Obama Speaks

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 10 2008 10:27 AM

Obama Speaks

Speaking of the country's education debate: In Dayton, Ohio, yesterday, Barack Obama delivered a major speech on education reform.

Last weekend, I wrote in the Times Magazine that Obama was facing a schism in the Democratic Party over education, with the teachers unions on one side and a new, accountability-focused group of education reformers on the other. Each camp, I wrote, was trying to claim Obama for their own, parsing his speeches and policy pronouncements, looking for clues that he favored their approach.

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To me, yesterday's speech sounded more like the words of a pro-charter reformer than a union loyalist. Obama pledged to double federal funding on charter schools and to make teachers more accountable for the success of their students, saying, "Teachers who are doing a poor job will get extra support, but if they still don't improve, they'll be replaced."

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But union folks, it seems, liked what they heard as well. Just after Obama's speech, I spoke with Randi Weingarten , the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and she told me she thought the speech was "very important." She pointed to Obama's support for a measure that would make it easier to close failing charter schools and said she admired his plan to increase the number of high-school students taking college-level or AP courses. The speech, she said, "had a balance of a great tone—even though there were things we disagreed with—along with some serious, concrete proposals."

For someone (like me) who finds the politics of education generally depressing and dysfunctional, what really stood out in the speech was its scope, the recognition that the system needs big, big change: not just charter schools or vouchers or better teacher pay but a complete overhaul. As Obama put it :

We need a new vision for a 21st century education—one where we aren't just supporting existing schools, but spurring innovation; where we're not just investing more money, but demanding more reform; where parents take responsibility for their children's success; where our schools and government are accountable for results; where we're recruiting, retaining, and rewarding an army of new teachers, and students are excited to learn because they're attending schools of the future; and where we expect all our children not only to graduate high school, but to graduate college and get a good paying job.

It's time to ask ourselves why other countries are outperforming us in education. Because it's not that their kids are smarter than ours—it's that they're being smarter about how to educate their kids. They're spending less time teaching things that don't matter and more time teaching things that do. Their students are spending more time in school, and they're setting higher expectations.

I think there are people on each side of the standoff within the Democratic Party who know that the eventual solution is going to require both sides to give something up. But neither wants to be the one to go first. And so for now, the debate feels stuck. It's exactly why I think a broad vision of reform like the one Obama laid out is potentially important—it might serve as something of a peace treaty, a chance for both sides to lay down their arms and figure out the real solutions to the country's education crisis.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.

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