Thursday, July 05, 2007

Obama on school reform


Since I’m passionate about education reform and moving the Democratic Party to embrace genuine reform rather than continue to defend the status quo, I’ve posted a few pages from each of Obama’s two books in which Obama talks about this issue (Obamaonschoolreform-book1 and Obamaonschoolreform-book2).  Here are excerpts:


From Dreams from My Father:


“I decided it was time to take on public schools.


“It seemed like a natural issue for us.  Segregation wasn’t much of an issue anymore; whites had all but abandoned the system.  Neither was overcrowding, at least in black neighborhood high schools; only half the incoming students bothered to stick around for graduation.  Otherwise, Chicago’s public schools remained in a state of perpetual crisis – annual budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions; shortages of textbooks and toilet paper; a teachers’ union that went out on strike at least once every two years; a bloated bureaucracy and an indifferent state legislature.  The more I learned about the system, the most convinced I became that school reform was the only possible solution for the plight of the young men I saw on the street; that without stable families, with no prospects for blue-collar work that could support a family of their own, education was their last best hope.  And so in April, in between working on other issues, I developed an action plan for the organization and started peddling it to my leadership.


“The response was underwhelming.


“Some of it was a problem of self-interest, constituencies misaligned.  Older church members told me they had already raised their children; younger parents, like Angela and Mary, sent their children to Catholic schools.  The biggest source of resistance was rarely talked about, though – namely, the uncomfortable fact that every one of our churches was filled with teachers, principals, and district superintendents.  Few of these educators sent their own children to public schools; they knew too much for that.  But they would defend the status quo with the same skill and vigor as their white counterparts of two decades before.  There wasn’t enough money to do the job right, they told me (which was certainly true).  Efforts at reform – decentralization, say, or cutbacks in the bureaucracy – were part of a white effort to wrest back control (not so true).  As for the students, well, they were impossible.  Lazy.  Unruly.  Slow.  Not the children’s fault, maybe, but certainly not the schools’.  There may not be any back kids, Barack, but there sure are a lot of bad parents.


“In my mind, these conversations came to serve as a symbol of the unspoken settlement we had made since the 1960s, a settlement that allowed half of our children to advance even as the other half fell further behind.  More than that, the conversations made me angry; and so despite lukewarm support from our board, Johnnie and I decided to go ahead and visit some of the area schools, hoping to drum up a constituency beyond the young parents of Altgeld.”


From The Audacity of Hope:


“…those on the left often find themselves defending an indefensible status quo, insisting that more spending alone will improve educational outcomes…There’s no denying that the way many public schools are managed poses at least as big a problem as how well they’re funded.


“Our task, then, is to identify those reforms that have the highest impact on student achievement, fund them adequately, and eliminate those programs that don’t produce results.  And in fact we already have hard evidence of reforms that work: a more challenging and rigorous curriculum with emphasis on math, science, and literacy skills; longer hours and more days to give children the time and sustained attention they need to learn; early childhood education for every child, so they’re not already behind of their first day of school; meaningful, performance-based assessments that can provide a fuller picture of how a student is doing; and the recruitment and training of transformative principals and more effective teachers.


Later, he continues:


“There’s no reason why an experienced, highly qualified, and effective teacher shouldn’t earn $100,000 annually at the peak of his or her career.  Highly skilled teachers in such critical fields as math and science – as well as those willing to teach in the toughest urban schools – should be paid even more.


“There’s just one catch.  In exchange for more money, teachers need to become more accountable for their performance – and school districts need to have greater ability to get rid of ineffective teachers…


“Working with teacher’s unions, states and school districts can develop better measures of performance, ones that combine test data with a system of peer review (most teachers can tell you with amazing consistency which teachers in their school are really good, and which are really bad).  And we can make sure that nonperforming teachers no longer handicap children who want to learn.”


I wish Obama would be more forceful in supporting alternatives for students trapped in failing schools, such as charter schools (two words that don’t appear in his book), but at least he understands the problem, views the status quo as “indefensible” and is willing to advocate changes that place him in the camp of genuine reformers in the Democratic party.


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