Monday, June 16, 2008

Stop the Hand Wringing

WOW!

Columnist David Brooks hits it on the head here:

New York Times: Obama, Liberalism and the Challenge of Reform

Almost every paragraph is packed with quotable stuff!

But what I see as the heart of the matter is this: Good intentions alone don’t get the job done. Reform, by its very nature, will lead you to challenge, frustrate, and even anger those who like things just they way they are. Education is chocked-full of hand wringers that want to see things improve, but are afraid to ruffle feathers.

Per Mr. Brooks:

But when you look at the actual proposals Obama offers, he's doesn't really address the core issues. He's for the vast panoply of pre-K and after-school programs that most of us are for. But the crucial issues are: What do you do with teachers and administrators who are failing? How rigorously do you enforce accountability? Obama doesn't engage the thorny, substantive matters that separate the two camps.

He proposes dozens of programs to build on top of the current system, but it's not clear that he would challenge it. He's all carrot, no stick. He's politically astute -- giving everybody the impression he's on their side -- but substantively vague. Change just isn't that easy.

Obama endorses many good ideas and is more specific than the McCain campaign, which hasn't even reported for duty on education. But his education remarks give the impression of a candidate who wants to be for big change without actually incurring the political costs inherent in that enterprise.


Read the article! It’s short, and worth your time. I've included the whole piece below, in case the link doesn't work.



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New York Times: Obama, Liberalism and the Challenge of Reform
Op-Ed Columnist
By David Brooks

Is Barack Obama really a force for change, or is he just a traditional Democrat with a patina of postpartisan rhetoric?

That question is surprisingly hard to answer. When you listen to his best speeches, you see a person who really could herald a new political era. But when you look into his actual policies, you often find a list of orthodox liberal programs that no centrist or moderate conservative would have any reason to support.

To investigate this question, I looked more closely into Obama's education policies. Education is a good area to probe because Obama knows a lot about it, and because there are two education camps within the Democratic Party: a status quo camp and a reform camp. The two camps issued dueling strategy statements this week.

The status quo camp issued a statement organized by the Economic Policy Institute. This report argues that poverty and broad social factors drive high dropout rates and other bad outcomes. Schools alone can't combat that, so more money should go to health care programs, anti-poverty initiatives and after-school and pre-K programs. When it comes to improving schools, the essential message is that we need to spend more on what we're already doing: smaller class sizes, better instruction, better teacher training.

The reformist camp, by contrast, issued a statement through the Education Equality Project, signed by school chiefs like Joel Klein of New York, Michelle Rhee of Washington, Andres Alonso of Baltimore as well as Al Sharpton, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark and experts like Andrew Rotherham, the former Clinton official who now writes the Eduwonk blog.

The reformists also support after-school and pre-K initiatives. But they insist school reform alone can make a big difference, so they emphasize things the status quo camp doesn't: rigorous accountability and changing the fundamental structure of school systems.

Today's school systems aren't broken, the reformers argue. They were designed to meet the needs of teachers and adults first, and that's exactly what they are doing. It's time, though, to put the interests of students first.

The reformers want to change the structure of the system, not just spend more on the same old things. Tough decisions have to be made about who belongs in the classroom and who doesn't. Parents have to be given more control over education through public charter schools. Teacher contracts and state policies that keep ineffective teachers in the classroom need to be revised. Most importantly, accountability has to be rigorous and relentless. No Child Left Behind has its problems, but it has ushered in a data revolution, and hard data is the prerequisite for change.

The question of the week is: Which camp is Barack Obama in?

His advisers run the gamut, and the answer depends in part on what month it is. Back in October 2005, Obama gave a phenomenal education speech in which he seemed to ally with the reformers. Then, as the campaign heated up, he shifted over to pure union orthodoxy, ripping into accountability and testing in a speech in New Hampshire in a way that essentially gutted the reformist case. Then, on May 28 in Colorado, he delivered another major education speech in which he shifted back in a more ambiguous direction.

In that Colorado speech, he opened with a compelling indictment of America's school systems. Then he argued that the single most important factor in shaping student achievement is the quality of the teachers. This seemed to direct him in the reformist camp's direction, which has made them happy.

But when you look at the actual proposals Obama offers, he's doesn't really address the core issues. He's for the vast panoply of pre-K and after-school programs that most of us are for. But the crucial issues are: What do you do with teachers and administrators who are failing? How rigorously do you enforce accountability? Obama doesn't engage the thorny, substantive matters that separate the two camps.

He proposes dozens of programs to build on top of the current system, but it's not clear that he would challenge it. He's all carrot, no stick. He's politically astute -- giving everybody the impression he's on their side -- but substantively vague. Change just isn't that easy.

