Obama won’t fix education in this country

Even though some people have accused me of being a blind Obama follower, I’m actually not that big a fan. I like him. He’s okay… for a politician. I really voted for Kucinich in the primaries, and if Clinton had won the primaries, I’d have voted for her for president. The truth is, with all the blue states and red states, and with all the polarization on abortion, immigration, taxation, health care, and the military; anyone who gets elected to the presidency has to be a liar and a politician. You can’t hold too tightly to your principles if you want to piss off as few people as possible.

Obama’s latest speech on education got me annoyed, though. And if that’s really his plan going forward, I don’t really see the American K-12 education system getting any better.

Because improving education is central to rebuilding our economy, we set aside over $4 billion in the Recovery Act to promote improvements in schools. This is one of the largest investments in education reform in American history. And rather than divvying it up and handing it out, we are letting states and school districts compete for it. That’s how we can incentivize excellence and spur reform and launch a race to the top in America’s public schools.

I see. So if Wall Street gets itself in trouble through excessive greed and unethical business practices, then they get a bailout. K-12 schools will get a measly (by comparison) $4 billion only if they can improve without the extra money? That’s ridiculous. With a few rare exceptions, the best schools in America are well-funded and the worst are under-funded. So withholding the money until the schools get better isn’t going to make them better.

Now I agree with what Obama said back in the debates with McCain that throwing money at schools doesn’t automatically make the schools better. Obviously. You can never just throw money at a problem to make it better. You have to carefully place the money instead of throwing it.

This is not about more tests. It’s not about teaching to the test. And it’s not about judging a teacher solely on the results of a single test.

It is about finally getting testing right, about developing thoughtful assessments that lead to better results; assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can use a pencil to fill in a bubble, but whether they possess basic knowledge and essential skills like problem-solving and creative thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship.

If you create a test that you’re judging the success or failure of a school on, you are necessarily creating a teach-to-the-test atmosphere. It’s like saying “I’m going to give raises to the employees who do what I say. But I don’t want you to do what I say. Just do your job.” If you say that as an employer, suddenly “your job” becomes “what I say.”

And good luck trying to create a standardized test that measures all that.

From the moment a student enters a school, the single most important factor in their success is the person in front of the classroom.

Really? So if I take the best teacher in the country, put her in front of a class of 30 students who have varying abilities (most of which on the low end), who all have behavioral or psychological problems, some of whom have learning disabilities of varying types; give that teacher no textbooks (or ones falling apart), no pencils, no computers, a room that’s constantly a mess; create a culture of low achievement and high grade inflation where every challenge to authority must be disciplined immediately or else the students will run amok—somehow that teacher is going to do better than a mediocre teacher with a class size of 14 students who all get outside tutoring, parental support, computers, textbooks, pencils, a clean building, a school culture of students being treated like responsible adults and, for the most part, living up to that expectation?

Nice try.

I’ve worked and taught in both of those environments, and I can tell you right now the mediocre teacher will get more done in class and her students will end up learning more by the end of the year, even if they’re in class for fewer hours.

Throw out your Dangerous Minds and Stand and Deliver DVDs and stop believing the myths. Having great teachers is great, but that isn’t the solution to our educational problems.

Success should be judged by results, and data is a powerful tool to determine results. We can’t ignore facts. We can’t ignore data. That’s why any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways if it wants to compete for a grant.

You should not link what you perceive to be student progress to evaluation of whether a teacher is a good teacher or not. One of the best teachers I ever had was my US history teacher. She taught me stuff that lasted through college and beyond. She taught me to think critically. She taught me about instititutional racism and about feminism. I got a B+ in her class sophomore year. I got a B in her class junior year. Then I took another history class senior year and got a B-. You can see where this is going. So how would Obama’s new test get that this teacher was amazing? It wouldn’t. In fact, it would look as if she was terrible, because my performance was going down.

Better standards. Better teaching. Better schools. Data-driven results. That’s what we will reward with our Race to the Top Fund.

I’m sorry, but your plan stinks, Mr. President. It’s well-intentioned but extremely misguided. You know nothing about how to fix education in this country. Have you taught in a public school before? Are your kids in one right now? Are your daughters in an underfunded public school? No? Why not? Because you know it isn’t just about having good teachers and results. You know that your daughters are getting a better education because their school provides smaller class sizes, adequate school supplies, a whole school culture where learning is valued, and proper support and rest for its teachers.

