Tag Archives: education reform.

PASS THE REMOTE: OBAMA AND EDUCATION

10 Feb

Let’s go back in time. It’s 1971,  young Barack Obama has just moved back to his native Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents, Madelyn (“Toot”) and Stanley Dunham. Barack has just completed 4th grade in Indonesia and has left his mother   and half-sister behind in Jakarta. “It was time for me to attend an American school.” ( Dreams from My Father, p.54).

Emerson said, “There is properly no history; only biography.” What happened next is one of those seemingly innocuous personal decisions that reverberates  down through the ages. Passing up the local  Honolulu public school system, Barack uses “Gramps'” connections to cut the long waiting list  and enrolls in the posh,  private Punahou Academy , a renowned “incubator for island elites.”  Toot’s salary ( she was a bank vice president) and a partial scholarship keep him there thru high school.

So, with regard to this pivotal moment: what exactly was gained and what was lost? What was gained was that Obama blossomed academically in the rarified atmosphere of Punahou and  he parlayed that performance into a dazzling  academic record… climaxing in his now famous stint as first-ever African American editor of the Harvard Law Review…arguably that most prestigious of institutions’ most prestigious honor. The rest… as they say …is history.

That’s what we *gained*; what we lost was the chance to have, as President of the United States  — and  chief architect of federal education policy — someone with  first-hand knowledge of American public education.  The absence of first-hand knowledge is not insignificant. It runs to the very core of what has come to be known as the  modern “school reform” movement and it drives  teachers crazy. Why, exactly, are teachers so…. I’ll clean this up a little; it’s for general consumption…”irate”? Well, for a lot of reasons, really, but mainly because their harshest critics ( self-styled school “reformers”) do not know what they are talking about. I mean that quite literally.

We begin with the  “Race to the Top” president.  Race to the Top, for the uninitiated , is the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s  education agenda. It is also is corporate school “reform” on industrial-strength steroids. Its chief aim is to “incentivize”  —  one has to appreciate the euphemisms — the states to adopt those public ed  measures that had been   most doggedly pushed by the political hard -right ( in this case a  not-so-loose coalition of “socially conscious” billionaires ,Republican politicians,  and incredibly well- endowed right-wing think tanks) before and during the presidency of George W. Bush. The most noxious of these is  the practice of  ranking schools and teachers on the basis of students’ results on standardized state testing. RTTP says, “Scores go up, or *else*.”  “Else” is  —- complicated legalisms and   educratic jargon writ simple  —  school closings, privatization  and teacher firings.  This is known as “high stakes testing”.

People in the trenches…. there are exceptions but not many…. will tell you that this does not work and in fact  *exacerbates* all pre-existing forms of  school dysfunction and corruption. People remote from the situation,  especially. the high command of the school “reform” movement,  don’t  want to hear this. Or see it. So they don’t.

And you can’t get much more remote from a  situation than the leaders of the modern school “reform” movement are from public education . The president, for example, is “batting a thousand” in this regard. Not only did he reach adulthood without having ever set foot in an American public school, he made certain that his own kids escaped that hideous  fate as well. ( Until 2009, both Obama girls attended the private and exclusive  University of Chicago Lab School ; in DC they are tucked away at Sidwell Friends,  along with their peers, the  children of the Washington political and economic  elite.) But the president is far from alone. Last year in the New York Times (4/17/11) , Michael Winerip  rummaged thru the bios of  a dozen or so of the nation’s most prominent , self-styled school “reform”  experts,   none of whom whom had  ever set foot —not as student , not as teacher;  not  as consumer, not as provider  —  in  a single public school classroom.   Most of the big names were there,  along with their alma maters: Rhee, Duncan, Gates. (Respectively:  Maumee Country Day- Toledo, U of Chicago Lab School, Lakeside School- Seattle.) The wonderfully incongruous former New York City Schools Chancellor, Cathie Black.  ( Aquinas Dominican –  Chicago).   David Levin  ( Riverdale Country -NYC),  CEO of the nation’s largest charter school chain: KIPP. ( Yup. They’re now coming in “chains”; just like Pizza Hut or Banana Republic.) And so on.  I started to notice  this weird correlation myself  about 5 years ago when school “reform” was  still basically the  exclusive proving grounds of the aforementioned billionaires,   conservative pols  and  incredibly well-endowed right-wing think tanks.

