A Preview from Obama's Nominee for U.S. Education Secretary
Education Reform in the Obama Administration
Educational Equity Dinner --
Good evening and thank you.
I have a friend back in
And whenever we have a few minutes alone – we often end up talking about education.
He is a passionate believer in public education – he attributes his personal success to education – and throughout his life he has used his position to advance the cause of public education.
As it turns out, my friend was just elected President of the
I understand that we’re facing two wars, a struggling economy, an unsustainable energy policy, a health care system that consumes 16% of the GNP, and a national debt of about $10 trillion dollars.
I also understand that we have had eight years in which there has been no real call for national sacrifice that is required to meet these kinds of challenges.
Americans have been told that low taxes, easy credit, open markets and military might are all we need to preserve our way of life.
No one told us that we can’t borrow our way to prosperity. No one told us that we also have to invest in ourselves, our children and our future – and sometime that requires delaying gratification today for a better tomorrow.
So this may not be the ideal climate for a discussion on the future of public education. In fact, several recent newspaper articles have suggested that education will not be one of Barack Obama’s top priorities.
I know they are wrong.
Americans are eager for an open, honest and provocative discussion on public education and Barack Obama is ready, willing and able to lead it.
Barack Obama has a profound understanding of the importance of education. His story, as well as that of his wife Michelle, would not be possible without an education.
He gave 12 major education speeches during the campaign. He was a strong advocate for education in the Illinois State Senate where he helped create the State’s Early Learning Council.
In his short time in
His education platform – which you are all familiar with – is comprehensive, thoughtful, and forward-thinking.
It starts at birth by supporting struggling parents. He knows that children who fall behind by kindergarten may never catch up so he wants more Head Start seats and he wants higher quality pre-school.
He supports a major investment in K-12 education, with an emphasis on boosting teacher quality and more afterschool programs. He wants to invest, but invest in what works, not in perpetuating the status quo.
He does not want to abandon No Child Left Behind. He wants to fix it. He rightly credits the law with exposing underperformance among sub-groups, but rightly critiques the law for failing to live up to its promise.
NCLB set lofty goals but did not provide the resources to meet those goals – and now that so many states are in financial trouble – our hard-earned gains are even more at risk.
Barack Obama is a supporter of charter schools and performance pay and other strategies to raise achievement and promote competition. His views, however, are not driven by an ideology that holds unions in contempt and worships free markets.
He is interested in results. He is pragmatic, with a laser-like focus on student achievement. He understands that
President-elect Obama also wants to expand access to college with a $4000 dollar tax credit. He understands that
He will invest in subjects like science, technology, engineering and math – the so-called STEM subjects, that are so important to our economic future.
Finally, he wants to challenge parents to take more responsibility for their child’s education – by turning off the video games, helping with homework and directing their children into constructive activities.
That’s a critical message, because parents spend much more time with their children than teachers. If they don’t have books in their homes, and if they don’t talk to their kids about school everyday, the kids will get the message that it’s not important.
There is a lot more detail behind these ideas, but these are the basic components. Many of these initiatives were developed in big cities like
We have a great new generation of educational thinkers and entrepreneurs – people like Jon Schnur of New Leaders for New Schools, Wendy Kopp of Teach for
Some people might disagree with me, but I believe that the combative history between unions and management has taken a back seat in recent years as we have all worked together to bring new approaches and ideas into our classrooms.
n 75 charter schools
n Started performance pay
n Closed down 19 schools for academic failure and dismissed the entire staff
n And gave our principals more authority than ever before to choose their teaching staff.
All across the country, similar innovations are playing out. It’s not always smooth – but there is at least a willingness and commitment on the part of all of the stakeholders to try and find common ground, and put the interests of children and their education first.
Barack Obama has watched and learned from all of this. He has gotten personally involved. He has been candid with everyone about the need to invest and challenge the status quo if we want to take public education in
Now in order for President Obama to make good on what candidate Obama has proposed, he really needs our help. There are many factors he can’t control – from Congress, to the economy, to the external pressures of the stakeholders involved.
But I am extraordinarily hopeful.
I know that – even in the kind of crisis environment we have today – Barack Obama is capable of staying focused on the broader challenges we face as a nation – and he believes – as I do – that education is the key to long-term economic strength.
