Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Response To The President's Address Today

You don't have to read here long to know that I don't feel either of the political parties in America are doing right by our children when it comes to education. Both parties seem to view public education exclusively in economic terms, they appear hell-bent on privatizing as much of it as possible, and there is a strong push to drive down costs by busting unions and de-professionalizing the teachers. Public education is getting hammered from both sides, with conservatives both at the state and federal level using the meat-cleaver approach of slashing budgets, then leaving school districts to deal with it, while liberals are trying to social engineer the whole thing through high-stakes standardized testing, mandated core curricula, and uneven playing field "competition" between teachers and schools. Yes, I know there's no ideological purity in this mess, but I do know that one is hard pressed to identify a single prominent public official above the level of school board who stands with us: parents, teachers and children.

This morning President Obama's weekly address focused on education. I've embedded the video if you're so inclined, but below it you'll find the full transcript broken up with my commentary.

Hi, everybody. This week, I spent some time traveling across Iowa talking with folks about rebuilding our economy where if you work hard, you and your family can get ahead.  And along the way, I stopped at Cascade High School to thank the teachers there for doing such a great job -- and wish the luck as they head back to the classroom for this school year.

See how that happened? Right from the start he pivots from the economy to education, equating the two. We're told that employers are hungry for educated workers, but is that really the job of "We the people?" Remember, we're talking about public education here and the purpose of public education in a democracy is to educate its population in the habits, skills, and knowledge necessary for self-governance. This has been true since the beginning of our nation's experiment in democracy and was an important point for the founders.

In order to self-govern, above all else, we require a population of critical thinkers, people capable of thinking for themselves, of rejecting nonsense, of demanding honest answers to challenging questions, of seeing through the lies and rhetorical trickery of politicians. This means an education in which questioning authority is not just allowed, but encouraged. This means an education in which citizens (in this case the children) are ultimately in charge of their own learning. This means an education in which children are invited to explore their interests, ideas and passions, rather than be forced into chairs, lectured and drilled in the minutia of a standardized curricula. This means an education that steps back from worshipping at the alter of literacy and math, and treats the humanities, physical education, science, music, economics, art, political science, performing arts, and everything else under the sun as equally important educational pursuits.

Preparing our children for a job, in fact, is in many ways the exact opposite of preparing citizens for democracy. Most corporations after all are islands of dictatorship that we allow to exist within our democracy. Whereas, ideally, self-government is a bottom-up proposition, with active, engaged, educated people, through representatives or not, making their own decisions about their own lives, working for a corporation is a top-down operation, which requires taking orders and not rocking the boat.

It is our responsibility to educate citizens and it's something we ought to do together. Let corporations train their own damn workers.

There's nothing more important to our country's future than the education we give our kids. And there's no one more important to that education than the person at the front of the classroom.  Teachers matter. Most work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies -- just to make a difference. They give everything for our kids -- and in return, we should invest in them.

Removed from the context of his previous remarks about the economy, this makes a decent political sound bite, one I might even support. Most of us agree about the importance of education for our country's future, and while research shows that parents are more important than teachers in this equation, teachers certainly do matter. I like that he's included the "work tirelessly . . . modest pay" line in there as a push-back against the union busters who insist that the teaching ranks are full of lazy, over-paid, tenured dead wood (a patently false generalization). And he's not exaggerating about the tireless dedication of most teachers, especially those in schools serving poor communities.

That said, here we again find the top-down corporate pyramid idea shot right through this statement. We "give our kids" an education? Sorry, but we owe our children an education. We owe them the opportunity to hone their critical thinking skills even if it means they'll grow up to disagree with us and overthrow everything we hold dear. Teachers don't belong at "the front of the classroom," like a boss, but rather down on their knees, eye-to-eye with their educational partners. Sure, everyone would like more than "modest pay," but really, what most public school teachers I know are after are smaller class sizes and fewer mandates passed down from on high, from people who have never set foot in a classroom, about what trivia the kids need to learn and by when. Teachers do matter: they are the ones down on their knees giving "everything for our kids."

