Obama Effect on Education Will Be a Mirage Without Real Change

Feel-good story about making education cool is a dead end without pathways for minorities and the poor.

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By Richard Whitmire

Starting Inauguration Day, and pretty much every day since, I've been hearing about the wondrous "Obama effect." The essence appears to be this: The Barack Obama story, complete with a single-parent, tough-love mom who rousted him early each day to study, will inspire a generation of young people not previously disposed to believe that education is cool.

Teachers are working the Obama effect into their lessons to motivate their reluctant learners. Parents are all over it (we parents have always excelled at guilt). The Obama effect is not unknown to the new president, who recently told the Washington Post: "There is an entire generation that will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African-American.... It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn't underestimate the force of that."

Even the New York Times weighed in with a story that made the Obama effect appear based on science (relying on a single study; am I alone in thinking that was sub-NYT standards?) by writing up a study claiming that black test takers upped their scores post-Inauguration Day, apparently the dividend of a "Yes we can" self-esteem movement.

I would like to join in the enthusiasm with no reservations, but as a veteran education reporter who spends a lot of time in classrooms, I see events that indicate the Obama education halo could tarnish early. And if that happens, the letdown will be a lot less fun than the buildup. Inspiration is great, but inspiration needs pathways to success. What I see developing for lower income and minority students are pathways closing up.

For the Obama effect to take hold and boost education equity, these developments would need to unfold:

College must become more accessible. If anything, events are headed south on this indicator. The beacons of hope for first-generation collegegoers are the big state universities, such as the 450,000-student California State University system. Budget cuts, however, forced Cal State to deny admissions to about 10,000 students. Georgia's state colleges are looking at similar cuts. Community colleges, which attract many of these first-generation collegegoers, are seeing a surge in enrollments while getting their budgets pinched.

Bottom line: The stimulus bill emerging from Congress might counteract some state cuts. At best: status quo.

High schools would need to improve dramatically. The stimulus bill proposed by the House would bump up Pell grants for poor students to make college more affordable, but that does not solve the biggest problem faced by these students: As a result of attending subpar high schools, they are not ready for college work. At Cal State, 6 in 10 students must take noncredit, remedial classes.

Bottom line: School reformers have been working on elementary schools for years, with some success. Middle schools and high schools, at least in the "Obama effect" neighborhoods, continue to be daunting challenges.

Literacy rates would need to soar. National education reforms have pushed curriculum demands lower into the grades, handing kindergartners the verbal tasks that two decades ago confronted second graders. Most hurt are those likeliest to have grown up in homes with few books, always-turned-on TVs and little conversation. Poor literacy skills explain the poor college readiness seen among these students.

President Bush's promising federal program to turn this around, Reading First, fell into disrepute over questions of effectiveness. Instead of patching it up, Congress seems inclined to turn the money for reading programs back to school districts to spend as they see fit. Given the districts' past track record in designing reading programs, that's not promising.

Bottom line: Expect more bad news.

Black boys would need a major rescue. Everyone knows black men face huge problems: Twice as many black women as men earn college degrees. But seeing the brainy Obama sinking those three-pointers will inspire b-ball-motivated teens, right? Actually, the debate over the decline in boys' school performance—and not just black boyshas sunk into ideological mire. As a result, most educators ignore the issue.