Here is a final story about a Barack Obama school visit that provides some context for his approach to education policy and reform. After he was elected Senator and before he began his presidential campaign, Obama visited the Dodge Renaissance Academy on the west side of Chicago. A few years before, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan had shut down the school because it had perennially been one of the lowest achieving schools in the entire city of Chicago. Duncan immediately reopened Dodge as a new public school managed by the Chicago-based non-profit “Academy for Urban School Leadership” (AUSL). Dodge became the most-improved public school in the entire state of Illinois with the vast majority of students students now achieving at or above grade level in core academic subjects.Obama came to visit Dodge in order to celebrate progress and learn from the educators and students who produced that progress.
Obama’s experience at the school – and the results at Dodge – resonated with his own deeply held beliefs and highlighted for Senator Obama the importance of:
1) Adults’ personal responsiblity and accountability for our students and their improved learning.
2) Teaching quality – including recruitment, training, and consistent support for professionalization, development, and better pay for our teachers – as the most important in-school factor driving improved student achievement.
3) Rewarding and supporting what’s working in public education while decisively and fairly addressing low performance on behalf of putting our children first.
First, one teacher told Obama that one of the greatest obstacles to success is the “these kids” syndrome. The teacher told him that too many adults find nothing but excuses (student motivation, family background, etc) for why “these kids” can’t learn. At Dodge, the teachers rejected this formulation which absolves adults of responsibility and implies that students and their low achievement are someone else’s problem.
Obama agreed with the teacher’s and school’s insight and belief. The students are not “these kids”, Obama said. “They our our kids. They want a chance to achieve and each of us has a responsibility to give them that chance.”
Second, Obama saw in action the idea that adult talent and teaching practice are the single greatest in-school factors driving improvements in student achievement. He learned about a model to recruit master teachers with a strong track record to teach at a high-poverty school and place carefully selected teachers-in-training as residents in the classrooms with those master teachers. The teachers told him of being treated as professionals including better support and higher pay in recognition of their successful track record and the extra work and time at the school. And he saw a school where low-performing teachers got support and then either improved or left the clasroom entirely.
Third, Barack Obama observed this and other successful schools as real examples of what’s possible when a school system and non-profit or community organization work with educators and parents to address low-performance fairly but decisively while opening up a new public school and investing in what works for the same community and students.
Obama says creating and taking to greater scale successful schools like Dodge show “what’s possible in education if we’re willing to break free of the tired thinking and political stalemate….if we’re willing to try new ideas and new reforms based not on ideology but on what works to give our children the best possible chance in life.”
He now contrasts these promising successes with the achievement gap more generally and describes that gap as “morally unacceptable for our children. It’s economically untenable for our future. And its not who we are as a nation.”
Later today, we’ll finish this series with a description of Barack Obama’s specific education plan to support efforts nationwide to bring the success that students at Dodge and elsewhere have begun to experience to students all across America.
Guestblogger – Jon Schnur