Post 8: The Non-Debate: Obama and Romney on Schools

Thursday, October, 4, 12 § 1 Comment

Unclear who won last night’s presidential debate–Romney seemed better on style and presence, Obama on content–but it’s clear who lost: public education.

Yes, it’s good that public education at least made it on stage, which often it does not. But there was little for the candidates to argue over because they seem to have the same philosophical platform when it comes to schools, which we could reduce to three major points:

1) The primary job of our nation’s public schools is to train the future workforce.

Both Romney and Obama talked about better schools as one key to growing our nation’s economy. Obama mentioned his push to expand community college programs and his recent announcement to hire 100,000 new math and science teachers as specific measures to create a more educated, competitive workforce.

I don’t disagree that one of the primary goals of school should be to prepare children to be economically contributive. It makes sense that the candidates would focus on that goal last night, as the debate was focused on the economy. But it’s a reductionist view of schooling.

A century ago, John Dewey and the progressive educators suggested that schools ought to have three primary goals: preparing children for the workforce, instilling a sense of responsibility to the community (democratic values), and developing a child’s individual talents and gifts. A school that only focuses on getting children ready to be workers is not only incomplete, in my mind, it is also dangerous. If we empower children with skills and knowledge so that they are ready to join the workforce, but do not help them understand how their actions influence others, we end up with very clever people who may or may not be ethically sound. We end up with people like Bernie Madoff, adults who have all the skills in the world but lack the ethical compass to exercise those skills in a responsible manner.

Likewise, if our schools forget that children are not merely future workers, but also individual human beings, each endowed with a world of potential, we strip our nation of its most powerful resource: its inventiveness. Schools are not job training centers. Job training centers are job training centers. Schools are places where people must be given time, space and inspiration to dream, to create, to discover what they have to offer the world, in and outside of the economic market.

2) Schools need to be more standardized, and teachers held more accountable for student growth.

Obama talked proudly about his Race to the Top program, which is pushing standardized curricula and teacher performance plans, like the one that became a flash point in the recent teacher’s strike in Chicago. Romney made a statement about “great teachers making great schools,” which is code for “crummy teachers make crummy schools.” Both candidates are interested in coming up with better, more scientific ways of measuring teacher performance, so that they can identify good teachers and “get rid” of the bad.

This idea stands on the same faulty premise as the disastrous “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation, which has quietly been flushed away in state after state. NCLB set admirably high goals for student achievement, but did not provide the resources to help schools reach this achievement. Obama and Romney’s new teacher evaluation push sets high goals for teacher performance, but does not offer the resources necessary for teacher performance to improve. Neither candidate spoke about improving teacher education, reducing classroom size, setting up mentor programs for new teachers, raising teacher pay, or complementing teacher’s work with a proper support staff of health workers, counselors and social service workers for parents, which is probably the only way we’ll see teacher performance improve significantly. It’s like me telling my 10th grade students that they must be able to write a 10 page research paper by Thanksgiving, but then not giving them feedback, proper class time, sample essays, or mini-lessons on writing when they come to class.

What needs to be standardized at our schools is not the curriculum, but the conditions under which teaching and learning must happen. Improved results–even on standardized tests–will follow.

3) Families and children should be able to choose which school they attend.

Romney came out strongly in support of vouchers. Obama’s Race to the Top program encourages the formation of charter schools. I don’t like vouchers, which is an idea even most Republicans have given up on. I do like charters, especially when they are formed by teachers and aimed at meeting a population the district schools have been unable to serve. But the fact of the matter is, the vast majority of children in this country go to the nearest public school. And it’s the government’s job to make those public schools the best they can. Grading schools, shutting down schools, allowing children to transfer to whatever school they want may make the lives of a few children better, but is not a systemic solution to improving education for all children.

If a school is failing, then the government needs to step in to figure out why it’s failing, and work with the people who run the school, as well as with the children and families, to understand why the school is failing, and then turn it around. This is not done by humiliating the school with a low score, or firing its staff, but by investing time, money and resources.

Last night’s debate reminded me what I’ve long thought about true school reform: it’s not going to start in Washington DC. It’s probably not even going to start with the local superintendent or school board. Creating schools that are more humanistic, schools in which children learn about themselves and others as well as academic skills, schools that are properly supported–none of it will come about through political action in Congress, but through a slowly spreading grassroots movement, a ever louder call for a different approach to the ways we help our children learn.

Seth Biderman | October 4, 2012


§ One Response to Post 8: The Non-Debate: Obama and Romney on Schools

  • Nanda says:

    I think the candidates cite the wrong goals, as you write in your essay. I think John Gatto said long ago we need to teach to passions, and not prepare people for the workforce in some of the old ways the schools have operated for years. We need to prepare children for the world through themselves and not through a system.

    We meet anything best through our uniqueness, whether it be Anthony and the Johnsons’ singing or some person who decides to set up a library in a quonset hut in the Gila Wilderness. Often people sense this; they can respond to uniqueness.

    Throughout history, whether it be Gandhi, or Buck working with horses (there is a documentary about Buck), or Howard Zinn writing the People’s History of the United States, these acts of uniqueness unfold perceptions born from authenticity.

    I do not see the system developing this type of creativity in its teachers, in the opening of a child’s mind in a classroom. We are too afraid to take the real risks of change and are run by old habits.

    My concern is that people will not vote out of discouragement. I would choose the calm manner of Obama over the power and push of Romney. I still can witness Obama having a quiet endurance with all his mistakes. Mostly it is about our efforts not some parental dependence on the leaders bailing us out. We got ourselves into this in many ways, and we have to get ourselves out for children, animals, plants and minerals.

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