Friday, June 13, 2008

When McCain Says Nothing....

It's an opportunity to pounce? I can picture David Brooks trying to come up with a theme for today's column. "I need to compare Obama's platform to McCain's, in a way that makes Obama look bad. But every time McCain opens his mouth he undermines my thesis, so... Aha! Education!" Never mind the (conservative) school of thought that education is properly a state issue - McCain has said nothing so it's an opportunity.
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.
A typical Brooks stance. "There are two types of people, and everybody must be one or the other." Of those two camps, Brooks tells us,
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.
On the other hand,
The reformists also support after-school and pre-K initiatives.
I somehow suspect that they also don't object to fighting poverty or health care programs. So I guess the distinguishing feature of the "status quo" camp is that it focuses on "smaller class sizes, better instruction, better teacher training". Is it just me, or do actions such as reducing class sizes, improving teacher training, and providing better classroom discussion in fact not involve maintaining the status quo? Brooks' label must be premised on the idea that the "status quo camp" does not see a need for broad institutional reforms of the school system - they believe that the existing institutions can be significantly improved without reinventing public education.
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.
I'm not sure what it means for a school to be "designed to meet the needs of teachers and adults first", beyond characterizing public schools as a large, free babysitting service. I'm also not sure what would be involved in creating a system that puts the needs of students first, although I'm sure Brooks will tell us that it has nothing to do with better teacher training, smaller classes, or better instruction, and everything to do with privatization, vouchers, and breaking teacher's unions. I'm sure that, to Brooks, it has nothing to do with restoring funding for the fine arts or music classes.
Tough decisions have to be made about who belongs in the classroom and who doesn’t.
What does this mean? We're going to have public education, but only for students we deem worthy?
Parents have to be given more control over education through public charter schools.
Ah, there it begins - privatization. How do charter schools give parents more control? Where's the evidence that charter schools provide any overall improvement in the caliber of education received by their students, or improve student performance? Shouldn't those considerations be part of the "reform" equation, when deciding how taxpayer money should be directed?
Teacher contracts and state policies that keep ineffective teachers in the classroom need to be revised.
And, right on cue, union busting. A question I frequently ask in the face of this type of assertion: where are we going to get the "highly qualified" teachers we need to replace the "ineffective teachers"? Paging David Copperfield?

I don't want to rain on Brooks' parade, but whether or not a teacher is "effective" can be significantly affected by the composition of the student body. Years ago when I was subbing, there were some schools where I was far more effective than others, due to factors including student age, student background, student attitude toward education, and student interest in the subject matter, none of which were within my control. Sometimes I was able to teach, and other times I was in a constant battle just to maintain classroom order. What's the objective measure of a teacher's "effectiveness"?
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.
That's easy to say, but if your data isn't good this all reduces to "garbage in, garbage out". Where's the showing that the "data revolution" has actually improved schools or student learning? I've proposed how student performance might be measured more accurately even with existing tests - but it seems that nobody is interested in getting data that relevant to the supposed question.

Brooks then asks,
The question of the week is: Which camp is Barack Obama in?
Because you have to be one of the "two kinds of people". You can't suggest that both sides have good ideas, even if there's substantial overlap. (An honest pundit might even even say that the two camps are largely in agreement.) And we're framing the debate such that if you want to improve teachers and the quality of instruction, you're merely supporting the status quo - real "reform" involves privatization and union busting. Brooks comes to a conclusion that probably has some truth, first because in truth the world doesn't divide neatly into "two types of people," and second because it's not particularly wise for a Democratic candidate to endorse busting teachers unions as a major plank in his education platform, even if you assume (without evidence, of course, as Brooks doesn't believe in supporting his opinions with evidence) that doing so will somehow improve schools.
Obama endorses many good ideas and is more specific than the McCain campaign, which hasn’t even reported for duty on education.
Wow - you mean it's more "specific" to provide a relatively detailed position on education policy that has "many good ideas' than it is to say absolutely nothing? Well, I don't know about you, but I probably would have had a really hard time figuring that out by myself. {eyeroll}
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.
So in Brooks' uncharitable view, Obama's acting like he's running for office. But a more positive spin would be that he's taking the best ideas from two camps and trying to build a consensus. Whatever the case, it's certainly to Obama's advantage that the only issue where Brooks was comfortable directly comparing his platform to McCain's is one where McCain has chosen to remain silent.


  1. Yep, right on cue comes the teachers' union bashing. Contrary to what the anti-union folks think, it IS possible to get rid of teachers, but the administration just has to take steps to do it. Sometimes, they are just too lazy to bother.

    As you might guess, I am not a fan of charter schools and don't even get me started on "homeschooling". We public school teachers (esp. in special ed) often get the "results" of kids who were in charter schools that just up and closed one day or proved to be completely awful. (One large charter school chain actually gives their teachers scripts to read from. !!!!). I understand that public schools are not perfect, but charter schools are usually not the shiny!new! answer. And somehow, they (and private schools) always have a way to get rid of the special ed students....

    I will also say this about charter teacher goes to "teacher school" to be a charter school teacher. (Okay, I'm sure someone does, but not most). I'm not saying that they are bad teachers, but a charter is not the first choice of most teachers. One usually doesn't get to partake in the pension system, there is no job protection, teachers' salaries are way lower, the hours can be horrendous and benefits are often worse than in the public sector.

  2. 1. A lot of it depends on where you are and what options you have available. If you live in a wealthy suburb, the public schools are a grand choice. If you live in Detroit or DC . . . less so.

    2. I may not be a teacher, but both of my parents were . . . and my wife . . . and I spent four years surrounded by "Ed Majors" at EMU. To the best of my recollection none of them ever said, "Gee, I want to join a union and work in a public school." They wanted to be "teachers" not "public school" teachers. If you want to argue that schools that pay more and have better benefits "generally" get better teachers, I've got no argument with you . . . but lay off beating the drum and realize that "better benefits" means different things to different people. Historically, some teachers took more pay and lousy kids and minimal parental involvment ("some" public schools). Others worked in private (historically, that would mean "Catholic") schools where they made less money but they had better behaved students and more involved parents.

    3. If your post was supposed to be inferring that Catholic and Montessori Schools (i.e. non-public) don't on the average educate as well as public schools, I think you are wrong. If, on the other hand, you want to limit your comments to saying that (for example) a wide variety of "fly by night" charter schools have sprung-up in the past five or ten years; and that these schools don't do a very good of educating students, I have no argument with you.

    4. You do, however, raise a good point about special ed. students. It is the public schools, not the "for profits" that have the obligation to provide "special needs" type services, and that does put both a drain on the public school system and create a competitive disadvantage. (And more power to you for sticking it out with special ed. I spent some time working with SEI and LD students and I have nothing but respect for people like you who can do it year in and year out.)


  3. The thing is, charter schools are supposed to take students on a "zero reject" basis, including special needs children.


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