Even those critics who give President Obama failing grades on the economy, health care, and foreign policy should give him high marks for his bold and innovative stab at education reform.
That includes conservatives. Not just because chambers of commerce and other GOP-friendly business groups constantly complain about the mediocrity of our public schools and the less than stellar students they produce — students who later become middling job applicants. Not just because Obama’s emphasis on testing and accountability mirrors what President George W. Bush attempted with the No Child Left Behind Act. And not just because Obama’s initiative — dubbed “Race to the Top” — emphasizes competition by making states challenge each other for more than $4 billion in education money by adopting reform measures intended to tie teachers to the products they turn out, which is a big improvement over how we’ve done this for years, doling out the majority of funds to the states with the most political clout.
All that’s true. But Obama also deserves support because he’s making all the right enemies — educational bureaucrats, teachers unions, other defenders of the status quo, etc. And he’s doing it with public comments that are honest, refreshing, and insightful.
Obama seems to intuitively understand at least three things about the public school system: that it is plagued by low expectations — not just for students, but also for parents, schools, and whole communities; that too many educators and politicians treat public schools as if they exist for the benefit of the adults who teach there rather than the kids who are supposed to learn there; and that those intent on preserving the status quo in our schools will resist tooth and nail any attempt to hold them accountable by linking teachers to the performance of their students.
The president demonstrated that again this month with a powerful speech at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison, WI. He knows enough about education reform to know that he has to start by tearing down the “firewall laws” that exist in many states — thanks to the lobbying efforts of teachers unions — to prevent school districts from factoring in student performance when evaluating teachers.
“If you are committed to real change in the way you educate your children,” Obama told his audience, “if you’re willing to hold yourselves more accountable, and if you develop a strong plan to improve the quality of education in your state, then we’ll offer you a big grant to help you make that plan a reality.”
As hungry as public school teachers and administrators are for any source of additional funding, they hate it when there are strings attached that are meant to increase accountability. Since the invention of the blackboard, teachers have tried to blame parents for students’ academic shortcomings. And that tradition continues to this day.
Trust me. I’ve seen it up close. I taught for nearly five years in a poor farming town in Central California where most of the students were the children of Mexican farm workers. And I learned more there in the trenches about how schools work, and why some of them don’t work, than I did from taking graduate courses in education.
Of course, as Obama pointed out in his speech, improving public education isn’t just about producing better teachers and creating better schools. It’s also about getting students more engaged and parents more involved. Academic success is a three-legged stool. Teachers are right to object to the fact that they seem to get all the scrutiny.
But there’s a good reason for that. Parents and students aren’t on the public payroll. And, as long as teachers are, they have to be accountable to the public. Those who don’t want to accept that should start looking for another line of work — hopefully one where putting out mediocre products and constantly resisting efforts to improve your performance doesn’t produce such harmful consequences.
Meanwhile, Obama should keep plugging away. He’s on the right track, with the right strategy and the right agenda. He’ll get a lot more resistance from the left before he’s done. And that’s all the more reason that his critics on the right should be cheering him on. After all, he might just succeed at doing what they’ve attempted for years.