bushs No Child Left Behind Act, a policy that aims to improve school performance by setting performance standards that each school must meet in order to receive funding. Obama believes in the goals of the law, Darling-Hammond said, but he still maintains that there have been problems in its implementation, especially with the way in which progress is evaluated. Keegan said that applying standards across the board helps in measuring the progress of many different kinds of schools, and that the No Child Left Behind Act still allows for creativity in the classroom.

Weve been stuck in a 1950s concept of standardized testing that has become more entrenched because of the requirement for every year, every child testing, Darling-Hammond said.

Keegan shot back with a rebuttal on what she sees as the uselessness of testing. If youve got schools that are just bubbling in all day, then those are just lousy schools. Great teachers do not just give their kids bubble-in tests, she said.

Teachers College students attending the event said that the debate held special meaning because the policies discussed could very well affect the nature of their jobs in the coming years.

All of the decisions that are going to be made in the next few years are going to affect us as teachers, so I think its really important, Jessica Weinstock, TC, said after the debate. Were supposed to be progressive and look at education in a new way and challenge whats historically been done, so its very relevant to us.

TC student Sarah Bever said she was impressed by both advisers, but that as a former public school teacher outside of Washington, she was excited about Obamas emphasis on teacher training.

When the candidates were first running in the primary, they sent out articles about their education policies and there was ... very little from the John McCain campaign that was disclosed. Bever said. All the charts no information, no information, no information. Even so, she concluded, both advisers seemed to have the nations best interests at heart.

Its obvious that they both want really whats best for the country, she said. They just have very different ideals i terms of how they do it.