And as for the call to "invest" in teachers. What does this mean? As far as I can tell this is code for union busting through such supposedly "liberal" ideas as Teach for America which minimally trains young people in classroom skills and sends them out there to "prove" that teaching isn't really a profession at all, but rather a "mission" that can be done by eager-beaver young people for a year or two as a kind of public service that will look good on a resume.

But here's the thing: this year, several thousand fewer educators will be going back to school. Since 2009, we've lost more than 300,000 education jobs, in part, because of budget cuts at the state and local level. Think about what that means for our country. At a time when the rest of the world is racing to out-educate America; these cuts force our kids into crowded classrooms, cancel programs for preschoolers and kindergarteners, and shorten the school week and the school year. That's the opposite of what we should be doing as a country. States should be making education a priority in their budgets, even in tough fiscal times. And Congress should be willing to help out -- because this affects us all.

Yes, states should be making education a priority in their budgets, it's a crime that we've lost 300,000 education jobs, and it does affect all of us, but this hysterical Oh No, The Chinese Are Beating Us nonsense is a pure scare tactic. The rest of the world is not racing to out-educate America, although many of them are outperforming us on standardized tests, a piss poor way to measure education in my book. But since that's what we're using, let's compare the US to the highest performing nation: Finland. Where nations like China, a fascist dictatorship, have essentially turned the entirety of their "educational" efforts over to prepping for standardized tests, the Finns take a decidedly non-economic, democratic approach, one that much better matches the ideals of American self-governance. And besides, since we are going to discuss test scores, if you remove scores of schools that serve populations  in which over 10 percent live in poverty, we have the best scores in the world, "out-educating" the Chinese, the South Koreans, and yes, even the Finns.

If we really want to beat the Chinese, we'll only do it by tackling poverty.

That's why part of the jobs bill that I sent to Congress last September included support for states to prevent further layoffs and to rehire teachers who'd lost their jobs. But here we are -- a year later with tens of thousands more educators laid off -- and Congress still hasn't done anything about it.  In fact, the economic plan that almost every Republican in Congress voted for would make the situation even worse. It would actually cut funding for education -- which means fewer kids in Head Start, fewer teachers in our classrooms, and fewer college students with access to financial aid -- all to pay for a massive new tax cut for millionaires and billionaires. That's backwards. That's wrong. That plan doesn't invest in our future; it undercuts our future.

Okay, so this is mostly Presidential campaign rhetoric designed to show differences between the President's party and the loyal opposition. I'm all for more money for education, of course, but since the Obama administration's education department is tying those funds to states agreeing to pledge themselves to their "Race To The Top" program, which is in it's particulars exactly the same as the Bush administration's equally mis-guided "No Child Left Behind," it really all boils down to the "meat-cleaver" approach vs. the "social engineering" approach, both of which lead to the same "backwards," "wrong" results for education.

(And note, once more education funding is wrapped up in a "jobs bill" where it has no business being. How about an "education bill?")

If we want America to lead in the 21st century, nothing is more important than giving everyone the best education possible -- from the day they start preschool to the day they start their career. That's why we launched a national competition to improve our schools. And for less than one percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we've encouraged almost every state to raise their standards -- the first time that's happened in a generation. That's why we've invested in math and science education, and given states more flexibility on No Child Left Behind.

Education is not a competition. Marginally higher standardized test scores is not the same as better educated. And that vaunted "flexibility" is only a mirage, granted only after states agree to tie themselves to NCLB 2.0: "Race To The Top."

And that's why we've reformed the student loan program to put students before big banks, and increased financial aid for millions of young people -- because in America, higher education cannot be a luxury; it's an economic necessity every family should be able to afford.

It's not right that we've privatized the profits from student loans while socializing the risk, letting banks rake in huge profits for merely administering loans, while leaving the taxpayer on the hook should these loans head south. To be honest, I don't really know what the Obama administration is doing about this. It sounds good (other than the persistent insertion of "economic necessity") but I'm going to need to learn more before I commit myself -- that's part of what it means to be a critical thinker.