Then Obama was elected and something strange happened. Emboldened by the lofty, cliche-filled  pronouncements of the president and his new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan ,  more than a few liberals tiptoed from the shadows to noisily endorse the goals and means of corporate school “reform”.  But it always seem to be a particular *variety* of liberal: one with limited  personal exposure to the issue at hand.  I don’t mean to suggest  they didn’t know “much”. I mean  to suggest that they didn’t know *anything*.  Experientially, that is. First-hand.  Sure, they may have read an article or three.  They may even have given the matter some serious thought; perhaps even discussed it a little ( with each other, no doubt.) But they, themselves, had never attended  a public school . Their children had never attended one. None of them ever taught. Yet, as if by remote control,  these folks drove the  media “discussion.”  How they came to imagine themselves as *expert* I do not know.

 It got to the point where I’d play a little game with myself. I’d read an article about a Davis Guggenheim ( director  of Waiting for Superman, the cinematic magnum opus of “the movement”), for instance; or a column on ed “reform”  by Newsweek’s   Jonathan Alter. Then I’d  try to guess what  fancy prep school they had  attended, before looking it up on Wikipedia. (Sidwell Friends and Phillips Andover, in these two instances.)  Truth be told, I often  failed to  correctly match the specific prep school with the  corresponding school “reform”  advocate; that’s *hard*.  But I found amazingly  few public school graduates among the ranks of “reformers”. ( Try it yourself.)

 It’s no longer   completely  clear how *fixed* the president’s ideas are on this issue. He’s begun to drop a few hints that, for example,  maybe….  just maybe….. high-stakes testing is not  quite  the panacea that the “reform” movement has heretofore claimed it to be.  If so, he is on the right track.  But he must not stop there.  There is more – much more —  to be discovered. However, he remains in need of  skilled guidance and sage advice. As near as can be determined, Secretary Duncan is his  chief supplier in this regard . But  the bright and articulate Mr. Duncan, perhaps America’s single most important  school “reformer”,  is neither skilled nor sage.  A political creature of the Chicago Democratic machine, his defenders  bristle at the suggestion that he lacks gravitas; credentials; *experience*.  It is true, they acknowledge , that  he has never been  a teacher or school administrator;  it is also true, he attended expensive private schools exclusively. But they point  to his mother’s service as the director of an inner city Chicago tutoring service as evidence that the secretary has the right stuff. But that’s not much to point to. My  own mom was a legal secretary in Mount Vernon, NY for 20 years. I do not… on this basis… expect a call from the president informing me that I’ve been nominated to the Supreme Court.

It seems likely that Mr. Obama is headed for a second term. Having glanced more than once at the Republican presidential debates, I expect , for that reason, to  heave a sigh of relief on election night when the votes are counted. But no ” dancing in the street “or “shouting from the roof tops”  this time around.   For me… and I dare say for most people familiar with how public education actually  works… four years  of  contending  with the consequences of  know-nothing, “bi-partisan”, school “reform”  nonsense coming out of the United States Department of Education has dampened my enthusiasm.    Just a sigh of relief that it could actually  have gotten worse.   At one point in American history, it was expected that  — at the conclusion of a reelected president’s first term —  each member of the cabinet would  submit his/her resignation .  The president at that point could  ritually refuse the resignation . This implied that  he felt that he and the nation had been well served by that particular cabinet officer.  Or,  he could gracefully change course from a particularly disastrous policy by accepting it .

What a great tradition.

( A version of this piece ran in THE RIVERDALE PRESS, April 11th, 2012.)