Lost Hope: Obama's Failing Education Agenda

September 10, 2012

In the 2008 presidential election, I cast a symbolic vote for Barack Obama. I would have eagerly done the same for Hillary Clinton.

I believed deeply in the need to confront the lingering and corrosive racism and sexism that haunt the promise of democracy and equity that the U.S. represents (but has yet to achieve).

My vote for Obama had little to do with the hope and change that drove his campaign. I am far too skeptical of politicians to believe that policy will follow rhetoric. But I did hope that a bi-racial president and his family of color and eloquence would conjure a daily picture that refuted the hushed (and even flagrant) racism that still runs through the American Dream.

Four years later, it is palpably obvious that this picture works in an opposite way—reinforcing the middle-class fantasy of meritocracy and the American fetish for affluence. Take for example the recent article by Valerie Strauss and the photograph of the First Family.

There is much I still find compelling about the Obamas, and a hopeful part of me wishes that this photograph were the shield against racism I had envisioned by casting my vote. But Strauss's article reveals the real story: Obama's failing education agenda that perpetuates the privilege he has attained for his children and the inequitable education system his administration is creating for "other people's children."

 

 

Dare the School Build a New Social Order? 2012

In the 1930s, in the clutches of economic collapse, proclamations of the promises associated with universal public education were often built on the ability of schools to transform society. George S. Counts personified that social reconstructionist view of public education—notably his most celebrated work Dare the School Build a New Social Order?, published in 1932.

Counts confronted the political nature of teaching and schooling, and his work was unabashedly leftist, transparently revolutionary. While Counts and other left-leaning educational theorists (including John Dewey) eventually lost influence and even became stigmatized throughout mid-twentieth century during the McCarthy Era and its witch hunts for communists, the essential message in Counts's work has remained robust, and even echoed in the words of current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the face and voice of Obama's education policy:

Whether it's in rural Alaska or inner-city Detroit, everyone everywhere shares a common belief that education is America's economic salvation.

They see education as the one true path out of poverty—the great equalizer that overcomes differences in background, culture and privilege. It's the only way to secure our common future in a competitive global economy.

Everyone wants the best for their children and they are willing to take greater responsibility. Nobody questions our purpose.

That education is the most powerful lever to transform society is a central rhetorical element of the narratives coming from Duncan and Obama, as well as the growing crop of corporate-style reformers embracing "no excuses" ideologies related to education.

But the policy and reforms implemented by Obama's administration cast a dark shadow across the photograph included in Strauss's article about the First Family and Obama's two daughters beginning school in the fall of 2012. As the article details, Obama's daughters attend Sidwell:

Sidwell has two campuses, and for a few years Sasha attended school in Bethesda while Malia went to the Northwest Washington campus. Now they both go to school at the Northwest location.

Sidwell, a Quaker institution, is one of the most exclusive schools in the country, with fees in the Ivy League range.

For the new school year, lower school costs $33,268, including, according to the Web site, a hot lunch and textbooks. The middle and upper schools cost $34,268, which, according to the Web site, includes hot lunch. Textbooks aren’t mentioned.

In part, Obama and his family of color personify that privilege can trump race in the U.S., but that same photograph helps distract us from the uglier picture: Obama's education agenda is creating a public school system for "other people's children" that he would never allow for his own two daughters (factually, that he has not chosen for his own two daughters).

Under the Obama administration, charter schools that segregate and implement racist and classist ideologies have received verbal and financial support; Teach for America has received the same sort of support in order to intensify the reality that children of color and children in poverty disproportionately have un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers.

Under the Obama administration, "other people's children" are subjected to the most authoritarian and oppressive discipline practices and an endless battery of test-prep.

In short, under Obama, public school is being reinforced as a mechanism to reflect and perpetuate social inequity, not overcome it.

If public education is to be the "great equalizer," as Duncan claims, our schools must be unlikethe inequitable society it is designed to change.

And here we come against the inherent failure of the Obama education agenda. Duncan's words quoted here must be seen in their full message: education is the path out of poverty but only as a mechanism for creating competitive (and compliant) workers.

Rare is the time you will hear Duncan or Obama embrace the role of education to achieve democratic equity.

Obama's educational failure is that he has been blinded by the privilege he has attained and allowed his administration to be consumed by the most powerful agenda in the U.S.: Corporate America.

Obama is squandering his unique moment at the bully pulpit of the presidency. The U.S. needs him to speak to and act upon the possibility of public education confronting the social and educational inequity still plaguing our country—inequity that is driven by racism, sexism, and classism still festering in the American character.

It is time for those of us who still cling to the hope that our schools should dare to build a new social order to hold reformers and politicians to their rhetoric, but to remind them that in order for schools to change society, those schools must be different than that society. If we want to foster democracy, our children must live and learn democracy in our schools—not continue to experience the labeling and sorting of test-based education.

In 1932, Counts argued that "the most crucial of all circumstances conditioning human life is birth into a particular culture."

In 2012, most children are prisoners of that fact as poverty is destiny, just as privilege is destiny.

Obama's education agenda, like the photograph of his family at the Democratic National Convention, is a powerful lever closing the door to equity for "other people's children"—not a lever of change and hope that his own children are fortunate enough to witness in their own lives.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy...