Praise for Obama on education

Both Checker Finn and Rick Hess praise the education themes in President Obama’s State of the Union speech. Finn writes on Flypaper:

On primary-secondary education, as on most topics, Mr. Obama stayed at 30,000 feet. The main themes he sounded, however, are fine: use federal education dollars to reward success, not failure; apply Arne Duncan’s “race to the top” reform priorities to the mega-bucks Elementary/Secondary Education Act; and keep a “competitive” element in this rather than simply distributing dollars via formula. All extremely hard to do but all worth doing.

The White House blog has specifics on Obama’s education plans, which include trying to reauthorize (in modified form) No Child Left Behind.  

Hess notes that education got no more than 90 seconds of a 70-minute speech.

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  1. What’s ironic is that the education issue provides a clear way forward for Obama.

    He can’t be unaware of the divide on the left over education with stalwarts lining up on the side of the status quo, Democrats for Education Reform lining up on the side of parents (and Republicans standing there with a blank look saying “wud I miss?”) and the gap between the two widening.

    Siding with the NEA earns Obama a pat on the head from a special interest group and loses the black vote for the Democratic party. Siding with parents makes Obama that mythical “Education President” every president since Eisenhower has tried to be and hasn’t.

  2. Paul Hoss says:

    Education is clearly on Obama’s back burner, at least for the time being. He’s up to his eyeballs in health care, the economy, two wars, and soon, mid-term elections.

    I agree with Finn that it’s worth finally getting a dose of competition injected into our schools. Our market system seems to be laced with it but for some enigmatic reason competition has managed to remain conspicuously absent from our schools, save landing a job and college admissions.

    Wonder why that is and why it’s been that way for so long?

    I believe the absence of competition is one of the areas in need of reform in our schools. Working collaboratively makes for a “nice” environment but it hasn’t done much for our kids or our schools.

    It’s almost a page out of the communist manifesto…”workers of the world unite.” Unite? For what? So everyone can feel good? How about workers in our schools invent, discover, create, develop, etc.? And none of those must be done in a group.

    Yes, Edison, Bell, Einstein, etc., worked with others in their field but they were the drivers of their work, their creations. God knows what they would not have accomplished if they maintained an insistence on working collaboratively or had waited for everyone to have caught up with what they were attempting to do.

  3. Don Bemont says:

    Paul Hoss:

    When you talk about competition, that involves student versus student, teacher versus teacher, and school versus school. When you refer to college admissions, you are talking about student competition; when you talk about landing a job, I assume you are talking about teacher competition.

    As to student versus student competition, we have it, although I certainly have first hand experience with administrative types who try to undermine it. This competition is a reality, though — some will be winners and some will be losers… and, to an increasing extent, the students around the world can claim winner slots that were previously reserved for Americans. Trouble is, a huge swath of Americans have no intention of working at or focusing on schoolwork sufficiently to win. This may not be so clear to residents of upscale suburbs, and it may be caricatured as an African-American problem of the inner city, but from where I stand it appears widespread. Most of our rural high schoolers feel deeply put upon if asked to read, write, and listen for most of the school day — never mind homework — and their parents agree more often than not. Even more depressingly, when we get transfer students from other states, they are invariable worse off! Our students ARE engaged in competition, and they are losing.

    When you talk about teacher versus teacher competition, H.L. Mencken’s words come to mind: “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” You really, really do not want me competing with my department members. One of the few positive forces in education is the sharing of ideas and support, and that will dry up if teachers battle each other for a slice of the pie. Think it through: When I take time to help students with the misfortune to have the weak teacher up the hallway, I would be taking money away from the average teacher down the hallway — or, at least, that is the way the average teacher would see it. Not only that, but results have everything to do with the ability and cooperation of the students one gets to work with. So when the administrator comes up with some faddish resume builder, he or she can more efficiently distract everyone from education towards the new pet boondoggle: Cooperate, or next year you’ll mysteriously get all the kids who either come to school high or don’t come at all.

    School versus school competition initially sounded promising, but the early results are alarming, to say the least. Since standardized exam, graduation rates, and similar data have been published and compared, the level of dishonesty has skyrocketed. It would be the ultimate understatement to say that more effort now goes into making the results look good than into educating the students. “It’s the economy, stupid” has become “It’s the published results, stupid.” And since district administrators may not be here in a couple years, it means padding the graduation rate by passing students who did not even attend, even though this has the result of de-motivating future students in the near future.

