Interpreting Obama's Views on Education

One columnist takes a look at some of the candidate's recent speeches on education policy.

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Last week David Brooks wrote a column questioning whether Barack Obama is a force for change or just another empty political promise clothed in pretty words. To investigate—you know print media is between a rock and a poor place when op-ed writers are the ones doing the hard-hitting reporting—he reviewed the literature, casting a critical eye on Obama's education policies, of all things.

Brooks says education is a good area to probe because Obama is knowledgeable on the subject and because it clearly illustrates an ideological split within the Democratic Party where we see two camps: the status quo camp and the reform camp. The status quo camp argues that broad social factors—parenting, diet, neighborhood, etc.—drive low levels of achievement and high dropout rates. They focus on pursuing factors American schools have been trying to implement for a while, such as smaller class sizes and better teacher training. The reformist camp, which includes school chiefs like Joel Klein in New York and Michelle Rhee in Washington, stresses accountability and insists that teachers and schools can have a tremendous impact, external factors notwithstanding.

(Does this dichotomy really exist? Clearly both teacher quality and broader contextual factors affect student achievement, so why turn reform efforts into a game of tug-of-war?)

Brooks's question is essentially whether Obama is a doer or a do-nothinger. (Implicit in the question, it seems, is that the education reform camp is the place to be.) He notes that in a recent speech at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Colorado, Obama said the critical factor in student achievement is teacher quality—a line warmly received by the reform camp. And at Kettering University in Michigan this Monday, Obama called for the recruitment of new teachers and welcomed charter schools—another nod to reformers. But since Obama has yet to address the thorny issues in education, like how to deal with the teachers and administrators who are failing, Brooks questions whether Obama really deserves reformer status. Brooks calls the senator "all carrot, no stick."

Brooks contrasts Obama's stickless stance with the big risks Mayor Adrian Fenty is taking in Washington by supporting Rhee, an aggressive reformer. But Fenty took on those risks after he was elected to office with 89 percent of the vote. And if he had campaigned on a platform of "I promise, if elected, to close 23 schools and fire a few dozen principals," he might not have fared so well. Consider too that the McCain campaign has kept all but mum on issues of national education, so there's little incentive for Obama to rush into the bloodiest part of the policy battle. With all the anxiety and tumult surrounding the subject, it's little wonder the nitty-gritty of education reform isn't at the top of anybody's campaign agenda.


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