Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama on education

President Obama gave a speech on education yesterday to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. That's an interesting choice of a group to give this speech to. I'm guessing that most, if not all, of the people in attendance have a deep and personal understanding of the phrase "pull yourself up by your bootstraps." A fair number are probably immigrants or the children of immigrants. I think we can safely assume that many were the first in their family to attend college. These are people who understand the value of a good education.

But they are also people who understand the value of innovation. Those two things - the value of education and the value of innovation - have a great deal in common. Most innovations come from people who are educated.

We do have a great deal of educational innovation in this country. Teach For America is an example of an innovative idea that has spawned a great deal of experimentation.

But we also have some persistent problems that seem resistant to change. I'm not going to recite them here. I'm also going to try to restrain myself from rehashing the arguments of either side, including my own.

The problem with education is not teachers unions, as Republicans claim (although I think they make some good points), or not enough money, as Democrats claim (although I would obviously like to see more money going to education).

The problem with education is that we have a 19th century institution in the 21st century. The basic structure of education - students sitting in a classroom, taking notes, doing homework, reading books, solving problem sets, writing papers, taking tests - has not changed in a long, long time. It's a very ordered, highly structured environment, with clearly defined rules, rigid schedules, and carefully laid out expectations.

Very little of which is anything like the real world. Very few jobs have anything like the stability and structure of our current educational system. We have a Newtonian, clockwork educational system in an Einsteinian, relativistic world.

Except of course for the social life of the average high school student. I realize that the concept of "stability" has little meaning in the social life of the average high school student. Been there, done that.

"Stability," "highly structured," and "clockwork" are also words that can be used to describe educational bureaucracies, particularly in large city school systems. Any teacher in a city school from Boston to San Diego has horror stories about dealing with the bureaucracy. That's where lack of innovation starts to become a problem.

Teachers unions are also bureaucratic, and I've heard horror stories about how resistant they can be to innovation, as well. I don't blame teachers unions for becoming bureaucratic - I think they got that way in response to the bureaucracy of of the school districts. The problem is that the school districts and the teachers unions and the supporters of both are frozen in their positions. Neither bureaucracy is going to give up power willingly.

This is where Obama comes in:

“For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline,” Mr. Obama said, in a speech here to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom. Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early childhood education, despite compelling evidence of its importance.”
What I said. One of these days I think I am going to have to write about an issue where I strenuously disagree with Obama, just to prove that I can. But not now.

This is classic Obama: challenging the preconceived, stereotypical ideas of both sides, daring each to acknowledge their common ground. The vast majority of Americans understand the value of education. We agree that it is a good thing. We agree that more of it is better. We agree that there are large problems to solve.

This is the second great problem afflicting our educational debate (with the first being the outmoded structures): we do not trust each other. Democrats think Republicans want to sabotage public education, while Republicans think Democrats are beholden to teacher unions. Neither side wants to acknowledge the other side's good intentions.

Again, this is where Obama comes in. He trusts both sides (although he obviously trusts Democrats a bit more). He understands the perspectives of each side.

President Obama is going to force people on both sides of the educational debate to listen to each other and work together. Which is, in itself, is the great innovation that we really need.

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