This is a country where no matter what you look like or where you come from, if you're willing to study and work hard, you can go as far as your talents will take you. You can make it if you try. I am only the President of the United States today because of the chance my education gave me. I want every child in America to have that chance. That's what I'm fighting for. And as long as I have the privilege of being your President, that's what I'm going to keep fighting for.

Great! I want my president to fight for better education. Sadly, from where I sit he is fighting against reason, he is fighting against research, he is fighting against the kind of education our democracy needs. Please, Mr. President, if you really want to fight for America's children, please start by going back and taking a look at what guys like Thomas Jefferson had to say about the proper role of education in a democracy. Please understand that drill-and-kill is a corporate approach designed to maximize profits, turning children into worker bees, with education being, at best, a side-effect. Please challenge your education secretary Arne Duncan to present you with actual research that supports his approach: he cannot because such data does not exist.

If you really want to fight for our future Mr. President, you will fight for an education that teaches creativity and critical thinking skills, the talents necessary for self-governance. And you'll leave employers to train their own damn workers.

Thanks, and have a great weekend.

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Carolyn said...

I remember a couple of years ago I approached you on Capitol Hill to sign a petition to allow Ralph Nader to run for President. You looked at me like I was insane. Do you still think it's such a bad idea?

Teacher Tom said...

I didn't think you were insane Carolyn, but until we change how we finance campaigns, we will always be stuck voting for the lesser of two evils. All a 3rd party candidate can do is steal votes from one of the 2 major candidates. Nader clearly handed Florida (and thus the presidency) to Bush. I would work day and night to create public financing of elections and/or instant run-off voting -- that's the only way I can see to make candidates like Nadar, Perot, Paul, or others viable without simply handing the election to the "worse of two evils." Thanks for doing democracy, however!

Unknown said...

I agree with many of your points, and your blog is one of the few that I follow on a regular basis because I can actually apply what you write to my life to help shape me into a better person for the children I engage with on a daily basis. Thank you for your words and your dedication to writing them down daily for us! I do disagree with a few of your points in this particular post, however (I'm using my critical, such as, I agree with the "union busting" that is going on for teachers. Breaking up the unions is about getting rid of the useless teachers who think it is their job to stand in front of the classroom and "educate" children in order to make room for the better teachers who are willing to "get down on eye level with the kids," and allow the kids to develop their own critical thinking skills. The old system of education is one that comes from "the top down," and it is failing our needs reform, and breaking up the teachers' unions will allow that reform to take will privatization, probably...the documentary "Waiting for Superman" about the power of magnet schools in New York City showed a powerful perspective on this issue. Small differences aside, however, I love your work, Teacher Tom, and I thank you for inspiring us all to be the best educators we can be!

Teacher Tom said...

Thank you melanie!

I have many bones to pick with the perspective reflected in "Waiting for Superman," which I find to be a pretty egregious kind of propaganda (this was my initial response: If you do a quick Google search, I think you'll find that almost every assertion made in this movie has been called into question or disproven, and many of the individuals interviewed for the movie have been discredited. I think you will also find that the charter school held up as the "savior" is awash in corporate money, enough that the principal makes close to a $500,000 per year. Indeed, if we threw that much money at all of our schools, I'm sure we would produce better results across the board. (Throwing money at schools is one approach we have never tried in America.) Also, the studies that have been done on charter schools find that while there are some producing better results than traditional public schools, that is the exception, most of them perform below public schools.

I don't believe you are correct in assuming that teachers are the ones standing in the way of making changes in the classroom. For years teachers and their unions have been calling for exactly the kinds of reforms I support. I hear from public school teachers every day who complain that the reason they cannot teach children in the way the know they should is because of the regime of standardized testing, the mandates of top-down curricula, and huge classes.

I urge you to do a little more investigation into the role of unions in our public schools. There has been a lot of coordinated, negative propaganda, especially in the last 3-5 years. If you talk to public school teachers, you'll get a much, much different perspective.

Kerry said...

