Tuesday, March 10, 2009

OK, we're saved

I'm going to give President Obama some credit for taking on a whole bunch of challenges. A lot of people, particularly the talking heads on the Sunday talk shows, believe he's taking on too much, that he should focus like a laser on the economy and let everything else slide.

Here's what I believe: Obama sees where the country is and thinks pretty much everything has to change, that to do one thing without the other is doomed to failure. We can't fix the banking system without getting our whole financial system on firm footing, and we can't do that while Americans fear the crippling effects on having insufficient health care. And we have to stop spending so much on health care. We can't continue our dependency on other countries for energy, we have to bring that home, and, in so doing, we'll create new jobs. And so on, and so forth.

I certainly don't buy into every detail of these things, and I think the effects will be far less than forecast. There is an enduring optimism that people who have made the system work for them tend to have, and that's lovely; for those of us who have been buffeted about a little more, who have not had a meteoric rise to the Presidency, things do not look as rosy.

But I applaud the attempt to look at the nation as a holistic system, one that has to improve in several areas at once. If Obama took the standard approach of serializing these problems, the one that Congress seems to prefer, he would need five terms to accomplish everything.

There would also be inequities in this approach brought on by exigency. If we throw money at the banking system for 18 months to save it, bankers are going to receive all the perceived benefits of these actions. However, if we're improving health care at the same time, then everyone's getting something.

So, fine, let's take on education as well. I believe that Obama is captive to conventional wisdom on the subject, but any effort would be welcome, right? Let's see. He gave a major address on education to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce this morning, and let's take a look at it.

He begins with a nice riff that talks about balancing the short-term with the long-term (along the lines I talked about above):
In the short term, that means jump-starting job creation and restarting lending, and restoring confidence in our markets and our financial system. But it also means taking steps that not only advance our recovery, but lay the foundation for lasting, shared prosperity.

I know there's some who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time. And they forget that Lincoln helped lay down the transcontinental railroad and passed the Homestead Act and created the National Academy of Sciences in the midst of civil war. Likewise, President Roosevelt didn't have the luxury of choosing between ending a depression and fighting a war; he had to do both. President Kennedy didn't have the luxury of choosing between civil rights and sending us to the moon. And we don't have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term.

America will not remain true to its highest ideals -- and America's place as a global economic leader will be put at risk -- unless we not only bring down the crushing cost of health care and transform the way we use energy, but also if we do -- if we don't do a far better job than we've been doing of educating our sons and daughters; unless we give them the knowledge and skills they need in this new and changing world.
There's the obligatory mention of how the GI Bill...investments in math and science...the wonders of Google..."economic progress and educational achievement have always gone hand in hand."

But then we run off the rails:
The source of America's prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people. This has never been more true than it is today. In a 21st-century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there's an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know -- education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it's a prerequisite for success.
This paragraph is more of the nonsense we've heard for years. The "what you do," "what you know" distinction is ludicrous, especially if you're in the market for a job and running up against the hirers who say that you need "exactly" the qualifications in the job description. When people start to pay for "what you know" rather than for job titles, we'll have something.

Worse, of course, is the perpetuation of the idea that the Dallas child is falling behind his Indian counterpart because of his remarkable stupidity and the incompetence of his teachers. How many more times do I (and many, though not enough, other commentators) have to stress that the jobs are lost not because of the awesome intellectual power of Dajit or Li-Xun, but because of the discrepancy in compensation. I know why Bill Gates pushes this idiocy, but I want to think better of Obama.

On he goes:
So let there be no doubt: The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens -- and my fellow Americans, we have everything we need to be that nation. We have the best universities, the most renowned scholars. We have innovative principals and passionate teachers and gifted students, and we have parents whose only priority is their child's education. We have a legacy of excellence, and an unwavering belief that our children should climb higher than we did.
But there is doubt. We have the "most renowned scholars," most of whom use whatever clout they've earned to stay as far away from the undergraduate classroom as possible. We have universities that get far more excited about March Madness than graduation rates for those athletes. And we have tuition rates that are skyrocketing even as opportunities for our young people are narrowing.
It's that most American of ideas, that with the right education, a child of any race, any faith, any station, can overcome whatever barriers stand in their way and fulfill their God-given potential.
This is a wonderful sentiment, really it is, but it conflicts with what we're actually seeing. This expression of the American Dream has run headlong into the other expression, that people should be free to exploit whatever resources they can in order to enrich themselves. If that means we treat the workforce as replacable drags on personal fortunes, so be it. If that means we use cheap foreign workers to line our own pockets, that's the American Dream for a whole lot of executives.

The next part of Obama's speech is very good, as he talks about "the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline." That's all true, especially in Washington, which has managed to create No Child Left Behind, a set-it-and-forget-it system that brought laissez-faire thinking to education. And no one should be able to argue with:
The time for holding us -- holding ourselves accountable is here. What's required is not simply new investments, but new reforms. It's time to expect more from our students. It's time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones. It's time to demand results from government at every level.
Of course, he follows that with:
It's time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world. It's time to give all Americans a complete and competitive education from the cradle up through a career.
Again, until every American child is given the ability to live on $10,000 a year, this "out-compete" business is just an excuse. No one knows a way to make American children five or so times as productive as foreign children, so the numbers will never add up. Furthermore, we don't actually know what constitutes a "complete and competitive education" in our current situation.

