After two years, it has become clear that the education policies pursued by the Obama administration too closely resemble those of the Bush administration. They are leading us in the wrong direction and not producing the changes we need.
The vast number of parents and children throughout the country who rely on public schools are a natural constituency for the Democratic Party. So, too, are the 2.1 million teachers and administrators who draw their livelihoods from public education. Both groups are more likely to understand and support the need to direct public dollars not only to education but to healthcare and social welfare. They are also less likely to embrace the intolerance and fiscal conservatism of the Tea Party and the GOP right wing.
One lesson Obama should draw from his party’s drubbing in the midterm elections is that this constituency is frustrated with his leadership on education. Increasingly, public school students and parents are unenthusiastic about the administration’s reliance on high-stakes testing and its embrace of market-oriented reform strategies—performance pay for teachers, charter schools, etc. And many teachers have been alienated by the overt hostility toward their unions expressed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a growing number of Democratic politicians.
The defeat of Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty should serve as a lesson. Fenty’s re-election race was in many ways a referendum on the performance of his controversial schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, an outspoken advocate of the narrow reforms supported by the Obama administration. Even though some of what Rhee tried to accomplish made sense (reducing the number of highly paid administrators, for example, and holding principals accountable for school performance), Fenty’s loss shows that those who rely on public schools can insist that change be made with rather than to them.
Instead of waiting for this administration to recognize that it should head in a new direction, those of us who know the importance of public education must initiate a campaign to defend and improve it. We need to organize parents, teachers unions, school board members and others around a reform agenda that calls for protecting public education while also calling for its renewal.
For more than two years, a group of educators, policy advocates and scholars have called for a "broader and bolder approach to education" (boldapproach.org). The campaign advocates universal child access to healthcare and early childhood education and extending learning opportunities into the summer. Similarly, several civil rights organizations and advocacy groups have embraced an "opportunity to learn" agenda, focused on reducing inequities in funding among schools and helping schools create conditions conducive to learning and healthy child development. Others, such as the Forum for Education and Democracy, Educators for Social Justice and Parents for Public Schools, have advocated a shift in focus away from test preparation and toward an expansion of learning opportunities that foster self-motivation and higher-order thinking.