I agree very strongly with many of your points in your dialogue with the President. I teach in a co-op preschool affiliated with a public school district (although no longer receiving any financial support from said district.) However, I chose to home-school my daughter precisely because I agreed so strongly with this portion:

This means an education in which children are invited to explore their interests, ideas and passions, rather than be forced into chairs, lectured and drilled in the minutia of a standardized curricula. This means an education that steps back from worshipping at the alter of literacy and math, and treats the humanities, physical education, science, music, economics, art, political science, performing arts, and everything else under the sun as equally important educational pursuits.

Preparing our children for a job, in fact, is in many ways the exact opposite of preparing citizens for democracy.

Our school systems were in many ways designed to create good little factory drones--and until we as a society make the decision that that's not what we want, we as parents sometimes have to look outside the system to get the best results for our children.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your quick response, Teacher Tom! I will have to research the video further (it is propaganda, as you pointed out, and obviously had an agenda).

I wonder if the area of the country factors into experience of the teacher union perspective?

My mother was a public school teacher for over 35 years, and she too, feels that the unions protect the teachers and principals who are not willing to put in the quality work...she tells many stories of co-workers who sent home their grading with their underpaid teachers' assistants rather than taking the time to actually learn what quality of work their individual students were doing...she feels that over the years probably almost half the teachers she worked with were doing an average job instead of an excellent one.

My own experience with the teachers in our public school system is much the same. I have met some excellent teachers, but I have also met some who think very highly of themselves, but don't actually do all that much for the children in their classroom. Yes, standardized tests and some of the things coming from the top down are contributing to the issue, but a lot of the teachers I know personally would rather sit and complain about how they spend their days dealing with behavior problems than actually change their own behaviors and attitudes and start relating to the kids they work with. The teachers want to blame the parents and the parents want to blame the's a terrible cycle.

The only child I ever had to "let go" from my preschool program was a 5 yr. old wasn't that his behavior was so out of control I couldn't handle him (he was constantly hitting parents and other children and destroying property), but the fact that his parents refused to work with me to set up any kind of consistent way to help him express himself w/out hurting others. Every time he destroyed my property or hurt someone he would tell me it was o.k. because his parents would let him do what he wanted at home. And any way that I handled the situation was wrong, according to his mother, and she made sure he knew that she disagreed with the way I was treating him. His mother was a sixth grade teacher who complained that she had "the behavior problem class" whose parents didn't care about them.

In my (not so important) opinion, just because you have a teacher's license and made it through the four years of college, it does not make you a quality teacher, and there should be no "job security" based on seniority. You earn your job by your daily performance just like you, Teacher Tom, have to "prove" yourself to your "bosses" (the parents) every day! It goes all the way up to higher education. In my former life I was married to a professor, and I saw him through the process of getting his Ph.D. and earning tenure...and then watched as he became completely useless in the classroom because he had "job security." The system is broken, for sure, and just because one has the tenacity to jump through the hoops of higher education does not ensure that one will be a quality teacher for life.

Unknown said...

We must strive to improve on a daily basis, both personally and professionally...that kind of work ethic should be recognized and rewarded, and the people who want to sit back and be lazy should be fired. My guess is most of the teachers who are fighting so hard to keep the unions because they want job protection wouldn't last a day doing what you and I do each takes actual hard work to really educate using a child-led, play based, (un)curriculum where the children are allowed to think for themselves, and question authority, and even (gasp) talk back to their elders...very different than sitting behind a desk and lecturing from an already written curriculum script with the points to cover in bold. I hear these teachers complain they don't like this prescribed curriculum and "teaching to the test" because there is not enough time to cover everything, but when given the chance to be creative and teach "outside the box," they are not willing to do the work.

All that said, I took a graduate course called "Issues in Education" with a group of amazing teachers, all of whom I highly respect, and whom opened my eyes...

And, yes, Teacher Tom...wouldn't it be amazing if we could throw a bunch of money into our public schools?! :)

Unknown said...

