“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.