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.