    Could school versus school competition work if, rather than taking the form of publishing results, it took the form of increased parent choice of school? I am uncertain, but tend towards pessimism. Most parents will probably choose based on published results that are already fraudulent, even with no money at stake. Imagine the corruption, when schools are competing, for more than honor. (In my mind, I see a baseball game, where each team gets to hire its own umpires.) Of course, it could get worse, if we end up with chains of schools using slick advertising. 🙂

    That aside, I wonder about the limits of schools as competitive businesses. In business, the customer is never wrong. But schools must not be in a competition to always tell students they are right. Teachers are in a quasi-parental position in dealing with kids; if schools are competing with schools, I fear we are going to replicate the stereotypical divorce situation, where the parents compete to be the favorite, to the detriment of children.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    Don Bemont,

    I agree with a lot of what you say but

    1. “padding the graduation rate by passing students” who don’t deserve to pass is a lot older than just the past few years. In fact, my state now has exit exams for just that reason: lots of people were getting diplomas who could hardly read or write.

    2. Your fear that school competition will lead to widespread cheating and fraud by the schools says something very, very, very, very, very bad about the people who work in our schools. Since I’m one of them, I kind of resent it.

  5. Nice to see you’re doing business at the same, old stand Don.

    Consistency is one of those comforting virtues that those pleased with the current state of affairs like to promote. The problem for promoters of the status quo comes when the status quo obviously and incontestably isn’t producing the results it’s supposed to produce. That’s what’s driving the escalating pressure for alternatives to the district system. The tacit deal, that the experts will take care of the problem if they have enough in the way of resources and authority, is starting to break down.

    As it’s become gradually clearer that, far from taking care of business those edu-experts are seeing to their own concerns, the responsibility for ensuring that kids get a decent education has reverted to the parents. Faced with a system that’s indifferent to their needs those parents are empowering politicians who’ll change the system to suit their needs.

    That’s the audience you’re playing to Don and I don’t envy you your task.

    Whatever bogeymen you come up with to try to frighten parents to be satisfied with the current system the context is watching their children get a lousy education. Even worse, many of those parents realize that they were shortchanged by a lousy education system so your scaremongering about the evils of competition is measured not by your self-serving standard of a fairyland education system free from the bane of competition but the ugly reality of an education system free from the disciplining effects of competition.

    Of course the question isn’t what you or I see but what President Obama sees and what he’s capable, both politically and morally, of doing about it.

    So far he’s shown some degree of understanding that the current system is no longer adequate but that won’t be enough to effect the changes that are necessary. There’s no small irony in the man who seeks to more completely socialize the medical system being driven to de-socialize the education system.

  6. Paul Hoss says:

    Donny B.

    Through much of your above thesis I somehow had the impression we were both on the same page, although somewhat disconnected via certain hiccups. I think we both want what’s best for public education and especially the kids that attend our schools.

    My contention was simply intended to shatter the Lake Wobegon notion that our schools and our system of public education are performing splendidly, when we know they’re not. They’re broken and LONG overdue for an injection of reality. A major paradigm shift is in order.

    I feel competition can be a healthy solution to many of the ills present in our schools. Yes, I am a strong believer in charter schools as an attempt to initiate alternative public schools for experimentation that could then have the successful models duplicated in our regular public schools.

    Competition in the form of gaming test scores and graduation results could have serious negative consequences. Any attempts along these lines need constant monitoring and should be prosecuted when uncovered. However, these improprieties should not be the roadblock to what could be the introduction of the advantages of the free market being injected into our schools.

  7. Margo/Mom says:

    I would throw out that one of the dysfunctions of education is that many schools are neither competitive nor collaborative. Having spent a good bit of time in environments that were either highly competitive and a couple that excelled in collaboration, I would agree that many schools have left off competition, but don’t know how to be collaborative either.

    This leads to a lot of bemoaning and angst (why can’t we just get rid of the kids who are not doing well?). But, there is first a high level of resistance to actually exploring or adopting new or unfamiliar paths, and second a highly engrained survival skill of going into one’s own room and closing the door that work against developing any real knowledge of how collaboration might work. Teachers–particularly in the schools that are not doing well–are not collaborators. While the seniority system has stripped any notion of competing for the most favorable positions, it has also supported a sit back and wait attitude that separates individuals from any need to take part in bringing about change and improvement. Individuals assume that they will get their turn to be in charge some day. When they do, they receive no better cooperation from their former peers than they have given.

    And when it comes to implementing anything that resembles cooperative learning–well, you cannot teach what you do not know.


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