Equity & Diversity Opinion

Gerald Coles: Education in Obama’s Second Term: What Lies Ahead?

By Anthony Cody — January 30, 2013 8 min read
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Guest post by Gerald Coles.

I wish President Obama’s comments on education, in his second inaugural speech, had not brought to mind the lines from Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues: “Look Out Kid, They Keep It All Hid... Look Out Kid, You’re Gonna Get Hit.” While a surface reading of the remarks suggest a concern for schooling and children, particularly poor children, to anyone who has followed the president’s words and policies during the last four years, these remarks are familiar and disturbing. Regrettably, they embrace an intention to continue to support and promote the corporate-influenced assumptions and policies of his first term.

Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.

This first of the president’s comments on education puts the purposes of schooling within the context of the nation’s economic needs. Putting aside the question of who the “we” were, the remark conceives of education as schooling that historically had been aimed at providing the skills to serve business interests. This is a view comparable to today’s expressed goal in Obama’s “Race to the Top” educational legislation focused on educating students to serve and “compete in the global economy.” It is legislation that emphasizes job training , not thinking -- certainly not thinking critically about the “global economy.” The emphasis is on “STEM” education, i.e., “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” presumably the pathway to the good life. In contrast, critical thinking, creativity, intellectual enrichment, thinking and acting as informed citizens are, at best, minimal in the curriculum for competing in the global economy.

Yes, there is much discussion about an emphasis on “critical thinking” within the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), seen as a necessary ingredient for competing for a Race to the Top grant. However, in CCSS, “critical thinking” exists within constrained boundaries that do not challenge fundamental assumptions about the “global economy” and all related to it, particularly the full meaning and ramifications of “competing” in it. It is not thinking that nurtures concern for a moral, caring, sharing society and world.

There is nothing new here, of course. Schooling of the past did, to use the president’s example, provide many students (those lucky enough to be in school) with training that would serve railroad interests. However, their uncritical learning did not include study of the railroad/robber barons of the time, such as Jay Gould and Collis Potter Huntington, who amassed fortunes and obtained favorable railroad legislation through illegal power, corruption, control of media, bribes of politicians, indifference to the exploitation and deaths of railroad workers, particularly Chinese and Irish laborers, labor strikes, the destruction of other businesses.

With the Obama inauguration occurring on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, it is worth noting that the education promoted in the president’s first term was not guided by King’s definition of the purposes of education. Dr. King described these purposes as: “To save [people] from the mass of propaganda [and half truths and prejudices], in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”

collective action . . . to train all the math and science teacher's we'll need to equip our children for the future.

The president’s second remark, including the call for “collective action,” signals the need for greater government spending for education; to his credit, he has tried to increase education spending, but the Republicans have blocked it. However, funding is just one part of what must be parsed in this statement. Again, Obama raises the banner of STEM education for competing and winning jobs in the global economy, and this is the reason for the exclusive call for math and science teachers, a call that is part of the administration-supported corporate attack on public schools. For anyone concerned about the need to educate the upcoming generation for life in a world filled with vast inequities and suffering, and a grim global warming threat to all life on Earth, it is, frankly, a deplorable vision of the aim of “collective action” for the future. Elsewhere, I have discussed how this form of education promotes a form of idiot savantism. It is a corporate driven education that aims to create perfect employees, that is, “perfect” as aptly described in Tom Lehrer’s song about a leading scientist: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?/ That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”

We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else...

The president’s third comment on education was implicit in this “bleakest poverty” comment. Although the remark leaves unstated how the “same chance to succeed” will occur, his previous term has made clear that the primary means will be education. In this respect the first Obama term has been in sync with the ideology of philanthrocapitalism, such as in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as with the ideology of right-wing think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation: schooling is regarded as the chief vehicle for lifting children out of poverty, even the bleakest poverty. This equation has, of course, a long history in U.S. ideology.

Surely the president’s comment was meant to suggest some kind of commitment to poor children, but when appraising the remark we must first seriously ask, does the president really believe that a child “born into the bleakest poverty” can have “the same chance to succeed as anybody else”? Surely some children in the bleakest poverty do overcome its effects and succeed, but is the president truly not aware of the horrific difficulties a child in these circumstances encounters and the low odds of “succeeding” (whatever that means). Is the president unaware of the considerable research documenting the stark disadvantage of “bleak poverty” both for schooling and life outcomes compared with children born into more materially rich circumstances? Why, it is reasonable to ask, did Obama not speak instead about his dedication to eliminate that “bleakest poverty” so that no child would have to grow up in it?

The president’s line could have come from the speech Bill Gates gave at the National Urban League in 2011. Insisting that a child’s success should not depend on race or family income, he advised that “improving education [i.e., “market solutions”] is the best way to solve poverty.” Yes, “poverty is a terrible obstacle, but we can’t let it be an excuse.” Gates neglected to note the lack of evidence supporting charters and similar privatization alternatives, his favorite method for “improving education” (for example, see my discussion of KIPP schools). 

Callously ignored in this equation is the mountain of research documenting the dire educational effects of poverty and the odds against doing well within that poverty. Stanford professor Sean Reardon found, for example, that social class influences -- i.e., whether a student lives in an economically affluent or a low-income family -- has a greater influence on educational achievement than does race. Since the 1960s, the difference in test scores between these student groupings has grown about 40 percent and is now double the test score difference between black and white students.

Similarly, researchers Greg J. Duncan and Katherine Magnuson conclude, based on their research and that of others, that family income is especially correlated with educational development when children enter kindergarten and these educational differences do not narrow appreciably as the children progress through later grades. However, as a critical step for overcoming these differences, they underscored that the “weight of the evidence suggests that increases in income in poor families are causally related to improvements in children’s outcomes.” Sadly, none of these findings found their way into the president’s assurance that the “bleakest poverty” would not harm the little girl’s chances to succeed.

new ideas and technology to . . . reform our schools . . . to empower . . . our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher

The president’s fourth and final remark about education leaves vague what the “new ideas” will be, but the comment about empowering “citizens . . . to work harder” does contain a strong association to school success and failure.

“Work harder”? Does the president really not know that, measured by the continued rise in productivity during the last 30+ years, Americans already have been working harder and harder? And does he really not know that while Americans have been working harder and thereby contributing to a steep rise in productivity, the top 1% has grown even richer, but the wages of working Americans have stayed flat?

“Working harder” includes not just productivity but the number of hours worked per week. For example, over the last 30 years, an increasing proportion of middle-income and professional women and men have had to extend their working hours to 50 hours or more per week, resulting in increased family stress and reduced parenting time.

The Next Four Years

In the president’s inaugural speech, the few signs of his thinking about education and poverty offer no hope that policy in the next four years will differ from the last four. Bleak poverty will continue, education will be constrained within the boundaries of educating to “compete in the global economy,” the curriculum will be narrowly crafted toward that goal, corporate attacks on the public schools will be promoted through more support of privatized alternatives, and the president will continue to regard charter schools as “incubators of innovation”. It will be in stark contrast to the schooling that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have worked to achieve.

What do you think of where President Obama is leading our schools?

Gerald Coles
is a full-time researcher, writer, and lecturer on the psychology and politics of literacy and education. Before devoting himself to full-time research and writing, he was on the faculties of the Department of Psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and the Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester. He is an active member of the Coalition for Justice in Education in Rochester, NY. He can be reached at geraldcoles@rochester.rr.com

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.