Obama then moves into the five "pillars" of his program. The first is more support for early education. As someone who grew up pretty far right, this kind of program always strikes me as a but heavy-handed, asking government to intrude into the lives of people.

But then I think of teenagers having babies, the lack of reliable day care, the research that indicates that children learn an incredible amount before the age of 5, and I get a little more sympathetic to these efforts. There are still problems: if we can't find top quality teachers for the grades we have, where will we get the ones who are capable of teaching 3-year-olds?

The second pillar is to "spur a race to the top by encouraging better standards and assessments." Here's the thing, and I should probably put this at the end, but no one ever accused my posts of being organized.

Our schools should be better, not because of some vaguely-defined objectives about "competitiveness" or "economic decline," because we still haven't defined the way the one translates into the other - the forces that are creating economic decline have surprisingly little to do with education. No, they should be better in the way that anything we take on should be better. If we're going to spend billions on education, we simply should take enough pride in ourselves to do it more effectively. If other nations are really doing a better job of teaching their kids, that's just wrong.

Obama wants "tougher, clearer standards," and that's fine. Of course, he's calling on states to make that happen, which is somewhat contradictory. If we're to have one set of standards for the nation, they'll have to come from one place...and that place will be Washington. Politics will determine if that's going to happen.

This part, however:
I'm calling on our nation's governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.
irks me, because there is no real proof that we can teach those things effectively. If we can't even teach bubble-filling, how do we teach creativity? We don't know, so it will be back to the same experimentation that has been the hallmark of American education for decades - the same decades that have demonstrated our decline.

The third pillar is probably the most problematic. It's the need for:
recruiting, preparing, and rewarding outstanding teachers.
Need I point out, again, that the probability of creating 3,000,000 great teachers is highly unlikely. I commend Obama for putting money into local government so we don't see layoffs in our schools, because fewer teachers can't be the answer. And urging young people to go into education is never a bad thing (other than the philosophical dilemma, do we really want our best and brightest to teach instead of do?).

And here we come to the magic, that marvelous word "accountability," which automatically makes the weak strong. The usual stuff here from the President, mentoring, merit pay, guidance, support.

But the carrot doesn't come without the stick. We're going to get those bad teachers out of the classroom, drum them right out.

[Then there's this:
I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children's teachers and the schools where they teach.
If only Mr. Obama had the same standards for bankers and auto executives....]

I'm sure I've said this before, but there's a level of unreality here. We really don't know how to evaluate teachers, to distinguish great from good from OK from salvageable from irredeemable. If you're an administrator in a marginal school district, there's a huge incentive to keep the bodies you have. You don't know where the next crop is coming from, and you sure don't know they'll be any better, so you tend to inflate the grades so at least you aren't showing the newbies where the cafeteria is.

The fourth pillar is, of course, "promoting innovation and excellence in America's schools." How do we do this? Charter schools, accountability, blah, blah, blah.

There's an inconsistency here. We're going to couple accountability with autonomy; add those to higher standards imposed from outside, and you have oxymoronic thinking. We can't let charter schools, for which the evidence of effectiveness is actually pretty thin, go off and do their own things at the same time we make them more accountable. It makes no sense at all, we have to choose one or the other.

The longer school year, the talk of individual responsibility, I'm certainly all for that, but Obama is trying to use his popularity to change behavior. Good luck with that. Of course kids shouldn't drop out, but the tie between these policies and the high rate in some places is tenuous at best.

Pillar five is "a quality higher education." Simplifying forms and raising Pell Grants are good things, but drops in the bucket. Something that will get attention is Obama's exhortation for each American to "commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training,
with the goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in
the world by the year 2020."

This is fine, I suppose, but even Obama says:
By 2016, four out of every 10 new jobs will require at least some advanced education or training.
I don't really see how these things go together. 60% of new jobs will not require this training, so why are we putting every student on the track of more education? Yes, Obama includes technical training along with college, but the emphasis is clearly on colleges and universities.

Interestingly enough, government will be the solution through programs and funding. I'm not seeing the place where we ask business to step up and do anything, even if they are the ones profiting.

So, unfortunately, there is very little new here. There is no recognition that job loss comes from anything other than our incompetence vis-à-vis other countries, that we need to create alternate tracks for students who won't master the world economy, that we have any idea of matching supply to demand.

No, it's the usual ideas supporting the concept that all education is good, more is better, and we should move heaven and earth to get it. There was nothing about the disconnect between the people who already did that and are finding themselves passed by, and the promise to our nation's children that this is likely to increase. Sadly, this speech is the standard, let's do all this good stuff and magic will happen. I'd like to see some more creative thinking than that.

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