In His Own Words: Obama's Progressive World View of Education

Update:  I’ve added a section at the end of the post suggested by Anthony Cody who blogs over on Living in Dialog (Education Week Teacher).  The section includes a radical quote from Obama about his view of using high-stakes tests that will surprise you.

President Obama has written and talked about education from a progressive world view.  How is it that looming over the U.S. Department of Education is a conservative world view that is making an all-out assault on public education?  The teacher’s strike today in Chicago should be a signal to President Obama that he should revisit his powerful experiences as a community organizer on the Southside of the city 25 years ago.

President Obama might want to check this section of his book, Dreams from My Father.  In a letter written to the president more than a year ago, I wrote, in part, this to him:

“On page 158 of your book you talk about the day you and your colleague & friend Johnnie had decided to visit a high school, and the principal of the school introduced you to one of the school counselors, Mr. Asante Moran. He was, according to the principal, interested in establishing a mentorship program for young men in the school.

In his office, which was decorated with African themes, you discovered that Mr. Moran had visited Kenya 15 years earlier, and he indicated that it had a profound effect on him. In the course of your short meeting with Mr. Moran, he clearly told you that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered you his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987 and what you wrote in your book:

Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn—the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn about is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).”

This is a progressive world view, and Obama knows that this is where and how real education begins.  Starting with the child where he or she is, and helping them connect to their environment—this is the core of progressive teaching. Most teachers know and try to act on this philosophy, but for many, it is an upstream battle.

The strike in Chicago is deeply embedded in the nature of teaching and learning, and it is a direct result of the corporate attack on education supported by conservatives in Obama’s department of education.  If the President would think and act on his experiences in Chicago, he might begin a new chapter in his effort to reform education.

He should pay a visit or throw some hoops with Mr. Duncan, and ask him what is his take on the teacher strike in Chicago?  How is it that 98% of teachers in the city voted to strike. I wish he would ask Duncan: Why are you supporting the likes of Achieve, Gates, Broad, Walton and the other boys that belong to that billionaires club?  Why are you insisting on strengthening the privatization and corporate values that are causing havoc to our schools?  Why are we testing the heck out of our kids?

So far, Duncan and the President haven’t said anything about the strike.

Striking Against Neoliberal Reform

Education reform, as being promoted by Obama’s Department of Education secretary, is not only disappointing, but a dangerous path to continue in the wake of the nation’s obsession with standards-based teaching, and high-stakes testing.  Secretary Duncan is promoting a neoliberal educational course that is driven by corporate values identified by Henry A. Giroux in his new book Education and the Crisis of Public Values that include:

  • privatization
  • downsizing
  • outsourcing
  • competition as the means of motivation
  • dehumanization of teachers and attacks on their autonomy
  • authoritarian modes of management
  •  obsession with measurement
  • the pedagogy of teaching to the test

The strike in Chicago is not a strike for higher salaries, but a stand against the most notorious period in the history of American education.  It is a strike against the neoliberal forces that are impacting public schooling.  In the neoliberal world the removal of controls allows the free market to balance naturally.  Neoliberal educational reformers want to turn what are now public schools into a free market place, enabling for-profit companies to come in and manage schools and treat them no differently than any fast food chain, factory, or retail store.  According to neoliberals, privatization of public schooling will offer parents choices and because of their belief in extreme individualism and market forces, schools, such as charter schools will not only offer a choice, but students will do better than students in regular public schools.

All of this hogwash.  The research reported on this blog shows that neoliberal reform is not working, and indeed is inferior to regular public schools.  Please refer to articles here, here, and here.

Since publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, American education (meaning its teachers and unions) has been on the receiving end of relentless attacks by neoliberals who think everything, including schooling should be market driven.  Leading the effort are unaccountable conservative and right-wing people, as well as corporate billionaire families.  Most of these attacks have been waged by individuals and groups with little or no experience as teachers or school administrators.  Yet, controlling this calamity are a few conservative groups such as Achieve, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and The Broad Foundations.

During this time, conservatives have promoted vouchers, charter schools, school choice, union busting activities, and an assault on teachers.  For example, when the cheating scandal was revealed on high-stakes tests in Atlanta, Governor Sonny Purdue discharged agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) into Atlanta schools, and forced teachers to answer questions without any notification, or legal Council.  This was a physical and psychological assault on Atlanta’s educators.

The Chicago teacher’s strike is a Sputnik civil rights moment.  The President’s second home is in Chicago, and he knows the politics of the city.  His former Chief of Staff is the mayor.  But does he know that the school board is appointed by the mayor, and the make-up of the board reflects the financial interests of the city, not its citizens.  As a civil rights moment, 98% of Chicago’s teachers are willing to risk their jobs to improve the teaching and learning conditions of their students.  Courageously, with parents support, Chicago teachers are challenging the corporate take over of public education.  Instead of being forced to teach to the test, teachers are marching to provide creative and innovative experiences for their students, rather than meeting the demands of bureaucrats.

