Barack Obama’s “Go To The Moon” Challenge For Our Time Should Be: Transform Public Education

Barack Obama proclaimed what could be a defining goal for public education, in his speech the other day, when he said that U.S. citizens should be guaranteed “an education for your children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential.” This phrase might just be rhetoric, but, if not, it indicates a truly stunning goal. A system of public education centered on understanding and fulfilling individual potential would require a revolution in our system of public education.

Obama’s youth and idealism is sometimes compared to John Kennedy’s. Kennedy inspired his generation with a big goal: go to the moon before the end of the decade. I’m wondering, if elected president, Obama might similarly seek to inspire this generation with a big goal. I think a good “go to the moon” goal for Obama, that could define a lot of his presidency, should center on education. Obama’s stunning and inspirational goal for this generation could be this: transform our educational system so that every child has the opportunity to understand and fulfill his or her potential.

The goal in 2008 to transform public education, at first glance, might seem far from stunning — particularly when compared to the 1961 goal to go to the moon. A vision of a transformed educational system is hard to imagine; it is a much murkier idea than the vision of astronauts on the moon. What, really, would it mean to pursue such a goal? Kennedy’s vision of going to the moon was easy to envision, therefore it was a vision of instant inspiration. But, we’ve already been worn out by political talk about school reform — A Nation At Risk, No Child Left Behind — we’ve already been worn out by a lot of political speech about education.

Our collective imaginations have been dulled as to what, at best, we could hope that public education might ever accomplish. The issue of public education has been framed in terms of curriculum, test scores, college admissions, technical training. By common agreement, and through the efficacy of relentless propaganda, we think we know what a first class education amounts to. But our common agreement is wrong.

Compared to education, say, in 2060, our current view of education will seem primitive and limiting. Certainly, if human progress continues, future generations will react with both horror and amusement to today’s understanding of what constitutes quality education. When machines will mimic, and convincingly outdo, all human cognition, what will human education consist of? What, in that future time, will be the goals of human education? What will be the role of human teachers? Obama’s insight that education should center on understanding and developing individual human potential is an insight that anticipates the future.

For Kennedy, the urgency to go to the moon, in part, was the urgency of meeting the Soviet challenge. The Soviet threat was the transcendent challenge in 1961, and, Kennedy’s moon goal condensed that challenge into an inspirational response. For our time, the urgency of now is not to meet an outside threat, it is to meet our internal threat.

I’ve been thinking about John McCain’s great phrase: “transcendent challenge.” According to McCain, as I wrote in this post, “the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical Islamic extremists.” But, the transcendent challenge for our nation today, unlike the Soviet threat in 1961, is not that Islamic terrorism will annihilate us, the biggest threat to our future is that our citizenry will be degraded to the point that our democracy will disintegrate, our ideals will disappear. Our chance to enjoy a prosperous, expanding, vital and peaceful future, our chance to fulfill the potential of our democracy, rests in the desires, thinking, attitudes, values, and the capabilities of our citizenry. Our nation’s chance for a good future rests on the quality, capacity and preparedness of our citizenry.

Obama should engage McCain in a comprehensive discussion of what strategy makes most sense to best deal with the Islamic extremist threat, and Obama should articulate his own plan for dealing with the Islamic extremist threat. Our democracy needs mature discussion on real topics.

But Obama should not allow McCain to frame the issue; Obama should present his own view of what constitutes the biggest challenge to our future, and, like Kennedy, he should offer an inspirational response. He should argue, I believe, that the biggest challenge to our future originates from within our country, not from outside of our country. The challenge of our future is that as a nation we grow into our potential, that we fulfill our ideals. We are still the city set on a hill, we are still the hope of much of the world. Meeting the challenge of our potential will require that greater and greater numbers of citizens reach new levels of their individual potentials, new depths of their humanity. Meeting this challenge will require a transformation of all levels of education.

At the core of the infrastructure of our country is our educational system. This infrastructure is badly in need of improvement. Popular culture, media, TV, churches, neighborhoods, families are all aspects of the educational infrastructure. These are often negative and destructive in their educational impact, and to a great degree outside of the influence of public policy. Often the public have given up on the possibility that public education can really make much positive impact. But public education is still a big part of the overall educational infrastructure and public education has a huge untapped potential.

Here is a thought, here is a goal: Via public education, the insight that has guided the development of children in the most loving homes of the wisest parents, the wisdom that has guided the development of children in the most inspired and prepared schools, should be available to all children. I’m sure the overwhelming response to such a thought is emphatic: Impossible.

