W(h)ither America 2008: Blackboard Bungle

Education is the foundation of innovation and progress, so why is it a neglected campaign issue? Josh Fischel offers comprehensive solutions and leadership to the disparity of our nation’s school systems.

Our public schools are unequal.  I don’t want them made equal, because that would move them all towards mediocrity.  Instead, I want them all to be at least good, and I want the gap between the top and the bottom to be smaller.

Right now, the bottom is appalling.  A few years back, I spent a year living in Brooklyn and working at an independent school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; my three housemates were New York City Teaching Fellows.  Only one managed to stay in the same classroom for the entire year, and he aged about five years in the year I knew him.  The others were chased to other schools by impossible bureaucracy, incompetent leadership, unruly kids and parents, and a lack of supplies and discipline. For example, whereas I grew accustomed years later, at a boarding school where I taught, to finding something I wanted to teach for the next day and running down to the copy room to make copies for everyone, my housemates had to submit work requests weeks in advance in order to use the copiers at their schools.  Most of the time, they just went to Kinko’s and paid for it themselves.

Their supervisor could walk into their classroom at any time and demand to see the next two weeks of their lesson plans; if they couldn’t provide them, it was grounds for dismissal.  One’s girlfriend, also a fellow, was threatened one day by a student.  She ordered him to leave the room.  He refused.  She called for security, and they all sat there, waiting for security to arrive.  No one came.  She quit the next day.

The anecdotal evidence is unfortunately backed by statistics.  Last year, twenty percent of all elementary school students in New York City were absent from at least a month of school.  Current Education Secretary Margaret Spellings only recently announced rules tied to No Child Left Behind meant to curb staggering high school drop-out rates, especially among poor and minority children, half of whom never make it to graduation.  A 2006 survey of 18- to 24-year-olds by National Geographic found that geographic knowledge among that cohort was particularly abysmal: 75% couldn’t find Iran or Israel on a map of the Middle East; 65% couldn’t point out Great Britain.

So why isn’t education the runaway #1 issue on the campaign trail?  Success in education would lead to better outcomes in all the other areas of concern to voters—a better-trained workforce could come up with more innovative solutions to our energy crisis, for instance.  If we taught our students more about personal finance, there wouldn’t be so much debt in the U.S. and people might not have entered into sub-prime mortgage arrangements.  There’d be fewer people in prison, since there’s a direct, negative correlation between education attainment and time spent behind bars.  Education is the linchpin of solving pretty much all of our problems.  Why are we stuck on talking about standards and school choice?

One of the most upsetting reasons is the anti-intellectual tenor of the campaign.  We’ve learned over the last several presidential cycles that book learnin’ makes you a dope-smoking hippie or aloof and out of touch or an elitist.  Al Gore may have gone to Harvard, but you wouldn’t want to have a beer with him (possibly the worst measure ever of a candidate’s presidential qualities, by the way).  Sarah Palin is the leader of the current know-nothing charge.  She attended five colleges and distinguished herself at precisely none of them (the top of her ticket was near the bottom of his class in school, too).  Her husband never graduated from college.  Her oldest son dropped out of high school, and her oldest (and pregnant) daughter seems headed that way, too, as does that daughter’s fiancée.  Might I add that the targets of Palin’s most hateful venom—Bill Ayers and, within the last few days, Rashid Khalidi—are both respected college professors?  

Obama and Biden are both better educated, and Obama’s speeches—particularly his address on race in Philadelphia that successfully deflected the spotlight from his association with Jeremiah Wright—have demonstrated his thoughtfulness.  In debates, he was willing to cede points until the McCain campaign released a rapid response ad in which they spliced together every time Obama said he agreed with McCain.

But the fact that the White House could be filled with scholars or nincompoops doesn’t really matter.  Fixing education can’t really be primarily a federal issue.  No Child Left Behind will ultimately be seen as unsuccessful because it’s not based on outcomes.  It has dictated that schools must test, often, and must teach to that test, when it should have set goals that every school in every state must meet and then allowed each state or district figure out how to get there.  The federal government’s role should be to examine innovations occurring at the local level, and then figure out how it can expand the reach and impact of successful models.  An administration should also promote creative reform, which is why I’m drawn to Obama’s plan to promote mentoring programs between teachers.

School funding is most effective at the local level, because voters will support things that increase their property values. Good schools are right up there (I’m getting this mostly from my father, who wrote a book on the subject and is writing another one now, but I agree with the idea).  If the federal (or state) government funds schools, and disperses monies equally to every school, it diminishes the competition between districts to attract the best and brightest to their community.

One thing the federal government could throw money at is special education, often underfunded at the state or local level.  Sarah Palin, who is, according to her ticket, a sudden authority on special education because of her months-old Down’s baby that’s probably hers but might not be, gave her first policy speech (one of two she’s given at all—she also hasn’t released her medical records or given a single press conference… but that’s not what this column is about) on special education. 

I forwarded the text to a friend who’s worked on special education issues for years for New Hampshire and asked for her reaction.  The initial one came quickly: “Ohmygoshyoudon’twanttogetmestarted!!!  I’ve read only the first bullet point and I’m ready to rant.”  Her later response was a little calmer, but her overall reaction was that the whole thing was “politically opportunistic.”  And this is from someone who lauded the efforts of Judd Gregg, New Hampshire’s last Republican standing in the Senate, in pushing for special education funding.  It seems she didn’t take issue so much with the substance of the speech, but with the timing of it.  McCain, to our collective memory, didn’t make a big deal about standing up for special needs kids before he selected Palin as his running mate, and it’s not as though the GOP has been historically strong on education-related issues.  It seems a lot like pandering, mostly because it is.

My hope is that a President Obama—or, God forbid (at this point), President McCain—will be able to set the tone for a return to excellence: critical thinking, a healthy skepticism, and an enthusiasm for learning beyond studying for bubble tests.  I think that’s probably the best we can hope for. 

Unless, that is, we get some college presidents or city school superintendents to run for office.  They have more executive experience than the average bear, and often come from academic backgrounds, meaning that they know how to collaborate, how to conduct research that cuts through the usual bull, and are well-versed in a host of education issues.  Some people in this category who could run convincingly for president—yes, president—in 2016 would include:

  • Richard Levin (Yale)
    The longest serving president in the Ivy League, he has a PhD in economics and was appointed in 2004 to the Iraq Intelligence Commission.

  • Marvin Krislov (Oberlin)
    Prior to leading Oberlin, Krislov served as the vice president and general counsel for the University of Michigan, defending the University against attacks by affirmative action opponents.  There, he also served on the President’s Task Force on Ethics in Public Life.  He spent time in the counsel’s office during the Clinton administration (getting out pre-Lewinsky), and was a freaking Rhodes Scholar back in the day, too.

  • David Leebron (Rice)
    A Harvard Law graduate (and the 1972 president of the Law Review), Leebron was Dean of Columbia Law before taking over the presidency at Rice.  He served on the Council on Foreign Relations, and specializes in international trade, human rights, and corporate finance.

  • Michelle Rhee (DC Schools Chancellor)
    A Teach for America recruit and founder of The New Teacher Project, she’s been off to a great start in DC, raising teacher quality.  If she succeeds there, she’ll be a political force down the road.

You get the idea.  Obama has shown that we’re open to different profiles and experiences in a president if the candidate demonstrates enough leadership and dynamism.  Let’s not forget to cast our yearning eyes toward the ivory tower, too.

Josh Fischel lives near Boston with his wife and their dog. He teaches sixth grade humanities, and has been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and Bean Soup.