Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama's Educational Policy

The Political Animal summarizes President Obama's March 10 address to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, laying out the outlines of his educational policy. Here are the main points:

* Charters: Obama supports lifting caps in every state on the number of charter schools that may be opened, so long as firm and effective accountability guidelines are put in place;

* Curriculum: Obama supported higher educational standards. But his agenda stops short of pursuing national curriculum guidelines or tests, promising only "to promote efforts to enhance the rigor of state-level curriculum."

* Early childhood: Obama's budget provides incentive grants for states to develop uniform quality standards and target care and education to the most disadvantaged children.

* Performance pay: Obama did not directly support merit pay, but spoke broadly of of "recruiting, preparing, and rewarding outstanding teachers".

* The school calendar: Obama said that the conventional school calendar with its short days and long summer breaks, shaped for the needs of an agricultural society, no longer makes sense and places the US at a disadvantage compared to developed nations with longer school days and school years.

A few initial comments;

On charters, the problem is bringing the various states' charter laws into conformity with some standards that limit corporate corruption and narrow targeting of specific populations (often those with anti-democratic agendas) that fragment the public.

On curriculum, Mr Obama seems sensitive to the basic postulate that education is a reserved power of the states. As one comment in The Political Animal notes,

I'm a little rusty on this, but my memory from graduate school suggests the word education doesn't appear anywhere in the constitution of the U.S., but responsibility for it is in every state constitution.

Under our federal system the sdtates are supposed to function as "laboratories of democracy". Until the recent extension of federal power over education, the federal government had been very chary about usurping the educational perogatives of state governments. In addition, it is arguable that different states and regions, due to regional traditions and regional occupational emphases, need distinct curriculum emphases.

On the other hand, a rapidly changing national society needs to promote citizen geographic mobility, and this requires some degree of unification of grade by grade curriculum standards.

A curriculum policy sensitive to these conflicting considerations can only be worked out through close cooperation of state and federal policy makers, leaving the primary power in the hands of the states. However politically appealing, no top down regime such as NCLB can achieve the desired result.

Teacher performance policy must address two distinct issues: on the one hand, recruiting the best people into the teaching force and encouraging teacher enterprise; on the other, keeping weak people out of the teaching force and getting rid of poor teachers. Merit pay, in itself, can not achieve either. It can also be counter-productive in establishing a rigid measure of performance and thus blocking teacher enterprise.

Regarding the school calendar, the idea that the entrenched calendar is simply a holdover from the agricultural era is a howler. Old habits die hard, but where are the horses and buggies on the city streets today? They are gone because they no longer fit our lives. The calendar we have persists because in some ways, not all of them understood, it is in adjustment with our other institutions. For this reason alone I would be cautious about major changes.

But there are positive reasons for preserving something like our current calendar. Shorter school days allow children more time for their own pursuits and more free time with their families. Longer summer breaks ideally give children the vivid experiences of freedom and informal learning that they treasure for a lifetime. One commenter in The Political Animal wrote:

Obama seems to agree with the view that the purpose of America's education system is to create technically-skilled worker bees who will efficiently and productively compete with slave-wage labor in the developing world to fill whatever jobs the corporate aristocracy has for them.

Well, I don't think so, but the point is well taken. Obama said he knew that the idea of long school days and years was unpopular. The democratic ethos is deep in the United States, and the development of individual autonomy absolutely requires long periods of time free from bureaucratic control by school teachers or managers at work. Adults might be quick to keep their kids in school and avoid the inconvenience of arranging for child care, but how many of them are eager to give up their fond memories of their own summer vacations?

Another comment states:

. . . (what does) the ongoing calls for eliminating summer break do to family vacations, where quite frankly I taught my kids more than the schools were doing, and that was in Palo Alto?

The genuine problems here are to develop more efficient use of the school day and more effective use of the school after-school and summer educational programs for children whose overworked or distressed families can not provide informal enrichment activities for their childrens' free time.

Jefferson once wrote that "that government is best which governs least." I do not believe that that education is best which educates least, of course. But the best education carefully restricts its standardized formal component and assures adequate time for informal learning essential for the formation of autonomy and personal responsibility.

Please add your comments and write your own reactions to the Obama policy agenda.

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