Where Obama is Getting Education “Wrong”

The caption under this Storybook Rabbit (Amber) Flickr photo was, “Never sit on the left side of the room when you have a right-handed teacher. This was like sitting behind a column at a baseball game. Except much less exciting.”

I would add that the teacher is thinking, “I have the data and I know that this is the scribble my students need to be looking at right now.”

The reason that I can not get eight hours of sleep is that I am haunted.  I become possessed by conversations I’ve had in my waking hours.  I am drawn from my sleep by cold boney fingers reaching out from the graves of past presentations — by the insightful, but initially unrealized, comments made by participants and those questions that I wish I’d answered better.

Yesterday, at Saint Marys, a private girls school here in Raleigh, I was asked, “Although I agree with your call to better prepare our children for the future with more authentic assignments, does that help us in our mission to prepare girls for college?”  Then the librarian asked, (and these questions are grossly paraphrased) “I know that Wikipedia and Google are invaluable tools — but what is the place for the online databases that we subscribe to?”

The ghost of workshops past that I must exorcise right now, was something that the Dean of Faculty said to me after the presentation.  He related a conversation he’d just had with a math teacher of many decades who told him that she started to “get it,” when the presenter suggested that we need to be asking ourselves,

What kind of questions will we ask on our tests, when our students walk into the classroom with Google in their pockets?

And then he (I) asked the audience to consider calculators — how, for years, we resisted the new devices because it wasn’t math.  It didn’t look like the math instruction we traditionally provided, and so we almost demonized the things.  But now that calculators have become a critical part of many mathematics classes, have they changed the questions we ask?  Have they changed the problems we ask our students to solve?  Has it changed the nature of math instruction?

The answer, of course, is, “Yes!”  Calculators empower learners to work numbers to an end.  They force students to transend paper and pencil, to truly utilize the language of numbers to solve problems, answer questions, accomplish goals — to learn new things.  I maintain that we should expect learning in the classroom to be the same as learning in the “real world” — that it is about ubiquitous access to the global flow of information and the tools that empower us to work that information.

It’s where the Obama Administration has it completely wrong.  According to Secretary Arne Duncan’s July 24 Washington Post op-ed, “The president starts from the understanding that maintaining the status quo in our schools is unacceptable.” (( Duncan. Arne. “Education Reform’s Moon Shot,” The Washington Post 24 Jul 2009. Web.18 Aug 2009. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/23/AR2009072302634.html>. ))  Yet, it appears to me that the status quo is exactly where we are staying.  Like the former failed administration, the answer seems to be do the same thing, just do it more, do it harder, do it longer, and our children will gain the skills they will need to “compete in the global economy.”  This is wrong on so many levels that I just want to throw up my hands give up.

  • Adopting internationally-benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace;
  • Recruiting, developing, retaining, and rewarding effective teachers and principals;
  • Building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices; and
  • Turning around our lowest-performing schools. ((United States Government. Education Department. Race to the Top Fund — Executive Summary. Washington: GPO, 2009. Web/PDF. <http://www.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/executive-summary.pdf>. ))

So back to my haunt.  What interests me about the connection made by the math teacher between the calculator and the Google’d cell phone is that they are both about empower learning.  Of the four (entirely unoriginal) education reform areas (see left) being targeted by the administrations dangled carrot ($4.3 billion), the one that irks me the most is number three — data.

Now I love data.  I love what you can do with data.  Data visualization is one of my favorite themes to follow on Twitter.  But what’s wrong with “Building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals..” and wrong with so much of the prevailing conversations about education reform, is that it’s about empowering teaching and schooling.  It’s designed to help us do our jobs better as educators — when we need to be figuring out how to empower our students to do their jobs better as learners.

Obama, through Duncan, wants us to use data to measure student learning — and by result, to further limit what we teach to that which can be measured.  What we should be doing is helping our students to use data, so that they can measure their world and better understand their relationship with that world — what can’t be measured.

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that we are continuing down the same dumb path of thinking that we need high school and college graduates who know the answers to old questions.  This is wrong!

It’s new questions that will define our future.  Today, we need graduates who can invent answers to the “new questions.”

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Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.