Hi again, Teacher Tom! It is yet another day later, and I am still pondering this really have me thinking, and I so appreciate that! Thank you! One thing I love about your school is the amount of parent involvement. I wonder if that is the key to improving public schools, and creating excellent teachers across the country? We all seem to agree that parents are a child's first and most influential teachers...if every parent was involved in the classroom (even if that involvement was at home after school hours) what a difference we would see in not only our children, but our teachers and schools as a whole! If every parent took the t.v. out of their child's bedroom, made a "no t.v. or video games on school nights" rule, and instead had "family time" I'll bet that 90% of the issues in the classroom would automatically disappear. We could probably do away with almost all "homework" if families just started playing together and eating meals together...

JoAnn Jordan said...

One of the things that saddens me is the specialist in education (those who are teachers) seem to have little say or input on what they teach. They are rarely granted the flexibility to modify goals/curricula to meet the needs and interests of a class/group of students.
In general, politicians are not trained in education yet they are setting standards for education.

Thank you Tom for sharing your views on this topic.

I strongly believe we need to raise people to be life long learners. You should continue to learn even after you enter the work force.

Rosin said...

I enjoyed reading this (thanks to Nancy Flanagan for pointing me here). Like several of the commenters, I have both strong agreements and disagreements; for me, they center on this paragraph:

Preparing our children for a job, in fact, is in many ways the exact opposite of preparing citizens for democracy. Most corporations after all are islands of dictatorship that we allow to exist within our democracy. Whereas, ideally, self-government is a bottom-up proposition, with active, engaged, educated people, through representatives or not, making their own decisions about their own lives, working for a corporation is a top-down operation, which requires taking orders and not rocking the boat.

The first sentence there expresses how I feel. Education must be expansive and imaginative in the best tradition of the nation's promise; thinking about education only as job training is painfully reductive and will keep us from envisioning a whole child as a whole citizen. I promise to give you credit when I repeat your statement, which I'm certain I will do.

But I dispute the rest of the paragraph. I worked 8 years in industry before I became a teacher in a public school (entering year 16). While I do agree that there are dictatorial companies, my own experience and much that I've read about suggest that the best and most innovative companies are often the ones that are least dictatorial. Empowering laborers to make decisions and to challenge orders "from on high" is usually good business practice.

Businesspeople who conflate conformity/obedience with fitness for a job are mistaken, even cowardly; that model, if pursued, will lead us to the bottom in both education and industry.

Anonymous said...

Real quick before I delve deeper into your post, two points.

One, you're a rockstar.

Two, "all are islands of dictatorship" - is not accurate. The culture of corporations and business in the world has changed - and it is forcing Americans to get in alignment with progressive business practices, which can be, when executed properly, extraordinarily lucrative. When you paint with a broad brush stereotypes - when a fine brush would be more appropriate - you exclude accurate information to filter in.

Teacher Tom said...

Thank you Anonymous!

Corporations can be benevolent dictatorships, but they are emphatically dictatorships. Every corporation is a hierarchical pyramid with a ceo or other executive at the top who is ultimately in charge. A good executive might very well create a culture in which creativity and critical thinking thrives, but when the rubber meets the road, there is a big boss in charge. The employees do not vote for their leader; they ultimately are required to do as he says or they're out. Power flows downhill. That is a dictatorship: the opposite of democracy.

The only democratic corporations are cooperatives.

Brenda Martin said...

I am grateful to our President and our Teachers for their hard work! Congratulations to the Turn Around Teachers recognized as White House Champions of Change! Some Schools might not necessarily welcome Change, but Change is a necessary thing. Secretary Duncan mentioned the ongoing conversation about evaluations. I am on a state committee to help to establish a teacher evaluation system that is “fair and robust” – which is important to us as well as our Education Commissioner! I am saddened when some teachers feel attacked or unappreciated. Teacher evaluations should use multiple measures that include classroom management techniques, questioning skills, peer review, self-reflection, some test outcomes, student growth data, and much more! We also recognize that parental involvement is so important! School support and adequate resources must also be provided. Much of the information that can be obtained from evaluations can be very useful in leading reforms needed for that teacher to increase his/her chance to transform into the more effective teacher which benefits the students! Again THANK You for what you do! Brenda Martin, White House Champion of Change

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