Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Barack Obama and Colin Powell on education

Yesterday, President Obama gave a major speech on education policy. So far, I like him a lot. Who knows whether or not he will have a successful presidency, but he seems to have the potential for greatness. His plan to improve education in America, however, does not inspire me.

It's not that I'm disappointed by the things Obama is proposing; it's exactly what I would expect from a good politician who does not really understand what happens in a classroom. It's not that I think the things he is proposing are necessarily bad things. I just don't think any of them are going to significantly improve education in America.

President Obama is endorsing merit pay, that's not a bad thing, but I think it is greatly overrated by its proponents. It might help a little, and I am all for doing whatever it takes to make sure we keep our best teachers, regardless of seniority, and get rid of our worst ones. There are some occupations that react more to pay than others, however. It is all important to many people in sales and business, but teachers react to it less than almost anyone. Speaking for myself, I do care what I get paid, but the time and effort I put into my job are not based on it at all.

America's teachers are often portrayed by our media and elites as being incompetent. This is unfair. There are some lousy teachers out there--no one can deny that--and we should get rid of them. But much of the so-called "bad teaching" is being done by teachers who have been put into impossible classroom situations. Once in a blue moon you might find an incredible teacher who can go into one of those classrooms and turn things around. Those teachers, however, are very rare. If anyone thinks that enough of them can be found to turn around those impossible classroom situations in large cities throughout the nation, they are dreaming. Something has to be done about those classroom situations, and Obama's policies don't.

Much is being made of President Obama's endorsement of charter schools. Once again, some good might come of that. There are some good charter schools, and some good ideas have come from them. The fact is, however, that the great majority of kids in our country attend public schools, and that is not going to change in the foreseeable future. The greatest benefit that I can see from charter schools is that is allows parents who care about education to move their kids into classrooms with other kids whose parents also care about education. That does absolutely nothing for the kids who are left behind, however, and it might make their situation even worse.

On the same day that President Obama gave his education speech, CNN ran an interview with Colin Powell. The former general and secretary of state addressed the real problems in American education by directing his remarks to students and parents. He said American students need to start attending classes regularly, listen to their teachers, mind their manners, and perform. He basically told parents that they need to stop accepting their kids' excuses and demand that they work hard in school. Barack Obama has said things like this in the past, and it is music to any teacher's ears.

As wonderful as it is to hear words like these from prominent people in our country, it won't do very much unless it is somehow converted into policy. That means that teachers and schools have to be able to demand that students behavior and effort are in line with Colin Powell's words. And it's not just a matter of saying, "We demand it!" or "We have high expectations for you!" It's wonderful for a president and a former secretary of state to urge students to toe the line, but what if they don't? Are we going to do anything about it? Because if we don't, education in America will never improve very much.

In the late 1960s the Supreme Court ruled that education is a property right that cannot be taken away from students without due process of law. In the early 1970s they ruled that a school official could be sued if some judge decided that his attempt at discipline deprived a student of that right, regardless of how obnoxious the student's behavior was. That began a deterioration in the behavior of students in public schools, and test scores have remained flat ever since, despite all of the "innovative" programs that have been tried. That is the problem, and that is what needs to be addressed.

So to policy makers, I would say this. If you want to make a little bit of difference, and if you want to look like you're doing something, go ahead--throw in your merit pay, make the school day longer, make the school year longer, and encourage more charter schools and other kinds of choice. None of that will make a very big difference, but you'll look like a real reformer, and you can pretend you're doing something significant. But if you really want to improve education in America, you'll have to do something so that those "high expectations" you want schools and teachers to have will be something more than just words.


Blogger Luke said...

Personal motivation and parental involvement--which, from what I hear, impacts personal motivation--is far, far more important than time spent in class.

And you make some great points about how teacher's hands are tied when it comes to disciplining students. That is certainly a problem.


3/12/2009 7:03 AM  
Blogger mazenko said...


That's about as accurate and effective of an analysis as I've seen yet about the speech. Hopefully, CNN/Fox will pick up your words and run them along with Obama's. You hit nearly every key point about the holes in Obama's rhetoric. The one you left alone is Obama's plan to lengthen the school day, year, and system, with all kids doing at least one year of post-high school study. These are examples of the flawed "more-is-better" approach, and we all know what a waste of time, money, and resources that can be.

It all depends on application, as many programs in struggling schools that extend instruction have positive effects. Of course, it's all about the kids and parents in those cases. I'd still like to see a rational attempt at graduation at sixteen with trade school or associate degrees to follow.

3/12/2009 12:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"President Obama .... So far, I like him a lot."

What is it that you like?

The series of tax cheat nominees to the cabinet?

The signed earmarks that he said he wouldn't sign?

The lobbyists in his cabinet that he said wouldn't be there?

The slights made against our best ally, Britain?

The plan to spend more money in one term than has been spent in the last century?

The plan to remove the secret ballot from unionization decisions?

The federal funding of abortions abroad and the killing of human embryos for medical research at home?

Which of these things give him "the potential for greatness"?

3/12/2009 1:58 PM  
Blogger mazenko said...