But is this dream of what is possible in education more absurd in 2008 than the idea of walking on the moon seemed in 1961? Isn’t this idea of transforming public education into unheard of levels of quality doable, even as Kennedy’s moon idea was doable, isn’t the question one of whether or not there is sufficient political will to make it happen? I’m thinking that, if Obama becomes President, he will seek to inspire major improvements in our nation. He will seek to lead, not simply manage. If elected, I think Obama might present to the nation a “go to the moon” challenge — one that looks to the future. What better challenge could he offer than the challenge to transform public education?

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23 Responses to Barack Obama’s “Go To The Moon” Challenge For Our Time Should Be: Transform Public Education

  1. Rick says:

    The biggest problem in education by far is bad parents. The second biggest problem is students who refuse to apply themselves. There is not a whole lot we can do about that. We can spend a lot of money, have great jingles and slogans, waive our arms, cry out “I am somebody” but those those referenced above, there is little we can do, except to teach them to say in good, standard American English, “Would you like to supersize that?”

  2. Original Eric says:

    Obama’s military supporters (especially retired General Tony McPeak) can better advise him on education than his education advisors (like Linda Darling Hammond). After all, DoD runs schools.

  3. T. Ruddick says:

    Here’s an idea.

    American education was pretty darn good in the early 20th century, when the teachers outnumbered the administrators around 100 to 1 and they were well paid and respected.

    Let’s turn the system back to those days. Let Barack say “I am going to count on teachers to teach.”

    Let’s face it; nothing else has worked since we abandoned that system. Get rid of the educrats and the titles and the grants. Let teachers teach the subjects they know (and make certain they know them).

    Oh, of course, have some administrators who observe and assess the teachers. That’s the only administration we should need, really. But let’s decide to rely on the professionals to promote the profession; politicians really don’t know what to do and their programs are counterproductive.

  4. Mike Bock says:

    Rick, I am saying that it is possible to make an analogy between the huge goal in 2008 to transform public education and the huge goal in 1961 to go to the moon. Your response, when you say, “There is not a whole lot we can do,” is that such a goal is impossible. But you really offer no analysis that justifies your pessimism that transforming education is impossible. Your observation that there are daunting obstacles to school reform — you mention the badness of parents and laziness of students — is a fair observation. But in 1961, it was also easy to make observations about the daunting obstacles to going to the moon — overcoming gravity, projecting tons of materials 250,000 miles into space, landing on the moon and all the while protecting the lives of human space traveling astronauts making the journey — and many people in 1961 thought a goal to go to the moon before the end of the decade was an impossible and ill considered goal. But, we did it.

    Certainly, prior to his “go to the moon” goal announcement in 1961, Kennedy had a lot of in-depth discussion with his science advisers, about the possibility of completing a moon mission before the end of the decade, and asked outright: “Is it possible, do we have the science and the capacity, to meet this challenge?” In 1942, prior to the initiation of the Manhattan Project, Roosevelt, no doubt, asked the same question. In both cases, the answer was that the science was possible, but that to accomplish such huge advances would require a great commitment of resources and talent and an unprecedented coordinated effort requiring the extended work of thousands of dedicated individuals.

    I’ve defined this “go to the moon” huge effort, based on Obama’s comment, as one that will “transform our educational system so that every child has the opportunity to understand and fulfill his or her potential.” If it’s not just words, it’s a powerful idea. If such education could be available to every child, its impact would far exceed Kennedy’s Moon Project. This is what schools that educate for the future must do; it is what schools that prepare students to fully participate in a democracy must do. This is way beyond what schools presently attempt to do. Schools at present are centered on curriculum, not on children; centered on training, not on education.

    Original Eric, you suggest that the military education experts might have more to offer than the usual educational experts, and maybe so. But the point is, we need a transformational shift — reflecting a bigger purpose — way beyond current educational practices, even effective current practices. The goal of going to the moon was not simply an extreme challenge to improve transportation in general; it represented a challenge to create a new dimension of transportation well beyond our experience with automobiles, trains, or airplanes. Similarly, the goal implied in Obama’s comment is not simply an extreme challenge to improve our educational system to make the accomplishment of its goals more reliable, it is a challenge to create a system with accomplishments that will go way beyond how we presently think about the aims of public education. And it is a challenge to make this dimension of education available to everyone, not just the elite.

    Dr. Ruddick, your view is that teachers must play a central role in a transformed system. I agree. But you seem to say that the present system is pretty much OK, so long as we rid it of some administrators and “educrats and the titles and the grants.” And that we, “Let teachers teach the subjects they know.” I agree that your suggestion may result in significant improvement in the present system, but, in my view, it would be a far cry from the “go to the moon” long term transformation in public education that for the sake of our future our nation crucially needs.

    The question that Kennedy and Roosevelt asked about the moon project and Manhatten Project, respectively — “Is it possible, do we have the science and the capacity, to meet this challenge?” — is the fair question to ask about a possible project to transform public education.

