No Excuses, Mr. President

It's time for the Obama administration to look at the disconnect between its education agenda and the goals of teachers and parents, writes Marc Bousquet.

October 29, 2010

There are over 13,000 school districts in the US. The resignation of one district leader doesn't usually rate much interest, but most schools chancellors don't bring down a mayor or symbolize the education agenda of a sitting U.S. president. At the heart of interest in the departure of District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is a far more serious set of questions about President Obama and his all-too-similar prescriptions for improving public education at all levels. Can Obama learn the lesson of Rhee's failure?

As the take-no-prisoners sheriff of urban education, Rhee demanded results, irrespective of circumstances and differences. Huge classes? Wretched facilities? Poor preparation? Substance abuse? Poverty, crime and domestic misery? Salary too low to recruit consistent competence? Rhee always had the same blunt answer: No excuses. She challenged teachers, students, parents and principals to overcome any and all obstacles. "Go hard or go home," she liked to say, and she meant it.

Most qualified education analysts usually questioned whether Rhee's cowboy-slash-coach "challenge education" approach made for good teaching and learning. But it sure made great television. In the noonday glare projected by film crews, Chancellor Rhee painted black hats on the teachers, knocked back a sasparilla, and strode out to the O.K. corral. She fired, demoted and penalized a thousand faculty and administrators who, she said, failed to "get results." No excuses, bang! Stop whining, bang! bang!

Cue tympani: the shy, grateful townsfolk slowly, wonderingly creep from doorways and haylofts to embrace Six-Gun Micky Rhee.

Funny thing, though. Rhee didn't win the gratitude and admiration of parents and students in her district. Instead, they fired their mayor just to get rid of her. Adrian Fenty, the D.C. mayor who bet his career on voters' acceptance of Rhee, lost lopsidedly, and only won among voters who don't have students in the district schools. It turns out that good television and good politics (much less good policy) aren't always the same thing.

One reason voters rejected Rhee is that she didn't come within a country mile of living up to her own "no excuses" standard. Despite being given an unprecedented free hand, lavished with over $50 million in foundation support and featured in hour after hour of ceaselessly uncritical network coverage, Rhee accomplished little -- even by the incredibly narrow standard she set herself, raising test scores. Even friendly observers called Rhee and Fenty's claims for progress "overstated" and at least one member of the D.C. Board of education said it "came close to selling the public a bill of goods."

The lesson for President Obama is pretty clear: Listen to parents who actually have kids in public schools. The D.C. parents aren't unusual in siding with their teachers against the billionaire foundations and education profiteers. Last spring in Los Angeles, given a choice between schools run by charter corporations or by district teachers, 87 percent of parents backed schools run by unionized teachers.

That's a number that surprises college faculty, but it shouldn't. Schoolteachers and parents with kids in the public schools have been
fighting stripped down education as job training for decades,

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's plans for higher education are evident in their attraction to community colleges. All of the features that most educators deplore about community colleges are what the current administration likes about them: top-down control of curriculum, disposable instructors, automated courseware, a training model of education, and management highly responsive to local employers. Their ambitions for publicly-funded higher education are closely parallel to their commitments in the schools: more automation, a standardized national curriculum, and centralization of control with an intensified assessment regime.

Higher education has been slow to pick up on these threats, but national polls show that most Americans already clearly understand the difference between raising test scores and actually improving education.

Most parents and taxpayers consistently share the beliefs of most teachers about what needs to be done to improve our schools. An August Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa survey showed respondents agreeing with teachers that the largest problem with schools is a shortfall in funding, that the major issue with teacher competence is support for retraining and keeping up to date, that the biggest problem with recruitment and retention is abysmal teacher pay. A McKinsey & Co. report released this month noted that many nations with excellent schools attract 100 percent of their teaching force from the top third of their college graduates with salaries of up to $150,000. The United States, with some of the lowest salaries for teachers, attracts only 23 percent of its faculty from the top third.

The Gallup survey gave voters a chance to grade Obama's Rhee-style education initiatives. The response was resoundingly negative, with just 34 percent giving the president a “B” or better, and 59 percent giving him a C, D, or F. These numbers are significantly lower than his overall approval rating (currently near his lowest, at 42 percent favorable, 51 percent unfavorable).

The American public that disagrees with Obama and Rhee isn't stupid or misguided. Parents in L.A and D.C. aren't the pawns of the American Federation of Teachers. On the contrary, their views -- our views -- are supported by the expertise of teachers, education researchers, and decades of evidence from other nations with effective schools.

We want better schools and colleges, Mr. President, and we know how to make them: smaller classes, support for faculty, salaries that will pull talent out of overcrowded law schools. We can build palaces of learning -- education and social policy for the whole person, not just a mindless ratchet on test scores. But you have to have the courage to change course.


Marc Bousquet is an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University.


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