Wow, Anonymous. Don't hold back on your conservative bias there. Let us know how you really feel.

Most people - predominantly the moderates who got him elected - like the rational pragmatism with which he is approaching the greatest crisis in thirty years. That was what made both Reagan and Clinton effective, and it is what will lead to Obama's success, if he is successful in his endeavors.

Perhaps the truest sign of a leader is one who leads with vision and conviction when no one else will. That characterizes Obama, in contrast to his opposition who have no specific plans to address the crisis. The more pragmatic conservative critics like David Brooks and David Frum are calling their party out on a failed playbook that was last relevant thirty years ago.

Thus, the potential for greatness is "he that can keep his head while around him are losing theirs." While criticism is legitimate, the issues on which you focus are considered petty by most. The lobbyist/earmark/tax cheat criticisms are soundbites at best. The British "slight" is an illusion, for which you might try getting your news from credible sources on England such as the BBC. The spending criticism - comparing to times in history - is actually irrelevant, as spending across one hundred years isn't a valid comparison (percentages might matter - sheer numbers don't). And the federal funding of stem cell research (not of abortion) is an ideological slam which puts you at odds with the American people and on the wrong side of history and science. I'm with you on card check, though Obama is not against you on that one, and its not his "secret agenda."

None of those "things" give Obama potential for greatness. Judges of greatness in a president are not so myopic and ideological. The economy and the nation's issues are far more vast, and Obama will be judged comprehensively, not on whether you think embyros which were already created and will never be viable should be "thrown away" or donated to science.

3/12/2009 2:17 PM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

Well, I for one believe that human beings are to be created in the marriage bed alone, and I'm just as American as anyone else. Though I must say I dislike anonymous comments usually because I at least like talking with someone with a pseudonym.


The topic at hand.

I'm concerned this bunch of "stimulus money" that our great-grandkids will be paying for will be used to eventually coerce homeschoolers and other private educators to test according to some national standard.

Dennis, you're absolutely right that public school isn't going anywhere any time soon. It's funded by the public and therefore ought to be accountable to it.

But hearing these rumblings in the distance about "accountability" and "national standards" makes me want to start stockpiling weapons and putting some more canned goods into the bunker. :]

Seriously? I hope that lawmakers are more open to e-classes, vocational classes and gifted/AP classes. I can tell you that gifted/AP is the only reason Patrick didn't opt to drop out and/or homeschool.

3/12/2009 4:33 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I agree with Michael on just about everything, but he is much more articulate than I am.

The thing I like most about President Obama is his effort to break through the partisanship that I think has become so harmful to this nation. Rush Limbaugh's desire to see the failure of a president when that failure will mean misery for millions of people is the ugliest example of that, but there are many other examples on both sides. I think Obama has the potential for greatness because he has become president during very troubled times, and he has the charisma to inspire people that we haven't seen since Ronald Reagan.

The only thing that I might differ with Michael on is that he compares our situation now to the 1970s and 1980s, but I'm afraid that this situation is worse than that.

3/13/2009 4:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hear, hear, Daniel!

Mazenko, I'd like to question you on several matters regarding your response to my last post. However, I'll start from the beginning.

1) Why, instead of simply addressing my questions did you try to dismiss them with your pejorative use of the label "conservative"?

2) Why are my unfavorable opinions of Obama "bias" while your favorable opinions of him are not?

3/13/2009 3:21 PM  
Anonymous terra said...

re: charter schools.
I'm unclear on a couple of your points. You seem to identify them as other than public schools. My understanding is that they are indeed public schools, members of local school districts, tuition free, and accountable to all the same state requirements in the areas of teacher qualifications and student testing and standards as all other public schools are. Charter schools just have a legally agreed upon right to approach fulfilling those standards in their own way; if students can't pass tests, charter schools are in just as much trouble as standard public schools. The only limit the typical charter school can place on enrollment is based on capacity, ie. how many kids there is room for. Weeding out undesirables can't happen like it can at private schools. As for the kids who are "left behind" at the standard public school: well, aren't they at least benefiting from reduced class size?

3/15/2009 6:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the author on nearly evey point, except the first. Sure, Obama wants to change the nation, and I truly believe America will be unrecognizable in the near future if he succeeds. That's not a good thing folks!! He isn't returning to America's founding values--what truly made America great. He's taking us in the opposite direction--and quickly! Other countries can see what's happening to us, so why can't we? The man can read a teleprompter quite well, but listen to what he really says, for heaven sakes, and not just the way he says it.

As far as education goes, I work in a public school and see what goes on every day. The author is right. Teachers are so busy dealing with bad behavior they can't teach effectively. Guess what--legislation is to blame for this. The more we legislate, the worse things get.

My concern is that the Obama administration will remove parental choice for education--namely by making it difficult or impossible to homeschool or enroll in private schools where the government doesn't intervene. He speaks of expanding charter schools as if that's some god-send, but he wants the same standards in them as in the public schools, so what's the difference?

Let's face it--the government messes up everything it touches, and I'm absolutely positive Obama will be no exception!


3/27/2009 7:44 AM  
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