“[T]he Obama administration, in education laid the groundwork for Trump and Betsy DeVos because they were big supporters of charter schools . . . [C]harter schools are the first step toward full privatization.” – Diane Ravitch, Democracy Now, December 1, 2016
If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans agreed on during the last two decades, maybe the only thing, it is how to undermine public support for public education. Misguided education policy is a bipartisan endeavor in the United States and set the stage for the Trump anti-education agenda.
As a teacher, as a historian, and as a citizen, I have mixed feelings about the Obama presidency. I remember every president since Dwight Eisenhower. I believe Barack Obama is the brightest, most thoughtful president since the 1950s. I will miss his efforts to think things through with us during his speeches and his wry sense of humor. However, I think Obama’s presidency was weakened during his first six years in office by his intellectualism and an essentially conservative view of the power of the president. For too long President Obama tried to compromise with a vote “NO” political opposition that had no intention of ever agreeing to compromise.
I think President Obama also did not want to be seen as a social activist and politically had to shore-up support from wealthy financial interests aligned with the Democratic Party who view privatization of education as an investment opportunity. This meant a narrow technocratic approach to education reform epitomized by ESSA rather than a social justice agenda. It meant support for the expansion of charter schools and continuing the Bush administration’s commitment to the high-stakes testing of students and the assessment of teachers and schools based on student test score.
Obama the symbol will always be an important figure in defining the United States as a more inclusive society. Unfortunately Obama as president failed to make significant improvement in education for students, their families, and for teachers. Instead it angered or alienated many sectors of American society, weakening support for the Democrats, and contributing to Trump’s election.
During the Obama presidency the United States never made it to the top, it was not possible given lingering racial and ethnic bias and growing social and economic inequality in the country. But I don’t think the American people are in an educational quagmire either. Most United States schools function well and most United States students learn and are college and career ready. But there continues to be sharp racial, ethnic, and class divide in school achievement. One thing we should have learned by now is that schools by themselves cannot make up for deep-seated social injustice and inequality in American society.
In a recent interview for Education News, Michael Shaughnessy asked me what I thought were the top educational reforms during the last eight years. I was hard-pressed to come up with any. Instead I answered with the worst educational “deforms.” I don’t hold President Obama directly responsible for these “reforms”, but they either started or accelerated during his time in office.
1. The expansion of charter school networks, for-profit networks and autonomous “public” charters that draw better performing students and resources away from traditional public schools and threaten to leave the traditional public schools as catch-basins for harder to teach students with special needs.
2. The push to deprofessionalize teaching and turn it into a temporary transient job for unskilled, uncommitted young people who work from scripts or computer programs and leave the classroom before ever learning how to be effective teachers.
3. High-stakes assessments aligned with Common Core math and English skills that turn schools into test prep academies where history, science, music, and the arts are abandoned because they are not on the test.
4. Proposals to use “microteaching” videos and avatars to prepare the next generation of teachers. Teaching and learning are not passive activities. Students and student teachers learn best from interaction and engagement with others, not by watching videos. I am afraid we are feeding into a plague of young people plugged into devices who miss seeing the world around them.
When I visit pre-service students and student teachers in classrooms, or beginning teachers, I almost always get involved in the lesson modeling how teachers can translate classroom ideas into classroom practice. The pre-service students and student teachers see what is possible working with real young human beings. They get excited about teaching because they know the students in their classrooms and want to be involved as motivating and challenging teachers. I find the interaction in a classroom setting inspires me and I hope it also inspires them.
There is a very funny segment of the “Big Bang Theory” where Sheldon Cooper is learning to drive through a computer simulation and he ends up crashing his simulated off the roof of a simulated shopping center. It takes three to five years of hard work in the classroom to learn how to be a good teacher. There are no short cuts and simulation programs that substitute for actual experience. Would you want a surgeon trained to operate using an avatar in a computer simulation?
I student-taught in 1971 and started working as a substitute teacher after graduation. I was a full-time teacher for fourteen years before I became a teacher educator. I learned to teach working with real people, students, colleagues, administrators, and teacher educators. Maybe I am a dinosaur, but I refuse to teach teaching methods classes online. I value the interaction with people, teamwork, learning together, feedback, and the social skills that develop in classrooms. I use email, PowerPoint, and my cell phone to keep in touch with students and student teachers, but they are supplements, not replacements for gathering together in the classroom where we share experiences and learn together.
I think we are looking at an artificially created teacher shortage and alternative certification programs designed to eliminate teacher education programs. I have always had some issues with university-based teacher education programs. Classes can be too theoretical. Professors are not always grounded in school culture and practice. The nuts and bolts of teaching are important to me.