Obama endorses many good ideas and is more specific than the McCain campaign, which hasn't even reported for duty on education. But his education remarks give the impression of a candidate who wants to be for big change without actually incurring the political costs inherent in that enterprise.

In Washington, Mayor Adrian Fenty has taken big risks in supporting a tenacious reformer like Rhee. Would President Obama likewise take on a key Democratic interest group in order to promote real reform? We can hope. But so far, hope is all we can be sure of.

13 comments:

bill milligan said...

"Obama endorses many good ideas and is more specific than the McCain campaign, which hasn't even reported for duty on education."

So if you're endorsing McCain (and we know you are), this line to me is much more damning of him than anything the article has to say about Obama.

Again, "reform" must include all vested parties. Too often reform by those on the right simply means an iron fist smashing of individual rights and/or exclusion of representative voice.

EAG said...

Thanks for bringing attention to this, Mike.

Judging by how fervently MEA executive director and self-proclaimed "children's advocate" Lu Battaglieri and NEA president Reg Weaver came out to endorse Obama says to us Obama is not serious about tackling entrenched interests to offer any remarkable solutions.

He's proposing to "build on top of the current system," a Brooks writes.

Brooks's analysis of a system that "meets the needs of teachers and adults first" is compelling.

bill milligan said...

Mike:

Have you, or anyone you know, participated in the MEA "One is too many" dropout hearings? The MAISA and Michigan Charter Schools (among others) are participants.

This is a perfect opportunity for ALL vested parties to come together and work on an important issue. Strangely, I see no mention of it in any "reformist" blogs.

btw, Kyle: I still can't read your billboards up here. The background color is awful and the wording too small...and gas is too expensive for me to continue driving around the block until I read the darn things.

Anonymous said...

I thought I had included the meeting dates in my previous post, but I guess I forgot. The spring schedule has already passed, but here's what's coming up:

--Sept. 4, Traverse City
Traverse Area District Library, 610 Woodmere Ave., Traverse City.
--Sept. 11, Ishpeming
Ishpeming High School, 319 E. Division St., Ishpeming.
--Sept. 18, Western Wayne County
Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency, 33500 Van Born Road, Wayne.
--Sept. 25, Saginaw
Zauel Public Library, 3100 N. Center, Saginaw. (3:30 to 6:30 p.m.)
--Oct. 2, Kalamazoo
Western Michigan University, Fetzer Center, 1903 Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo.

The link to the larger story:

http://www.mea.org/dropouts/043008_pressrelease.html

Here's also a link that will allow anyone (yes, anyone) to provide his or her views electronically:

http://www.mea.org/dropouts/testimony.html

I hope you, Mike, and others can give this worthy cause some air time (so to speak).

This is a perfect opportunity for ALL of us to come together and work on a worthy cause.

Thanks.

Bill Milligan said...

Why use an editorial to gather information on Obama's education plan? Heck, go directly to the source:

"Obama will promote new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them."

http://www.barackobama.com/issues/education/#teachers

Sounds to me like he wants to work with ALL parties, which in a democracy is a good thing.

Still hoping you can attend and/or plug the MEA meetings on dropout rates.

Thanks.

MGA said...

I’m not convinced “they” “like things just the way they are”, so much as “they” are conditioned to fear virtually any challenge to the status quo.

It really doesn’t matter if the challenge emanates from “within the family” e.g. school “administration” (which is overwhelmingly composed of former classroom teachers), or well-intentioned “outsiders” whose management approaches differ from the often painfully inefficient methodologies employed by school folk (in their well-intentioned efforts to be “inclusive”).

The operative concept here is the exploitation of “insider” fear and paranoia.

Political, professional and amateur opportunists abound, casting themselves as saviors selflessly toiling “for the kids”. Divisive language and fear-mongering tactics are strategically and repetitiously employed to challenge the challengers, especially those who are making headway. Harried school employees, already besieged by relentless demands from all of the above are particularly vulnerable to such agitation.

In this fashion, status quo protectionists often de-rail genuinely inclusive, well-informed public efforts to perpetually improve the system for the greater good of students and the communities that support their education.

Thanks for posting Brooks’ thoughtful look at Obama’s take (of the week) on education. As the presidential candidates are groomed for battle in the coming months, we can expect their positions to be refined for maximum return on political investment.

In the meantime, please keep up your outstanding efforts to engage the public in Michigan's schools, Mike!

Bill Milligan said...

MGA:

How about you? Have you or will participate in the dropout conversations?

Or is this not an issue at all in your district and Mike's district?