As he said during the campaign – a President must be able to do more than one thing at a time – and the immediate crisis in the financial world cannot divert us from the larger crisis in the education world.
So the education community has the opportunity of a lifetime to remake public education in
We must move beyond the old battles and come together behind the fundamental concepts at the heart of the Obama vision. We must help him make the case for these investments.
We need to put the flesh on the bones, challenge mediocrity, and hold ourselves and each other, accountable.
If we allow early childhood programs to devolve into babysitting enterprises, that’s our fault. We all know young children can learn -- so if we’re not teaching them, then we have failed.
Every middle class family invests in tutoring and piano lessons and other enrichment activities. They know that a six-hour school day is not enough to prepare kids for the information society -- so why do we send poor children back to the streets at 2:30?
We must get our priorities in order so that every child in large urban districts like mine – where 85% of our children are low-income -- has safe, constructive activities each afternoon.
If school systems across
If we resist charter schools or performance pay – then we have failed. The rest of the world has used financial incentives since the dawn of time. The education world is way behind on this issue. I just started paying kids for grades. If it works, I’ll expand it.
If eight years from today, we’re still arguing about whether unions are the problem and charters are the answer then we will have missed an opportunity. They’re both here to stay, and let’s use them both to make good things happen in the classroom.
If we are unwilling to shut down failing schools and replace the staff with dedicated, energetic new teachers, then we have failed.
Five years ago, we closed down
In 2005, I took Senator Obama to
It also says something about his character and his leadership that he would dwell on this particular story – which is really about the ultimate form of accountability.
Barack Obama’s uplifting rhetoric about hope and change and a unified
He is absolutely willing to challenge conventional thinking even if draws a few boos. He understands – as all of us do – that the educator’s job is to fight for children – not adults.
Best of all, he is not someone who has been removed from this his whole life. This is his life. There are struggling schools and communities within blocks of his
He has seen first-hand how broken families and dysfunctional communities can impede learning. He has seen how gang life lures children away from school, triggering drug abuse, violence, and failure.
He won’t need to be briefed on this issue. It’s too close to him to fall off the list of priorities. You can sit down with him today and discuss education policy. He gets it – he asks thoughtful questions – and he gives informed responses.
So this is the time to think big – to move beyond the 20th century debates – and the 20th century formulas – and ask ourselves – what can education in
How can we get the very best people in every classroom – and especially in the schools that need them the most? What do we need to pay them? How do we need to pay them?
We need the next generation of superstars to choose teaching instead of choosing Wall Street or silicon valley. How do we make that happen?
How can we give every child who needs it much more time and support?
How can we crack the code on high schools so they stop losing a third of more of their kids – and start producing students who are ready for college and the world of work?
How do we bring real accountability into a system that resists reform, avoids blame, and tolerates failure?
If they had not named the financial bailout bill the Troubled Assets Relief Program, they could have used it to apply to American education. In all of
The economic crisis won’t displace education reform because there won’t be an economic future without a major investment in education.
You have heard all of the arguments before. The cost of education is less than the cost of crime, prisons and welfare. An investment in education strengthens the workforce.
Education is the path out of poverty, the response to inequality, the solution to economic competitiveness.
The difference today is that we have a president-elect who doesn’t just mouth these arguments. He believes them. He embodies them. They are central to who he is, and to what he believes.
He understands that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. This is the next step in the journey that ended slavery and Jim Crow. It’s the next step in the journey after
Education is the only path to equality and hope for the child of a crumbling home in a broken community – who looks out the door and sees young men without hope or opportunity. We have to get that child to go back inside and sit down and read.
Investing in education is not a policy option for
The alternative, however, will lift us all up and give us the platform to advance in the new century with confidence, ingenuity and determination.
It will make it possible for more kids from single parent homes like Barack Obama’s to fulfill their dreams and find meaning and purpose in their lives.
The Americans that elected Barack Obama were hard-working people who gave up their nights and weekends to work for change. They dug into their limited savings to support his campaign for change.
They know that service is central to American life. They are ready to make the sacrifice required to give our kids a better and stronger future.
They came out in record numbers to vote for change and they are willing to do their part to bring about change. And now we need to do ours.
Published Monday, Dec. 22, 2008