The worst part about your plan is that even if it works the way it’s supposed to, then a handful of schools and states will get more funding and better schools, and then the other states will get less funding and worse schools. Talk about the rich getting richer.

Do you want to know how you can fix education the easy way?

  • Have states evenly distribute funds to all schools within the state. Schools in rich suburbs should get no more funding than schools in urban areas.
  • Focus spending on reducing class sizes. Even without textbooks, even without computers, even without desks, even with learning differences, if I have only 10 or 12 students in my classroom as opposed to 30 or 40, I can operate more effectively just being a good, decent, or great teacher instead of having to be a superhuman teacher.
  • Give financial incentives to colleges and universities to reward high schools that do not inflate grades.

There. You’ve just leveled your playing field and saved yourself $4 billion.

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10 Comments

  1. ” From the moment a student enters a school, the single most important factor in their success is the person in front of the classroom.

    Really? So if I take the best teacher in the country, put her in front of a class of 30 students who have varying abilities (most of which on the low end), who all have behavioral or psychological problems, some of whom have learning disabilities of varying types; give that teacher no textbooks (or ones falling apart), no pencils, no computers, a room that’s constantly a mess; create a culture of low achievement and high grade inflation where every challenge to authority must be disciplined immediately or else the students will run amok—somehow that teacher is going to do better than a mediocre teacher with a class size of 14 students who all get outside tutoring, parental support, computers, textbooks, pencils, a clean building, a school culture of students being treated like responsible adults and, for the most part, living up to that expectation?”

    Well this seems a bit of an overreaction. He said it was the most important factor, not the only important factor.

    Other than that, pretty good stuff. My girlfriend is a teacher, so it’s something I’ve thought and talked a lot about as well.

    I like the idea of merit-based pay for teachers, because the amazing ones definitely do deserve to be recognized and rewarded over the crappy ones that don’t care. But I also recognize that that’s incredibly difficult to evaluate. Using something like standardized testing just leads to teaching to the test and/or cheating. If I were in the position to do something about it, I’d love to pitch the idea to the head of the NEA or whoever, make it clear that we aren’t going to implement something unfair, and ask for their help. Maybe crowdsource it to the teachers, the people on the front lines, and ask them what might be a fair way to be evaluated. I think we could come up with a way to do so that’s fair, it’s just not something that’s immediately obvious or easy.

  2. I think you’re giving Obama too much of the benefit of the doubt here. He didn’t say the teacher is the most important factor or one of the most important factors. He said it’s the single most important factor. And my point is that there isn’t a single most important factor. There are many important factors, and having a great teacher at the front of the room is only one of many of equal importance.

    I’m definitely against the pay-for-performance model. You can tell when a salesperson works on commission, and you also know the corporate culture can be toxic. If you tie performance to pay in education, then schools become more and more like corporations, and you take more of the goodness out of schools and put in more of a cutthroat culture.

    And that’s not even mentioning the difficulty in an outside institution (like the federal government) assessing which teachers perform better.

    Maybe crowdsource it to the teachers, the people on the front lines, and ask them what might be a fair way to be evaluated.

    I’d love that, actually. When I was a teacher, I thought it was lame that politicians listened to educational theorists and high-level administrators instead of actually talking to teachers and asking the teachers what’s needed to make things better.

  3. Eh, well I’m in the same boat as you in that Obama isn’t my ideal candidate, but I definitely felt he was the best of the two-person field we had to choose from in the election. So I’m not an unabashed supporter of everything he does either. That said, “single most important” is still “most important”. You can quibble with that and say you think, for example, that there are multiple things that are of equal importance, but I think I’d disagree with that. There are lots of important things that go into it, including all the stuff you mentioned, but if the teacher isn’t the most important thing in there, I don’t know what is. Still, I think it’s unfair to portray that as him saying it’s the only important thing.

