One of the better public press pieces I have read exploring the experiences that have shaped Barack Obama’s policy inclinations in regards to public education was published in the September 9th New York Times by Sam Dillon. It presents a portrait of Obama as deeply involved in Chicago public education reform, as a sincere inquirer into the complex problems of public education, and as committed to working out the problems of urban education, including the underachievement of children living in poverty.
All of these characteristics should endear him to pragmatists who adhere to Dewey’s legacy of strengthening the relationship between education and democracy. What is missing from Obama’s campaign rhetoric and what I would hope for from the office of the President, should he get elected, is that he use his bully pulpit to outline for the public the profoundly interrelated nature of school achievement, environmental safety, job security, public health, and other social concerns. I would like to see if a President could shift the discourse around school improvement to incorporate, in a way that is understandable to the general public, the brilliant analyses made by our colleagues such as David Berliner, Jonathon Kozol, and Jean Anyon, who have drawn this picture thoroughly and well for education scholars, but whose message has not quite made its way into the everyday understandings of people.
There are also some items on Obama’s education agenda that he might not have thought through as thoroughly as he needs to, items which, if taken as a whole present some serious contradictions. The position on merit pay, for example, is fraught with complications. He clearly understands the need for the very best teachers to be in high needs schools. However, if teachers are going to be financially rewarded on the basis of their students’ achievement, then there are few incentives to work in these high needs schools, where student achievement can be an elusive goal, especially in light of the holistic, interrelated nature of school achievement and the other social issues mentioned above.