Friday, September 7, 2012

Was Obama Right?

I can't speak for the other half of the Teaching Underground (but I'm guessing he agrees), but I am not a fan of the Presidents education policy. The democratic platform's comments on education in general are not very appealing either. Without a Republican plan for education that looks any better, it looks like education may be in for another tough four years regardless of the election.

I used to think that the President didn't matter to public education in America. After all, state and local governments oversee the education of children. But, unless I didn't know any better before the mid-90's it looks like that balance began to shift under the Clinton administration and certainly tipped during the Bush years to the point where today, what the President says (or perhaps more importantly, who he appoints) makes a significant difference in the way we do public education in the fifty states. We've gotten used to the rhetoric.

Obama says repeatedly that we shouldn't over test our children, yet still creates and enforces policy that drives the testing craze. The Administration's words speak highly of public education and educators, but actions increasingly follow the path of corporate reform instead of educator initiated improvements. I know that the words don't always reflect the reality, but one single sentence uttered last night by the President made me think that on some level he gets it:  

Government has a role in this. But teachers must inspire; principals must lead; parents must instill a thirst for learning, and students, you’ve got to do the work.

1) Government has a role- we can't continue to short-change education under the guise that we're throwing money at a failing system.  We can't deny the responsibility, the "rightness" of government to provide for the education of our children and the long term benefits of this investment for our nation.  But Government has a role, and especially the federal government should take care to ensure that states and districts are adequately providing education without encumbering them with excessive regulations that may not apply across the board.

2) Teachers- to inspire must be inspired.  We've heard enough empty thanks and platitudes of how important we are.  It's not just about money, but we are more than a pool of workers.  Evaluation methods should be fair, we need to stop inflating the idea of "bad teachers" ruining education, and teachers need more influence and input in policy and decision-making.

3) Parents- this thirst for learning will look different for different families.  This is the part where government may play a larger role.  I do a good job of working with kids, but add responsibilities with parents and my job gets tougher.  I can't do the job of a parent and I can't make parents do their job.  I'm not talking about laws and punishments.  Most parents are doing exactly what they need to.  Opening schools and creating access often just makes active parents more active.  We need to figure out the best ways to engage the unengaged and that solution might not be found within the wall of the school.

4) Students- do the work.  We need to hear this more often from our leaders.  I take responsibility for the job I do, but I can't take 100% responsibility for the performance of others.  I teach students, I don't "learn" them.  Learning is what you do yourself and what I learn is my responsibility.  Until student responsibility re-enters the national narrative on how to improve schools, schools will not improve. 

Last night Obama set forth a pretty decent rhetorical formula with these words.  I only wish it could translate into effective and reasonable policy.  Unfortunately, based on the record of the last four years, I don't have much hope in that.


  1. My worst nightmare. Secretary of Education Michelle Rhee.

    1. I've heard people saying that she's on Romney's list. She seems to appeal to Democrats and Republicans, so who knows. I don't even want to consider a statement like that.

    2. I've heard that too. If for profit, privatization and charters are big now...just imagine if she comes in. It might make the changes we've seen in the past decade seem like nothing.