What Ed Programs Will Obama Purge?

Peter Wood

               In his address to Congress Tuesday night, President Obama had several things to say about education including higher education.  He promised to increase federal spending on education but coupled this with a promise to end “education programs that don’t work.”

                This raises the question, of course, which are the programs that “don’t work?”  Head Start, for example, has a dismal record as far as attaining long-term educational benefits for the pre-school children enrolled in it.  Is Head Start headed for the chopping block? 

                “Diversity” programs have been in place for up to thirty years without delivering on Justice Powell’s promise that they would enrich the intellectual experience of college students.  Even efforts to retrofit “diversity” with new goals by claiming that it enhances “critical thinking” and “civic participation” have come empirically empty.  Is “diversity” destined for the Obama scrap heap of “education programs that don’t work?”

                It is not hard to think of other candidates:  women’s studies, cultural studies, ethnic studies, and the rest of the suite of invented topics that are a stew of resentment, anti-Western ideology, and special pleading.  Fields that need exemptions from the ordinary rules of rational inquiry and evidence have followers not students.  They are the epitome of “education programs that don’t work.”  To the town dump?

                And what about schools of education?  Could there be a more dysfunctional  component of American education?  Here we have an apparatus designed nearly 150 years ago by Horace Mann to elevate the teaching to a rigorous profession but that has become a conveyor belt for bringing ignorant, foolish, and often ideological clownish individuals into the nation’s classrooms.   Many graduates of schools of education have no foundation in the subjects they teach, but are instead stuffed full of “progressive” pedagogies that were failed experiments when our grandparents were learning their ABCs.   And to these dodos we have to add the Barbara Applebaums, Eric Gutsteins, and Bill Ayers of the ed school world, who see teaching as an opportunity to recruit students to their radical politics.   If Obama is going to eliminate “education programs that don’t work,” he can throw the ed schools under the bus too.

                It is often said that people hear what they want to in an Obama speech.  So, although I was excited about the prospect of a really thorough reform of education, I thought I had better check to make sure Head Start, diversity, victim studies, and schools of education are indeed on the list.  How could they not be?  Still, it seemed wise to check.

                I have to admit I am perplexed.  The White House does have a website that includes the President’s agenda for education.   It starts on an unsettling note:  “President Obama and Vice President Biden believe that our kids and our country can’t afford four more years of neglect and indifference.”  Four more years?   I would have thought forty would have been closer to the mark, if by “neglect and indifference” the President and Vice President mean the willingness of the nation’s leadership to see schools and universities diverted from the central projects of teaching and inquiry into other pursuits.  Democrats and Republicans alike have found it easy to treat education as a political plaything, whether to appease teachers’ unions, play to the anxieties of voters, or to dish out pork. 


                But “indifference and neglect” don’t seem quite the right words in this case, since the harms done to education have often come not from lack of attention but from too much of the wrong kind of attention.  And “indifference and neglect” would seem a strange verdict on President’s Bush’s term.  Whatever one thinks of them, No Child Left Behind was not a policy born of “indifference and neglect,” and neither was Secretary Spellings’ ardent attempts to use accreditation to reform colleges and universities. 

                In fact, the second sentence of the White House education agenda could have been lifted directly from Secretary Spellings:  “At this defining moment in our history, America faces few more urgent challenges than preparing our children to compete in a global economy.”  That is to say, President Obama like Margaret Spellings begins by framing education primarily as a matter of global competitiveness.   Is education most profoundly about jobs?  

                Surely preparing children for their adult life includes preparing them for work.  Maybe “preparing our children to compete in a global economy” means more than just jobs.  A generous reading might include fostering in children a spirit of innovation and enterprise.   Still, generosity will carry you only so far with this.  I miss the sense that education is about more than the global economy.  It is about giving children a stake in our civilization by making it their civilization.  To this end, children need to learn a great many things, including how to be good stewards of their time, and ultimately creative and productive workers. 

                But if you put serving the economy first, you don’t serve even the economy very well.  Very few of us organize our lives around competing in the global economy.  The animating ideals are more personal and immediate.  They come from our sense that we have a way of life worth living.  Deep down, that’s what education is about. 

                I went to the Education Agenda website seeking the list of “education programs that don’t work,” but clearly got sidetracked on the opening sentences.  Back to the main story.  It turns out that President Obama’s agenda doesn’t match my list very closely.  Or, let’s say, not at all. 

                As he said in his speech Tuesday, he wants parents “to take responsibility for their children’s success.”   He wants to create voluntary, universal pre-school. He seeks to :

  • Expand Early Head Start and Head Start: Obama and Biden will quadruple Early Head Start, increase Head Start funding, and improve quality for both.

He hopes to re-design No Child Left Behind, so that teachers “will not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.”  He wants to “close low-performing charter schools.”  He wants “all schools of education to be accredited,” which suggests he does not intend to eliminate the ed school racket.  He wants to create a $4,000 refundable tax credit for the first $4,000 spent on college education.  He hopes to simplify the application forms for financial aid.

                I’m leaving out some details, which you can read for yourself, but I’m not leaving out any mentions of “education programs that don’t work.”  It looks at the moment that the only programs he has in mind are the standardized testing component of No Child Left Behind and “low-performing charter schools.”  Presumably low-performing non-charter schools are safe from the budgetary scimitar. 

                I don’t know quite what to say.   So many “education programs that don’t work,” and this is all President Obama can think of?  I’m disappointed. 

                Perhaps he is holding the good stuff back.  We can always hope.


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