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Did Obama Just Perform A “Progressive Pivot-Point” On Education Policy?

In the fight to save public education in America, Obama’s progressive ideals seem to have fallen by the way side.

It was hard for a progressive not to get a chocolate high from President Obama’s inauguration speech.

Indeed it was full of treats: a “dramatic and sweeping argument for equality” . . . “a commitment to community and the common good” . . . “the most liberal speech of his presidency.”

But hardly anyone in the education community had anything notable to say about it. Few if any prominent and outspoken critics of the administration’s education policies, includingDiane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten, have bothered to write anything of considerable substance (at least, so far).

A reason for this could be that Obama mentioned education, specifically, very few times –three actually. All three mentions were in the mundane, uninspiring context of “training,” which drew a noticeable yawn from at least one visible member of the audience.

Another reason for the silence is that advocates for education and public schools have heard Obama say sweet things about education before, only to quickly see him revert to tired truisms about America’s “failed” schools that are so in need of “accountability” and “reform.”

But there is something public school advocates should note about Obama’s speech.

Something That Needs To Be Said About Obama’s Speech

An exception to this brownout of punditry on the edu-blogosphere grid was at Valerie Strauss’s inter-hub at The Washington Post. Her guest, Arthur H. Camins, director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, posted a critique of the president’s address that spotlighted exactly what advocates for public education should make of the president’s words.

“President Obama issued a call for ‘collective action,’ arguing forcefully that we cannot ‘meet the demands of today’s world’ by acting alone. ‘Now, more than ever,’ he said, ‘we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people.’ But, this is not the philosophy that guides education policy today. Bill Clinton nailed the policy choice starkly in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in August. He said, ‘You see, we believe that we’re all in this together is a far better philosophy than you’re on your own.’

This frames current education debate because most of the solutions being promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education and their corporate partners are about the latter . . . being on your own.”

Camins continued with an itemized list of “on your own” aspects of the Obama administration’s education policies, which included:

  • Dual school systems that compel parents to “choose” between charter schools and regular public schools and “compete with other parents on an inequitable playing field.”
  • Merit pay schemes that force teachers “to look out for their own job security” and “look out for their own interests.”
  • Competitive grants that force schools and districts to vie with each other “for limited federal, state and private grant funds” instead of doing “what’s best by every student.”

Camins correctly concluded, “We need a we’re in this together appeal to every educator and parent – no, every citizen – who understands that we are interdependent and that we need each other for each of us to be successful.”

This is an important point for anyone who cares about public schools to take away from the president’s address. All too often, those who want to protect and advance public schools want to see the president address specifics of education policy – value-added-measurement teacher evaluations or ending standardized testing. This is a mistake when there is an open opportunity to address a broader narrative in the argument for advancing traditional public schools.

The Right Follow-Up To The President’s Address

The right follow-up to the president’s address is to first, note what the president didn’t say.

Specifically, MIA in the address were calls for the new form of transcendent politics that characterized so much of the rhetoric of Obama’s first term. And there was no questioning about “whether government works,” which was a rhetorical point in his first inaugural speech. That speech, which concluded with a resounding call for “a new era of responsibility” requiring a stronger sense of “duty” and “giving our all to a difficult task” is a sharp contrast to the President’s new rhetoric emphasizing “the love we commit to one another.”

This should signal to progressives who care about education to eschew stale arguments about “bipartisanship,” embrace government’s role in providing the education our children deserve, and shun harsh nostrums of “accountability” for more calls for community support and involvement in public schools.

Second, progressives should take the advice of experienced political observers like my colleague Richard Eskow and not expect Obama to lead but look for opportunities where his positions allow us to lead.

On the pages of The Huffington Post, Eskow warned progressives not to be “pacified with rhetoric” but “demand – and take – action.”

But instead of looking for specific policy proposals, Eskow beseeched us to “connect the dots” and understand that while there is a lot that the president “didn’t say,” the language he chose “sounds like” what we would be in favor of – and we must push him to act on that.

What Eskow concluded is that the speech is “a declaration of values.” And now it’s up to us “to insist that those values be honored with action.”

Where Progressives Can Have Leverage

As the progressive blogger Digby observed, “Inaugural speeches are often legacy speeches and based on this speech I’m going to guess that whatever his policies actually were and are, he told us today that he would like to be remembered by most people as a progressive president, not a centrist technocrat;” and “if that’s true, progressives have some leverage.”

Where does the progressive education community have leverage?

Another colleague, Dave Johnson, stated that Obama’s address represented a “pivot-point” of his presidency.

“This inaugural speech was a speech by a man who had heard his own words in the campaign, heard what his opponent was saying, and heard what We, the People showed up to clearly state our choice on Election Day. This was a solidly progressive speech and it reflected what the American people had voted for.” (emphasis original)

“Pivot-point” of course means going from one stated position to another.

And based on the president’s words, let’s hold him accountable to the following pivot-points that align with we’re in this together values:

  • Parents don’t need a “choice” of schools for their children; they need a guaranteethat their neighborhood schools are good schools.
  • Parents and students shouldn’t have to compete with other parents and students on an inequitable playing field; they should be assured of equitable school funding based on students’ needs.
  • Teachers shouldn’t be subjected to working conditions that threaten their job security and constrain the quality of education they provide to students; they should be enabled to collaborate with their peers, develop their personal capacities, and be free and able to attend to the individual needs of students.
  • Schools and districts shouldn’t have to vie with each other for funding and support; they should be supported with resources and opportunities to do what’s best by every student given the circumstances of poverty and local constraints.

Obama’s address gave us an opening to take this we’re in this together stance. Let’s do this.

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