Like many progressive Obama supporters, I was moved by his tears as he thanked his Chicago staff and volunteers this past week. Whether or not you believe he is a great president, it is pretty clear he is a good man and genuinely grateful for his audience’s service to his cause. This rare crack in the remarkable poise reminded me of Charles Pierce’s piece on the greatness of Obama in his Esquire blog:
Part of what drives people crazy about him — and if you wanted to see crazy, you should have seen the fugue state that overcame the Fox election all-stars last night, because I’ve seen jollier police lineups — is that he so clearly understands his own genuine historical stature, and that he wears it so easily, and that he uses it so deftly. It is not obvious. He does not use it brutally or obviously. It is just… there with him, a long and deep reservoir of violence and sorrow and tragedy and triumph out of which comes almost everything he does.
As most of Pierce’s writing, this is well worth your time and attention. Later, Pierce describes Obama’s big project, the virtual (and vital) referendum that we voted on last week, as “the creative project of self-government.” These are the notes Obama strikes again and again. It is not him, it is us. Our work does not stop with our vote, but with us stepping up in our families, in our communities, to keep America great, one citizen at a time.
But Pierce’s soaring rhetoric, and Obama’s humble and heartfelt tribute to his volunteers and staff reminded me of some of the reasons I feel his education policy has failed us and continues to fail us. He deviates from his own stated principles and approaches in other domains, enforcing a more top-down approach, driven by centralized benchmarks not local goals, by confrontation not collaboration. In his speeches, we are all in the same boat, but his education policy is a Race that we all seem to be losing.
But back to his speech to his volunteers. As he was describing his own experience of coming to Chicago as he was 25 years old, he said “I didn’t know what I was doing.” He mentions the good will of some churches that hired him to do some community organizing. But he reiterates that he didn’t know what he was doing, and that he learned more than the community he was supposed to be serving. I don’t think this is a terrible thing, but it is important to acknowledge. It reminds me of my attitude towards Teach for America. If there are schools that are understaffed, or filled with disgruntled long term substitutes, by all means, fill these spots with well-meaning but ultimately naive Barack Obamas. But don’t act as if their high grades and SAT scores make them better teachers than those who have chosen and sought jobs in those schools. Obama was a brilliant law student, but had no idea how to “community organize.” He says the experience made him a man. No doubt many feel similarly about their experience in TFA, but while it may be a solution for providing purpose and maturity to elite graduates such as Obama, this is not a solution for those communities. They need more Paul Brunos, Sabrina Stevens Shupes, Nancy Flanagans. They don’t need more Michelle Rhees. Obama would not say that the key to making a better country is to get a better quality of citizen, but he apparently has no problems when Arne Duncan flirts with this simplistic vision of improving education.
Obama pivots from his own incompetence and growth to his current crop of volunteers and staff. “You, you are amazing, you are so much better than I was” he says. I beg to differ. They are just like you were: overacheiving, idealistic, leveraging their idealism in practical ways for political change. The program these volunteers are engaged in reminded me of education reform as well, except that this is a much simpler proposition. Getting out the vote is not the buzzing blooming confusion of how to create a well-educated student (well-read, prepared for both college and the professions, creative, competent, full of knowledge and skills). No, this project is relatively simple: get people who are likely to vote for the President to go to their voting place and place their ballot on election day. Of course, this was a huge and resounding success; Obama won more votes than Romney, both in the electoral college where it counts, and in the popular vote. However, if we compared this to education policy, if we instituted a “No Voter Left Behind” reform, we could just as easily declare this effort a dismal failure. More people chose to not vote at all rather than cast a ballot for Obama.
Of course this is unfair and reflects an ignorance of how electoral politics works. This dismissal of Obama’s voter turnout system ignores the day-to-day reality of many of these non-voters. It ignores the rational calculation of swing states vs. non-swing states and the differential effort put into turnout in different states. It ignores the barriers to voting that many people experience. Whether these are reasons or excuses is a matter of interpretation. Whether the campaign does what it can with the resources it has, or what it could do with more resources, well, that’s a subject for a future barrage of emails.
But note how similar this is to education. Saying that some horrifyingly large percentage of students drop out in some district, or fail some standardized test of reading competence (often shortened to “can’t read on grade level” or just “can’t read”) without context, without understanding what life and schools are like in that district is quite similar to citing a turnout of 60% as shameful and leaving it at that. Citing the obstacles that childhood poverty presents to students is not all that different from citing the obstacles that adult poverty presents to voters.
As Obama seeks to improve teacher quality, I hope that he remembers his own experience with being smart but knowing nothing and becoming a man in the South Side of Chicago. I hope he tempers his progressive hopes for elites such as himself with the modesty he showed in this speech to his supporters. I hope he remembers that just like community organizers need help, support and engagement from the community, so does education reform. Top-down efforts that disdain teachers, parents and the people who love their neighborhood schools are just as likely to fail now as they were when he was twenty-five.