Advancing educational opportunity, results

Published Dec. 25, 2012

As President Barack Obama gets ready to embark on his second term, we have two proposals to make to him: one has to do with innovation and the second with access.

To improve education and global competitiveness, the Obama administration should, in our view, build upon the success of its Race to the Top competition, and it should go beyond the district-level competition for which the federal government is currently accepting applications.

With Race to the Top, the federal government took on a unique role in education policy by acting like a venture philanthropist who says to those seeking financial support: "If you do these things, then you'll receive my money." Strapped financially, states fell all over themselves to reform their procedures, including teacher evaluation systems, in order to qualify for this much-needed revenue.

The near universal adoption of the Common Core Standards was an indirect outcome of Race to the Top. In the next several years most states will administer one of two common assessments designed to measure student learning against these standards. A common set of standards and a common assessment create the conditions for common courses.

To leverage the opportunity created by common standards and common assessments, we recommend that the president create another competitive process — one that invites high school teachers and teacher teams across the country to design courses based on the standards and assessed the same way. Every high school subject and level would be solicited, and the "winning" courses would then be available online.

This national, online high school is modeled after Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the higher education phenomenon that offers online learning by the best faculty to millions of students all over the world for free. Our proposal would make high school classes available to students anywhere. Teachers would also be able to access entire courses, specific units, or individual lessons to supplement instruction in their courses, much like many are already doing through the Khan Academy.

We also recommend that the federal government build a mechanism into future legislation that would ensure school districts and states accept the credits students earned in this fashion, reinforcing the 21st century education model that makes learning easily accessible and not time- and location-dependent.

The rising cost of college may be the single greatest barrier to prosperity, upward mobility and global competitiveness in the United States today. Nothing less than the American Dream is at stake. To facilitate access to higher education, we propose the following: a scholarship fund that provides a completely free public higher education to the top 2 percent of graduates at every public high school in America.

Akin to the original GI Bill that provided soldiers who served in World War II with access to higher education and built the foundation of America's middle class in the second half of the 20th century, this fund would touch every single community in the nation. It would say to the highest achieving students that there is available to them a guaranteed path to college that will not leave them penniless.

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In exchange for this debt-free path to college graduation, we recommend that this scholarship be accompanied by a year of national service. Programs like City Year, Americorps, the Peace Corps and Teach For America would all be worthy ways and great experiences for a high-achieving student to give back to society, to begin a life of civic engagement, and to help struggling communities.

President Obama has already built an impressive record in educational reform in his first term. We believe he has an opportunity to do something more creative in his second term that will significantly advance opportunity for students from all backgrounds.

David R. Colburn is the interim director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida. He can be reached at Brian Dassler is chief academic officer, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a public school serving students from across Louisiana. They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.