The revolution is not a picnic

“The revolution is not a dinner party,” student radicals used to say. Quoting Mao, I assume.  In education, change is “no picnic,” writes David Brooks in the New York Times. Like me, he likes Obama’s story, retold in his education speech, about his mother waking him up before dawn to study correspondence lessons when they lived in Indonesia.

That experience was the perfect preparation for reforming American education because it underlines the two traits necessary for academic success: relationships and rigor. The young Obama had a loving relationship with an adult passionate about his future. He also had at least one teacher, his mom, disinclined to put up with any crap.

Brooks thinks Obama can recreate that for young Americans by expanding “nurse visits to disorganized homes,” improving early education and extending the school year.

And will they all the children of Africans so smart and motivated they managed to study graduate economics at Harvard and Americans so motivated they earned a doctorate in anthropology?

Brooks also believes Obama’s “vision” will transform teaching.

Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).

Merit pay for caring? There are teachers who love kids but don’t teach them well — sometimes for reasons beyond the teachers’ control. And there are teachers who teach well but don’t create emotional bonds. I’d prefer to making effective teaching the priority.

Brooks is more cynical about “the education establishment’s ability to evade the consequences of data” on children’s progress.

Obama’s goal is to make sure results have consequences. He praises data sets that “tell us which students had which teachers so we can assess what’s working and what’s not.” He also aims to reward states that use data to make decisions. He will build on a Bush program that gives states money for merit pay so long as they measure teachers based on real results. He will reward states that expand charter schools, which are drivers of innovation, so long as they use data to figure out which charters are working.

Will Obama follow through? Brooks admits that the president “caved in on the D.C. vouchers case.”

Democrats in Congress just killed an experiment that gives 1,700 poor Washington kids school vouchers. They even refused to grandfather in the kids already in the program, so those children will be ripped away from their mentors and friends.

. . . Obama has, in fact, been shamefully quiet about this. But in the next weeks he’ll at least try to protect the kids now in the program.

We’ll see. Words are cheap. What Obama does — or fails to do — for the D.C. voucher students will show whether he’s serious about changing education or just hoping.

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  1. Ponderosa says:


    Like you, I think Brooks got it wrong when he indicated that emotional bonds are of paramount importance. Sadly, this way of thinking is pervasive in schools today. My middle school is undertaking numerous initiatives to help build “relationships” between students and teachers (e.g. having teachers relate personal anecdotes before whole school assemblies; creating advisory classes wherein teachers become coaches/mentors to kids, etc.) as if the main reason kids aren’t learning is disaffection with the teachers and the schools! Nonsense. The main reasons for underachievement are curricular incoherence, skills-orientation, and intellectually-impoverished teaching. Was public education a shambles back when the typical teacher was somewhat distant, even slightly authoritarian? Has achievement soared since the advent of the friendly, informal teacher persona starting in the Sixties? I believe that kids could learn a ton from a brainy, creative instructor who is merely civil and fair. There is absolutely no need to turn teachers into Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

  2. Cookie Lady says:

    It’s my understanding that if Obama wanted to hold onto the DC program, he needed to indicate that before he got a bill to sign. The language that is in the bill will require an act of Congress to re-establish the program. Sounds like there’s nothing Obama can do now.

  3. While I generally enjoy and agree with most of what Brooks writes, his view of teachers and merit pay is another example of people outside education thinking they have insight into why teachers are or are not effective. “Emotional bonds” is a rather obscure and immeasurable component of effective teaching. Ponderosa makes some valid points about what contributes to a lack of learning. They are far more complex – many of them socioeconomic – reasons for students and a disconnect from learning.

  4. Richard Nieporent says:

    I listened to the education secretary Arne Duncan being interviewed the other day by Wolf Blitzer. If you are expecting change in the education system, don’t get your hope up. The Obama administration, like all Democrats, is in the pocket of the teachers unions. Wolf asked him some relatively innocuous questions about allowing children in failing schools to get vouchers. His response was no. Basically his position is that the administration is going to do whatever the teachers unions tell it to do. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  5. Ponderosa says:

    Do successful public education systems in Europe and Asia employ voucher systems? Do they have teacher unions?

    The fundamental problem with American schools is bad ideas, not unions or lack of vouchers. Change those ideas and unionized teachers can do wonders (FYI: most of these unionized teachers are already working their butts off, contrary to the right-wing caricature. Give them new ideas and a solid curriculum and they’ll work wonders.)

  6. School choice isn’t necessarily about improving education directly, it’s also about stirring up the ingrained inertia and the monopolistic death grip the system is in now.

    And it’s not just about improving the ed system for children. Good teachers with solid ideas would most likely thrive under a system of true school choice. Don’t like NCLB? Neither do plenty of other parents. Like the idea of high stake tests? So do plenty of other parents.

    Instead of offering a variety of approaches to educating our children, our schools are forced to compromise or to conform or to passively resist the strongest, and ever changing, educational impulses of our society.

  7. Actually, what Obama does — or fails to do — for the D.C. voucher students will show whether he’s a purely political animal, with nary a lick of principle.

    Of course I’m just being silly. All one need do is consult with anyone of the rabid anti-war left to get all the evidence necessary to support the conclusion that President Obama hasn’t a lick of principle in him. While the anti-war left is a detestable, self-involved group of people they are also familiar with the casual way in which Obama treats his supporters when abandoning them is expedient and safe.

    With the NEA one side of the issue and the poor kids and poor parents of Washington D.C. on the other, it’s hard to see what reason, from a political perspective, President Obama would have to side with the latter.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    That voucher program was doing well and gained the support of the folks who were benefiting, or who wanted to benefit.
    Made the public schools look bad by comparison.
    Can’t have that.

  9. Andy Freeman says:

    > FYI: most of these unionized teachers are already working their butts off, contrary to the right-wing caricature.

    We’re not paying for “work” – we’re paying for results.

    > Give them new ideas and a solid curriculum and they’ll work wonders.

    Umm, aren’t they supposed to come with good ideas?

    Since unionized teachers have a significant impact on cirriculum, asking us to fix it is somewhat ironic.

  10. Ponderosa says:


    Teachers are trained by muddle-headed professors of education and then further led astray by slick for-profit consultants and sales people. As most professionals do, they listen to the “authorities” in their field as well as consultants, but, unfortunately, most of the authorities are captivated by bankrupt ideas. Sadly, these authorities are gate-keepers that shut out ideas like E.D. Hirsch’s. As I share my independent research about Core Knowledge ideas with my colleagues, they are quite receptive; it rings true to them. Once someone with a big megaphone starts blaring these alternative ideas across the country, I think many teachers will flock to them.

  11. I don’t think that the right wing folks don’t think that teachers work hard, but that the teachers think they work harder than private industry and are underpaid. The teachers are wrong on both counts.

  12. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Andy: no, we teach the curriculum we’re given, usually by the state as interpreted by the district. The only curriculum I get to design myself is my advanced placement classes, and that has to be approved by the College Board.

    It would be nice if we had the time built into our work day to design curriculum (I spent hundreds of hours designing my AP curriculums during the summer during my unpaid vacation).