I think I know Mike's answer, given his silence on the issue, but I'd like to hear yours. Thanks.

mga said...

Mr. Milligan,

Men like Mr. Reno address the drop-out crisis by volunteering personal time and talents to improving the school systems in their communities, by raising education’s profile through public advocacy and by providing forums like this one for you to share your views and potshots with others.

Rochester schools serve as a fine example to others of the power of adult commitment and hands-on local involvement for improving learning opportunities for all students.

Plaintive, broad brush finger-pointing resulting in lofty policy language along with demands for more money for schools will not solve Michigan’s drop-out crisis. Detroit’s tragedy is living proof of how little hollow rhetoric delivers, even when coupled with a billion tax dollars per year.

If your heart is in this crisis, you must surely be acquainted with the Gates Foundation’s study: “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Drop Outs”:

Nearly half of students surveyed said a major factor in their decision to drop out was that their classes were not interesting; 69 percent cited uninspired teaching and unmotivated students, with the additional observation that low expectations held by adults for the students contrasted with students’ own high expectations for themselves; 22-32 percent left to get jobs or start families of their own; 35 percent said they were struggling with subject matter & needed more help; three in ten said that they could not keep up with their schoolwork and
43 percent said they missed too many days of school and could not catch up. Many of these
students likely fell behind in elementary and middle school and were not able to make up the
necessary ground; almost half of dropouts polled (45 percent) said their previous schooling had
not prepared them for high school; 38 percent cited lack of order, discipline and rules making sure students attended class, and even limiting chaos that made students feel unsafe.


With respect to parental involvement, the majority of dropouts’ parents were “not aware” or just “somewhat aware” of their child’s grades or that they were about to leave school. Nearly half
of the respondents said their parents’ work schedules kept them from knowing more about what
was happening at school and 68 percent said their parents got more involved when they became aware their child was on the verge of dropping out.


As for the supports necessary to reverse this tragedy, the following are suggested:


1. Improve teaching and curricula to make school more relevant and engaging and enhance the connection between school
and work.

2. Improve instruction and access to supports for struggling students (81 percent of participants cited a need for better teachers & smaller classes with individualized instruction).



3. Build a school climate that
fosters academics.

4. Ensure strong adult-student
relationships within the school.


5. Improve the communication between parents and schools.


In the end, the answer lies with increasing the number of
responsible adults who are willing to do more to reach kids whose parents can’t or won’t. But resources and responsible people are stretched pretty thin in Michigan these days.

Bill Milligan said...

MGA:

It sounds like you've got some interesting points to make. I hope you take the time to either share them online (either by cutting-and-pasting your message here) at the website I provided or provide them in person at one of the meeting dates.

Seriously, thanks.

Erik said...

Your education sector-restructuring-minded readers will probably be interested in
http://eriksyring.wordpress.com

A State-wide Grade 6 global mathematics initiative will be coming to Michigan in a couple of weeks:
http://globaleducationforyou.wordpress.com/

mga said...

Let’s preface the following link by acknowledging the negative impact (on Michigan’s education reform process) which has resulted from the MEA & Mackinac Center’s political battles.

Aspersions cast on the Mackinac Center by the union, lead many educators and administrators to sidestep the Center’s outstanding research and analytical contributions to the body of knowledge concerning Michigan’s schools. The result is a net loss for Michigan students.

A case in point from the current edition of “Education Report” - an examination of “New High School Graduation Requirements in Action: Michigan Schools Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst” - shares practical, deployable strategies from around the state to meet the challenge:

http://www.educationreport.org/pubs/mer/article.aspx?id=9457

From my perspective, exchanging ideas like these holds far more potential for progress than politically-motivated displays of public hand-wringing that Michigan’s grad requirements are too tough.

Michigan students deserve better from us.

Anonymous said...

The Mack Attack Center has become a partisan embarrassment. They've de-volved over the years into a cheap shill for its Republican and corporate backers, a public relations spin doctor that does nothing but bash workers and worker rights.

Maybe they'd have more credibility if they didn't worry so damn much who signs their paychecks and actually, truly tried to be "non partisan."

Bill Milligan said...

From the article referenced by MGA:

"Yet Michigan Virtual School regularly receives testimonials from happy parents about students who failed in the classroom, but succeeded in an online setting."

As an instructor with lots of experience in online education (both designing courses and teaching them), I'm highly skeptical of this statement and the notion that online is a good "second chance" for struggling students. On the contrary, my own experiences tell me that students who struggle in a traditional classroom and sorely need direct attention will have their problems exacerbated in the online environment.

Online education is important, but as a an important element to "catch students who fall through the cracks" and otherwise bolster the student having trouble? Wow...that has not been my experience.