And according to Anthony Cody, there is a powerful source of support to inspire educational reform. That source is the more than four million teachers who know about how students learn, and what they need to do to help students learn. If we want educational reform, then the leaders of this movement have to be teachers, and administrators who are on the ground, and know the students that they teach. In one of his posts, Cody suggests that teachers, along with friends, families and community members could be turned into a very influential political force.  Mr. President, you might want to listen to Anthony Cody.

The President and the Chicago Teacher’s Strike

The President is challenged to say something to Chicago teachers because of comments he made years ago if a teacher’s union went on strike.  In a Democracy Now interview with Dr. Pauline Lipman, professor of Education and policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Amy Goodman, host and executive producer asked about the Chicago teacher’s strike.  Here is a brief excerpt of Monday’s interview:

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama famously said in 2007—he said, to unions, “I will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States.”


AMY GOODMAN: Have you heard from President Obama?

PAULINE LIPMAN: As far—I haven’t heard from him. But as far as I know, the Chicago Teachers Union has not heard from him, either. You know, Rahm Emanuel was his chief of staff, and he’s now the mayor of Chicago. And as maybe our listeners do or don’t know, the mayor appoints the school board in Chicago.

And the school board is made up of, again, corporate CEOs, financiers, a hotel magnate, real-estate developers. And part of the agenda of forcing the teachers’ backs up against the wall, I think, is an attempt to actually weaken the Chicago Teachers Union, because the Chicago Teachers Union is not—the new leadership has not only reinvigorated the union in this city, it’s reinvigorating the trade—teachers’ union movement nationally.

But a more important challenge for President Obama is context of the strike as well as the connections among mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former Chief-of-Staff, Secretary of Education,  Arne Duncan, Chicago’s former school CEO and the President.  Here is another segment from the Goodman – Lipman interview.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the teachers have just gone out on strike. Professor Lipman, put this in a national context, what this means, what the Chicago strike means for the nation

PAULINE LIPMAN: Yes, good morning

As I said in the clip that you showed earlier, Chicago was the birthplace of this neoliberal corporate reform agenda of high-stakes testing, paying teachers based on test scores, closing failing neighborhood—disinvesting in neighborhood schools and then closing them and turning them over to charter schools—the policies that both Phil and Rhoda just described. And it was really a model which was picked up by cities around the country and then made a national agenda when Arne Duncan, who had been the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, became Obama’s secretary of education?

Chicago is now an epicenter of the pushback against it, as I also said before. And very much at the center of that is a new Chicago Teachers Union, with a new leadership that is really challenging this whole agenda with a different vision of education, a vision of education that involves a rich curriculum for all students, that puts equity at the center. They’ve named what these policies have resulted in Chicago “education apartheid,” especially for African-American and Latino students.

So, this is a battle that is being watched by people around the country. And a really strong victory for the Chicago Teachers Union, backed up by parents and community members, will send a signal that we can actually turn around this agenda. So I think it has tremendous significance. And I get the news feeds from the Chicago Teachers Union, the reports of this strike, and it’s being covered not only nationally, but internationally.

Teach with Passion and Creativity, Says President Obama

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama included a section of his speech that focused on education, not only K-12, but he also challenged colleges and universities to be more creative about how they work with students, and as well as the hundreds of thousands of young students who are not yet American citizens, and “live every day with the threat of deportation.”

In his address, the President made a few comments about teachers and teaching that might just reveal that he is interested in opening the door questioning some of the basic tenets of the ED. Here are a few sentences from his address:

Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies — just to make a difference.

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn. That’s a bargain worth making. (Emphasis mine).

Did Obama open the door to altering the fixed and seemingly unchanging policies of NCLB and the Race to the Top?

I think he might have.  Anthony Cody wrote and suggested that I add a section from a town hall meeting that Obama did on Univision. The quotes below come from Anthony’s post entitled Obama Blasts His Own Education Policies. Obama was asked by Luis Zelaya, a student, about how we could reduce the number of high-stakes tests that students take in school.

The President replied:

“… we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at.

“Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.

“Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.

“Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.”

And then President Obama added a comment that is very similar to what Mr. Asante Moran told Obama in 1987 (see Mr. Moran’s statement at the beginning of this post).  Here’s the comment:

“So what I want to do is—one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that’s not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.”

This is a powerful statement.

He needs with the teachers who are striking on the issue of what is the best course of action for students in the Chicago Public Schools.  The teachers in Chicago are striking to oppose the repressive policies of his own Department of Education, who in concert with Achieve, the billionaire boys club, and conservatives, has created schools that are not likely to teach with creativity and passion. It seems to me that President Obama does not agree with the policies of his own Department of Education.

Finally, I would add that Obama, if re-elected, has the insight to change the course of American education.  He needs the will of the people, and a new secretary of education.

Would Obama be willing to talk with the Chicago Teachers?  What contribution would this action have on the day-to-day lives of American students? What are your thoughts?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University