The Labor Day uproar over President Barack Obama’s announcement that he would give a pep talk encouraging students to work hard and stay in school demonstrates the need for a new and more respectful conversation about education in the United States. Indeed, such a conversation is long overdue.
By chance, the two of us, on Aug. 31, had written to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on behalf of the National Superintendents Roundtable, which we co-chair, to warn that 50 years of relentless criticism of schools ran the risk of encouraging “badly informed, often vituperative, government-bashing.”
Before the letter reached him, a vitriolic debate about Mr. Obama’s planned speech had already begun. The president, said his critics, was trying to indoctrinate students. He might even be advocating socialism. Occasionally, the name Hitler was tossed into the conversation. One statewide political leader said that he was “appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology … [which] goes against beliefs of the majority of Americans, while bypassing American parents through an invasive abuse of power.”
Matters have reached a sorry state when a president’s proposal to speak to the young people of the nation is turned into such a political football.
How have educational discussions become so debased in this country? One factor is the toxic, often race-based, rhetoric of talk radio and cable television. Our national conversation has been coarsened. Government-bashing is a spectator sport. Yet in many ways the ongoing national debate about schools has prepared the soil in which this brutal rhetoric could flourish. Criticizing educators is like shooting fish in a barrel. It was only a matter of time before government-bashing moved from welfare, immigration, and health care to schools, the biggest government unit of all.
Our group includes 80 superintendents from 20 states who believe educators do the world’s most important work. We know the world is changing. We look around for ways to respond. We search abroad for lessons. We meet with people outside education to learn about effective leadership in other contexts.
We are also convinced that the American discussion about education and the nation’s future has drifted off course. Education is too easily blamed for all the problems in the United States. The blame game alienates citizens from their schools. It encourages people who have never taught or led a school to think they know how to “fix” them. And it sets the stage for the sort of invective we witnessed as the 2009-10 school year began. It has long since outlived its usefulness. Indeed, it has become destructive.
Secretary Duncan sits at the apex of a workforce at risk of demoralization—the more than 4 million teachers and administrators who are the only people who can implement his agenda.
One of our members, retiring this year, confided that she had spent her career under a cloud of public criticism. Had she understood what lay ahead, she said, she was not sure she ever would have entered a classroom. A Washington teacher, Sarah Fine, said something similar. She saw her future and quit. Writing in The Washington Post on Aug. 9, Fine, a teacher at César Chávez Public Charter School, said she was leaving the profession, in part because of the way people talk about it. People seem to find it “unfathomable that anyone with real talent” would want to be an educator, she wrote. In August, Minneapolis school board member Chris Stewart lashed out at what he called “the relentless criticism” of schools, saying that it undermined educators’ already weakened self-confidence.
Our point is not that educators are above criticism. It is that a continuing onslaught of criticism saps their will to pursue the goals they hold in common with the public they serve. Carrots are just as important as sticks.
Early in August, at a meeting of our group in Cincinnati, Peter Block, the author of The Answer to How Is Yes, described his frustration that much of the national dialogue about American cities is negative, focused on “problems” and the search for blame. He suggested that it is time for a new conversation, one that explores assets, hopes, and possibilities, instead of liabilities, fears, and complaints. If the term “schools” replaced “cities,” Block’s statement could stand otherwise unchanged.
Our society has been ignoring deep-rooted problems while blaming them on schools for much too long, with, if we are to be honest about it, very little to show for our efforts. All the problems are still with us, sometimes magnified. But average achievement in our schools today is little better than it was in 1983, when the federally sponsored call to arms A Nation at Risk appeared, while achievement gaps seem to be narrowing only slightly, if at all.
Our dialogue about education should help students see that we are a better, more complex, and more generous people than the nation portrayed on talk radio.
Yet we have many positive stories to tell about school successes. It is time to shine a light on them. Just among our members:
• Murphy School District 21 in Phoenix has just defied the odds by opening a splendid new 16,000-square-foot “green building” to serve as a community health center in a run-down Mexican-American community. Part of the financing came from a Rotary International fund to help communities in developing nations.
• Alexandria City Public Schools, in Virginia, is getting national kudos for its year-round and extended-school-year program. This program, to the delight of both low-income and middle-class parents, can add 30 days of instructional time annually to student learning—the equivalent of a full year of additional learning time by grade 6.
• Hewlett-Woodmere Public Schools on New York’s Long Island has pioneered a leadership-development program that Peter Senge, a systems-thinking guru, is pushing to national scale. Systems thinking can be an intimidating discipline, but think of the old English saying: “For want of a nail, a shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, a horse was lost. For want of a horse, a battle was lost. And in losing the battle, a kingdom was lost.” In complex systems, everything is related and has to work together.
When Philadelphia’s superintendent, Arlene C. Ackerman, hosts the group in November, we’ll be able to visit other noteworthy ventures, such as the School of the Future, the Science Leadership Academy, and the West Philadelphia High School Academy of Automotive and Mechanical Engineering. Academy students won the international Tour de Sol for green-technology automobiles in 2005 and 2006, and this year are top contenders for the global $10 million Automotive X Prize (the auto equivalent of the 2004 X Prize for the manned private spaceflight).
September 2009 produced a new low in the American school discourse. It’s not too late to repair the damage. Schools are the standard-bearers for democratic values in our country. Our dialogue about education should help students see that we are a better, more complex, and more generous people than the nation portrayed on talk radio. And mainstream critics should spend as much time defining what they like about schools as what they dislike. They should describe what they support as much as what they oppose. And they should tell us what they want to keep, not just what they are determined to change.
That’s a conversation we’d like to encourage, because it will help educators find the collective will to tackle the serious educational challenges our society has to address.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Obama the Socialist