Obama tackles America’s real number one issue

Almost 50 days into his administration President Obama made his way around to what strikes me as America’s #1 long-term issue, education. The soundbite is pretty catchy: he wants to overhaul the system “from the cradle up through a career.”

A compelling sentiment, that is. Our educational system couldn’t be much more broken, and a righteous keelhauling overhauling is certainly in order. But the rhetoric doesn’t tell us a lot. For instance:

“We have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us,” Obama said in an address to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “The time for finger-pointing is over. The time for holding ourselves accountable is here.”

“The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy and unacceptable for our children, and we cannot afford to let it continue,” he said.

Great speechwriting, but two people who disagree violently on every point from root causes to optimal solutions might find themselves standing and cheering wildly and slapping each other on the back at these words.

So, as best we can tell, what does Mr. President actually plan to do? Let’s go line by line.

The president outlined a five-tier reform plan, starting with increased investments in early childhood initiatives.

Obama noted that the recently passed $787 billion stimulus plan includes an additional $5 billion for Head Start, a program to help low-income families.

He highlighted a proposal to offer 55,000 first-time parents “regular visits from trained nurses to help make sure their children are healthy and prepare them for school and life.”

He also pledged to boost federal support in the form of “Early Learning Challenge” grants to states that develop plans to strengthen early education programs.

Excellent. As I noted earlier this week, we need to “invest heavily in early childhood reading programs, because nothing better energizes subsequent, lifelong learning.”I was taught to read when I was four and by the first day of first grade I was reading at the 4th grade level, or better. I never looked back. The only real problem is that since all the other kids hadn’t had this advantage, I spent most of my school years bored out of my skull. But the basic fact is that thanks to my early reading education, everything – everything – came easier to me. The same is true across the board. Invest in early reading and you’re strengthening every link in the educational chain for each and every affected student.

It’s a shame that early childhood health has to be addressed by a special program, and an even bigger shame that Republicans will oppose it as “socialism,” but yes, this seems like a good idea, too.

Second, Obama called for an end to “what has become a race to the bottom in our schools” through lower testing standards. Echoing former President Bush’s call to end “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” Obama said states needed to stop “low-balling expectations” for students.

Few good things ever begin with “Echoing former President Bush.” But it’s not clear whether Obama was echoing Dubya or whether the CNN reporter hung that albatross around his neck. So let’s proceed … carefully.

“The solution to low test scores is not lower standards; it’s tougher, clearer standards,” he argued.

Those two guys who hate each other are applauding and high-fiving again.

At the same time, however, he urged states to develop standards “that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity.”

Okay, now I’m on my feet cheering and high-fiving. Problem-solving? Critical thinking? Are there really more essential skills out there? Are there more neglected skills?

To help promote this goal, Obama said he would push for funding in the No Child Left Behind law to be more effectively tied to results. The Education Department, he said, would “back up this commitment to higher standards with a fund to invest in innovation in our school districts.”

Errr, wait a goddamned minute. No Child Left Behind, the worst atrocity that’s been visited on American education in my lifetime? No Child Left Untested, the hellspawn of the “Texas Miracle”? The single biggest reason why we abandoned critical thinking and problem solving in the first place? Because the cure for the plague is more plague?

And what the hell does NCLB have to do with innovation, anyway? No, folks,this is not promising.

What next?

Obama’s third tier focused on teacher training and recruitment. He noted that federal dollars had been set aside in the stimulus plan to help prevent teacher layoffs. He also reiterated a promise to support merit pay, as well as extra pay for math and science teachers with the goal of ending a shortage in both of those subjects.

At the same time, however, the president warned that ineffective teachers should not be allowed to remain on the job.

“If a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching,” he said. “I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.”

Here Obama is paying cheap lip-service to the opponents of public education (and in the process insulting the rest of us). No, none of us are in favor of bad teachers. No, none of us are getting excited about the prospect of a system that aggressively seeks to provide tenure for half-trained monkeys.

In short, this is, as worded, a non-issue. The why is simple. As I explained in December of 2007, education is like most other professions: you get what you pay for. The rhetorical double-dealing and intellectual dishonesty from the Right on this issue is knee-buckling. On the one hand, we need vouchers and and privatization so that the king-hell majesty of the marketplace can solve the problem of government-induced mediocrity. On the other, we don’t believe that the basic laws of economics apply to the task of attracting good teachers.

So in the interest of helping Mr. President and the assembled crowd at Corruptapalooza to which he’s pandering, let’s revisit Econ 101 for a second: when you raise compensation, you attract better talent. Pay teachers what they deserve – something that approaches fair compensation for the service they provide – and you’ll find that the scourge of welfare queens from Detroit unqualified teachers begins to magically cure itself as highly qualified people who opted for jobs they could make a living at opt back into the thing they really want to do, forcing the less qualified types to seek employment elsewhere.

This isn’t to suggest that we don’t have fantastic teachers today – we do, by the boatload. But these are people who are willing to make some sacrifices that other talented people aren’t, and we’ll never get our system where it needs to be – no matter what kind of system we implement – until we can get the words “teacher” and “sacrifice” a little better separated.

Fourth, Obama called for the promotion of educational “innovation and excellence” by renewing his campaign pledge to support charter schools. He called on states to lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools.