    Even as the most important thing, though, that doesn’t mean you can throw everything else against them and still expect them to come out on top. Say all the factors are the same except the mediocre teacher from your example has a class of 15 students, and the great teacher has 25. Might the great teacher be able to overcome that and do a better job? Sure. Might they be able to overcome having a less well-equipped classroom? Definitely. Might they be able to overcome both of those at once? Maybe not. I dunno, I just don’t think that part of the speech was bad. I’d be much more inclined to get on him for negative feedback loop of poor schools don’t win as much funding, which means they do poorly, which means they don’t win as much funding, which means they do poorly, etc.

    As far as the merit-based pay, I’m absolutely with you on those concerns, which I why I present it with such a strong caveat. Maybe we can’t make it work in a way that isn’t damaging. I think we can, if we value the input of the people it will affect. But I guess it’s more fair to say I support it in the abstract, and I’d strongly support some sort of commission to work with the teachers and their unions to come up with something that would work, and work well. But I don’t know that it can be made to work without involving the teachers. Like I said, my girlfriend is a teacher. I’ve seen how it works, you don’t have to jump up to politicians. If you just jump up to the people one step above them making the curriculum, they’re so out of touch it’s ludicrous, and they don’t give a damn about getting input from the teachers who actually see the kids every single day. That’s just silly, to me.

  4. I’m pretty genuinely frightened about the US’s educational system, myself.

  5. We live in a country where we don’t have a choice who runs for president. So its no wonder we never get anything we want. Our “choice” in every election is between the bad choice and the terrible choice. The vast majority want better public schools and an end to the “No child left behind” disaster. But, the fact is, we aren’t going to get it.

    We also aren’t going to get free health care even though every other first world country has it. We didn’t see any second thoughts on corporate welfare bailouts. And we aren’t seeing an end to our wars and illegal prisons.

    Heck this congress is not even in favor gun control. Obama winning will have a wonderful impact on civil rights, but I’m afraid we won’t be getting much else from these “democrats”

    When your tired of choosing between the conservative party and the really conservative party, you should support Ralph Nader. He’s got a great blog: http://www.nader.org/

  6. relying on the government to fix anything is a very bad idea. usually when they are done we are worse off then when they begain.

  7. This may admittedly be “out of the box”, but that’s where we are heading anyway (thank goodness!), like it or not.

    Education is presently undergoing a paradigmatic change because humanity is, and that is why.

    What do I mean by that? Well, look around you and you will see … and it will register with you that, yes, it actually IS happening around you because YOU are the one willing it to be so.

    See where ICT is going with freeware and community building? See how fed-up you are getting with hollow politics, shaky economics, ineffective law and order and bad, really bad schooling that we dare call “education”?

    Planetary resources are going to hell, the great poor-rich divide is getting bigger and … Well, it’s all changing, thanks to you and your precious neighbor – all of them.

    You may presently only be vaguely aware of it, but you can consciously assist the change and be of even greater help.

    Just look at whatever your eye catches again, and then over gain until you see budding life there. Right there. And soon you will begin to see it everywhere. Yes, and within you. Specifically within you for that is where Life originates.

    I thank and salute you for your most unique and valuable contribution to get us all out of the box – the cold casket of despondency.

  8. “When your tired of choosing between the conservative party and the really conservative party, you should support Ralph Nader. He’s got a great blog: http://www.nader.org/

    Well unfortunately, this isn’t the answer. Not least because it’s just never going to happen. What we really need is election reform. Getting rid of the Electoral College is the big, obvious one. But I’d also love to see us implement something like Condorcet Voting. If we’re convinced that people are too stupid/lazy for that (hint: they’re not, actually, but it’s an easy argument to make) I’d be perfectly happy with Approval Voting. It’s not perfect, but it’s a fine alternative, and leagues better than what we have now. Then there wouldn’t be a need for silly primaries, where candidates have to tack to the left or right, depending on their party, followed by an immediate dive back to the center for the general election. We’d be able to plausibly choose between more than two people, and do so without potentially throwing the election to a less desirable option because you wanted to vote third party (e.g. Nader in 2000, Perot in ’92 and ’96).

  9. Loved this post. I, too, am very concerned about our education in America. I have been out of High School only a short time, and remember very vividly many of the problems that aren’t being dealt with. It breaks my heart, because kids are our future. If we can’t educate them…well, we don’t really have much hope, do we?

    Blessings,
    Emily

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