Can Obama water walk over this one?

Photo is courtesy of Denver Art Museum and Jeff GoldbergSunday, Aug. 24, promises to be a lovely evening at the Denver Art Museum (see photo at right, courtesy of the Museum), an important convention side event tapping into education issues, a traditional strength of Democratic contenders (with a tail wind, Vegas books that as a potential 20-pt advantage, baby).  

Many of the nation’s most noted and successful education reformers will gather for a little chilled white wine and erudite paneling. They’re the kind of educators Barack Obama should love. Michele Rhee from Washington DC, with Mayor Fenty in tow (only on Eduwonk does the mayor get second billing). Cory Booker from Newark will be there, along with John King, the charter genius behind Uncommon Schools. Roy Romer’s a sure bet, along with Joel Klein and his unlikely political co-conspirator, Al Sharpton.  

Organized mostly by Democrats for Education Reform, the sponsors are a who’s who of winning education reforms, including New Schools Venture Fund, the bank roller of those high flying charter schools we’re trying so hard to “name.” (Ted Mitchell: We’re awaiting your vote on this matter!)  Mr. Eduwonk will be making a panel-moderating appearance, presumably in waders.  

Sounds like a perfect mingling opportunity for the candidate himself, but even if he happened to be Denver Barack Obama would find a reason to skip. As seductive as this event may sound, Obama finds himself in a bit of a situation here.  

The unions, both of which endorsed Obama, have their own advocacy movement, A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, backed up by their own long who’s who list of education notables. But those notables will be in short supply at the Denver Art Museum gala, in part because they take issue with the notion that schools can do much better than they do now absent massive social welfare improvements. The Broader, Bolder group favors bending school reform sharply in the direction of easing poverty.  

The Art Museum crowd has no objections to easing poverty, but insists on keeping the pedal to the metal on school accountability and regards the Broader, Bolder notion of school reform–reducing class size–as so yesterday. Something akin to cargo pants. (Besides, when did child health care and federal housing programs start getting their funding through ESEA?)  

Just to further muddy the waters, civil rights groups are feeling a bit out of sorts with the two unions these days, believing the unions could do a bit more to get better teachers into the neediest schools. The civil rights leaders are likely to be found sipping wine at the art museum.  

Wow, that sounds both complicated and treacherous for Obama, which is why he has no intention of choosing between the groups. Nor is he tempted to match John McCain’s stealth move of endorsing the hard-core-reformists at the Klein/Sharpton Education Equality Project (Who will be at the art museum). Why should he? Already, Obama has put out an ambitious education agenda, with many of his points overlapping the agendas of rival groups. No need to confront either the unions or the reformers.  

So my bet: Obama won’t endorse any of these “movements” and he’ll continue splitting the differences right through election day. Can his water walking strategy succeed that long? Hey, this is the candidate who landed in Iraq to find the prime minister endorsing his once-left-field position on withdrawing forces.  

That luck could hold. Most definitely. Only that’s not my wager. As a known negative nabob, I’m compelled to cast a vote against the water walking strategy surviving through November. At some point, in some way, he’ll be forced to tip his hand.

–Guest blogger Richard Whitmire  

Important postcript: There should be an audio link to the Denver gathering. Seek it out through the DFER link.

2 thoughts on “Can Obama water walk over this one?

  1. john thompson

    You present a very good and fair summary. Of course, those civil rights leaders are more than “a little” upset with the unions, and unions need to be doing more than “a bit more to get better teachers into the neediest schools.”

    So I’d like to ask you an educational and a political question.

    I understand why civil rights leaders and urban superintendants, who may or may not know enough about education to make an informed judgement, believe that “keeping the pedal to the metal on school accountability” is good for poor children. But you seem to imply that keeping the metal to the pedal of NCLB’s primitive form of accountability is good for school kids. If so, I sincerely would like to understand why YOU think that.

    Secondly, remembering that all politics is local, why in the world would a Democrat seeking national office want to commit to the EEP’s agenda. After all, all education politics is local, and if you want to make things better for poor schools you have to face local realities. Perhaps the money wasted in Newark could pay for the EEP’s agenda in that city. In most schools systems, we don’t have nearly enough funding to follow their strategy. The only way that the administrations in many many school systems can attempt to comply with NCLB is to gamble on nonstop test prep, curriculum narraowing, and cheap statistical tricks.

    Let’s just ASSUME for a second that NCLB-type accountability has been good for poor children of color in NYC, D.C., L.A., and Denver. Surely even the most committed of the accountability hawks would acknowledge privately that many poor children of color have been hurt by the destructive policies prompted by the panic caused by NCLB. Even if we assume those urban leaders are correct, why would it be good politics to support policies that help children in some districts and hurt children in others?

    That, of course, brings us back to the educational issue. Why is it such a good idea to keep the pedal to the metal on accountability policies that help some poor children of color while hurting others?

    These are sincere questions asked by people who know at least as much about education as the “reformers” and have a much longer record of practical experience in education, and in helping poor children of color.

  2. Melody L. Polson

    The previous responder said many things I agree with- but no one is addressing the primary problem- Students are coming into classrooms in middle schools and high schools expecting the same “integrated curriculum” they experienced in grade school- and to be “walked through” every activity. In middle and high schools, there is neither the time, nor the ability of a teacher to individually assist in the classroom. Students, not the teachers, not the manipulables, not the tech, STUDENTS must invest in their learning.
    “I don’t get it.” is the refrain… students will not take the time to actually frame a question. I begin to take it for the code, “I would rather do something else.”
    Recently, or administrative cadre have implemented a “no lower than 50% score” so students who fail can easily bring up their grade. This is no different than the “artificial inflation” of the past– either way, the admin are looking for ways to make the grades appear to go up, while the students are not producing work that meets requirements. We are “warehousing”- pushing the kids through to the next level with no thought to preparedness or skill, certainly without a sense of responsibility for their own achievement.
    We grew up, some of us, poor- our parents insisted we do what was required to keep up our studies. Grades mattered.
    Today, teachers are competing with video madness in the fore of most student’s minds, and unless we are willing to turn all learning into a video game, which might stimulate memory but cannot replace individual production of work, the students are going to have to participate in this process of learning.
    NCLB is a farce.
    Testing is not the way to determine if children are achieving. Production- performance- is not a test. It does test– but multiple choice is yet another video game- it is fast, it is cheap (oh- and by the way, the nation has been skunked by these dreadful interim tests. I’ve met at least six teachers that could have single-handedly written a better test.) Picking which is correct is not the same as CREATING SOMETHING CORRECT.
    Somewhere, along the way, we lost sight of what education meant- our goal used to be to develop thoughtful, aware, self-critical, adults
    that would have been participants in the democracy. What happened?
    Accountability? We don’t have accountability- we have data. We have research that demonstrates techniques that work- we resort to work sheets. Worksheets are simple, anybody can do a worksheet- but they cannot necessarily translate the worksheet skill to production.
    We have buzz words- we have masks for the lie of it. My students can recognize, yes, but they still balk at creating something of their own. It doesn’t look professional… it isn’t flashy. It certainly isn’t fast.
    Education is a long slog from inability to ability, and proof of ability is in production of something your own- proof of ability is not a multiple choice test.

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