Okay, I know that data vary from place to place, and I’m the last guy to hang his hat on standardized testing results, at least as they’re currently configured. But nationally, charters lag behind by a significant margin. So let’s put it this way. At best, there’s hardly enough data to make charter schools a significant component of your plan.

So that’s discouraging.

He also urged a longer school calendar.

“I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas,” Obama said. “But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom.”

This I like. The nine-month calendar made more sense in an agrarian society, perhaps, but these days there’s a lot to be said for making learning a year-round endeavor.

Obama’s final reform initiative focused on higher education. Among other things, the president promised to boost college access by raising the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,550 a year and indexing it above inflation. He also promised to push for a $2,500 a year tuition tax credit for students from working families.

Half-measures. It’s like the house is on fire so let’s toss a glass of water on it.

We need to get serious about assuring a comprehensive, appropriate education for all citizens. This doesn’t necessarily mean a four-year college, but it does mean making sure that our brightest and best aren’t saddled with six-figure debt that they’ll never get paid off. This, to me, looks like a plan for reducing six-figure debt to a high five-figure debt. Which is to say, you’re pointed in the right direction, now walk it like you mean it.

In promoting his program, the president called for an end to the “partisanship and petty bickering” that many observers believe has typically defined education policy debates in the past.

I suppose one way of minimizing partisan backlash is to give the other side what it wants right up front.

Okay, maybe I’m being unduly bitchy in spots here. While there are things not to like in what Obama appears to be proposing, it also must be said that it’s far better than what we’ve seen from any other president this century.

So fingers crossed. Rest assured, Mr. President, we’ll be watching, and we’ll be doing so with some of those critical thinking skills you touted so highly in making your announcement.


  • I agree that a three month break is too long, and it is an outmoded relic of a more agrarian society. However, pushing students too much can be an over correction because they still need time to just be kids. (I say this as one who’s seen kids turned into learning machines…in a nation that tends to pound us in test scores.)

    The total time off from school is not, imo, the problem. That time could be broken into multiple chunks and distributed throughout the year.

    But i’m with ya, Sam, i spend a lot of time wondering how much of what i hear is rhetoric, and where/when/for what Mr. Obama is willing to go to the mat.

    I also wonder how we can improve education without addressing the fundamental issue of making education valued throughout society. And i mean truly valued, not just wanting to see improved test scores. Critical thinking, problem solving, et. al. need to be held in high esteem throughout society if they are to be instilled in students, but how can that be without instilling those ways in students?

  • Sam wrote:

    Errr, wait a goddamned minute. No Child Left Behind, the worst atrocity that’s been visited on American education in my lifetime? No Child Left Untested, the hellspawn of the “Texas Miracle”? The single biggest reason why we abandoned critical thinking and problem solving in the first place? Because the cure for the plague is more plague?

    Say it ain’t say, O. The endless onslaught of homework combined with standardized testing is killing whatever interest my seventh-grade son has in learning. Despite being learning delayed, he’s an excellent reader, but won’t read on his free time (what little there is of it). Worse, he’s lost whatever inclination he might have had to pursue the numerous subjects that pique his interest.

    What people who adhere to this kind of rote program also fail to realize is the stress it places on the kid and the whole household. We spend so much time not only trying to help him study but keep his spirits and motivation up.

  • The Number One issue is actually the corporate monopoly of the media. Until that is fixed, no other reforms will be possible.

  • Well, thank goodness someone knows everything.

  • Obama knows that all education in the United States was undermined by Brown v. Board of Education. Complete abandonment of the public schools to the teachers unions, who are always being paid me to teach less. So the remedy is Constitutional Amendment to strike down Brown v. Board of Education and Federal Law that disallows any form of union in education, whether public or private.

  • Both Lex and Russ identified the value and role the family plays in supporting a student’s education. The key isn’t the parents that pay attention – it’s the one’s that don’t. I’m not sure any amount of educational restructuring is going to fix those folks, and sadly the students pay.

    A couple of points to note – if we go to a year-round school year we need to improve the availability of affordable daycare for working families. I also think a bias exists towards 4 year college as the best educational route. Make no mistake – we need lots of people with degrees to fuel forward motion, but we need trade and vocational education just as badly in our nation right now. We lack the folks to execute all that infrastructure work we just funded.

    My point is we need to value that education as well. Everyone’s education makes a contribution to the success of the nation.

  • “Cradle to Career”. Not long enough. “Cradle Through Retirement”. Until we can make teenagers understand that a fulfilling retirement is the “Crown of Acheivement” upon the entirety of our lives, all we will do is enforce the “greed is good, get as rich as you can” mantra of the Republicans–which incidentally adds to cheating, chicanery, bribery, corruption and a total loss of wisdom. But why bother with WISDOM when all of us are going to die eventually anyway, huh? Think about it. Think. It ain’t illegal yet…or is it?

  • Good point, Ron. My grandfather has always said, “Find a fulfilling hobby while you’re young, or you’ll end up like all the old men I know who spend their retirement bored to death, with nothing to do when they can’t golf except watch TV.”

  • Well said Dawn.

  • Sam,

    Actually the charter school thing is interesting. the main reason charter schools lag on a whole is that the majority of them are for “problem students” and as such they have overall poorer scores than a standard school, from which most of their students have been shown the door. the charter schools for standard students and the ones for exceptional students both habitually come in better that the standard public school but they are in the minority currently and so the OVERALL AVERAGE is abysmal.

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