    Kennedy and Roosevelt both had an established and respected scientific community with which to consult. But today, a president who might want to pursue a “go to the moon” transformation of public education would not have an equivalent educational community — one respected for its research, one respected for its solid theories and insightful thinking — with which to consult. The state of our educational community provokes a discouraging thought but balancing that thought, to continue this analogy, is the realization that the scientific community with which Kennedy consulted in 1960 was not the same community that at the end actually brought the moon shot to reality in 1969. In response to the challenge, by virtue of accomplishment, new leaders in the scientific community emerged. Science knowledge and insight grew. The scientific community itself, as a result of the process, became transformed.

    Visionary leadership brings transformation and certainly what now constitutes our educational establishment needs transformation. Can we “transform our educational system so that every child has the opportunity to understand and fulfill his or her potential” ? My belief is “Yes,” and, ultimately, such a transformed system, with a stunning improvement in quality, I believe, would not require much additional expense. How to arrive at such a transformed system is the question. My thought is, if Obama, as I speculate in my post, would make a long-term “go to the moon” goal of his presidency a challenge to transform public education — If he backed up that goal with the same type of intense planning, resources, and commitment that Kennedy gave to his “go to the moon” goal — the educational community itself would be transformed. Authentic educational thinkers and leaders would emerge. New discoveries would be made. A transformed educational community, I believe, would have the capacity to transform our educational system.

  5. Stan Hirtle says:

    I think that education needs to be transformed, particularly in high poverty areas like Dayton. And with candidate Obama evoking Kennedyesque idealism among Americans that has been a welcome change from the last several administrations, maybe this is a useful analogy to some.

    But really was there anything less transforming than the moon launch? We got there, and I guess it was a morale boost after the Sputnik era when the Soviets were ahead in space. But no one has ever been back, or gotten anything useful to humanity from the moon. The space program has descended into concern about faulty insulation on the Challengers, some faulty if pleasantly internationally staffed space stations, some high tech science to look at the distant universe, sattelites that allow direct tv to compete with cable and, more ominously, allow the government to spy on anyone anywhere.

    I recall listening to the moon landing while doing KP at Ft. Dix waiting to be shipped overseas during the Vietnam era. That may be a reminder of the kind of transformation that we need and certainly haven’t had. While the Cold War danger of a mutual assured obliteration with thousands of nuclear bombs is no longer facing us, for the moment at least, the world seems to be more armed, more violent and people more willing and able to do more dreadful things to each other, from beheadings to rendition and torture to drone assassinations to suicide bombings in places of worship. Having the US be the world’s lone superpower has not, in the words of the President’s father, made the world a kinder and gentler place. Certainly the twentieth century had its wars, great and small, hot and cold, mostly between armies organized to sieze power and colonies, on behalf of ideology, race or nation state. But even without that, we seem to have devolved as people both have more weapons and are more willing to use them, while feeling even more estranged from the people they are using them on.

    Certainly the moon launch did not transform people in the way we need to be transformed. As the world’s population goes up and the resources available go down, the distance between us gets less and our ability to harm each other gets larger, our inclination to expect the worst of each other while ignoring the worst of ourselves goes up, and our willingness to benefit at others expense and to ignore or rationalize the harm that we contribute to also go up.

    Is it possible? Do we have the capacity to meet this challenge? This is not a challenge of science or math or engineering, but of humanity. We base our lives on faith traditions (with or without gods, messiahs and divine purposes) that all speak loudly of peace, justice and compassion, but are also filled with ambiguities concerning hegemony, intolerance and violent triumphalism. We organize ourselves where those who survive the most are encouraged to take for themselves and make things worse for others. As a result we have lives that are unsustainable in the long run and perhaps in the short run as well.

    The Kennedy we should look to may be the Kennedy of the Peace Corps and Alliance for Progress more than of the moon launch. In hindsight we know that Kennedy was flawed, as are we all in the US and the world. Our educational system is also unsustainable in its present divisions between rich and poor, to say nothing of its failure to produce people who reach their potential as human beings as well as intellectually, artisticly or as producers in an economy. We need people who can challenge the process, make it better, and prevent the Mugabe-like tendency of those in power to stay there by any means necessary. All of this needs to happen here on earth, and the moon will take care of itself.

  6. Rick says:

    Stan, I find much to agree with in your post. I do disagree when you say, “We organize ourselves where those who survive the most are encouraged to take for themselves and make things worse for others.” That is a zero sum philosophy. Yet the more trade there is, the more people benefit. Yes, even in a good economy, some people and businesses fare poorly. My point is that much of the third world, especially India and China, are undergoing rapid economic growth. Thus, the increase in the western economies has not resulted in China and India’s economic decline, just the opposite.

    You state, “Our educational system is also unsustainable in its present divisions between rich and poor, to say nothing of its failure to produce people who reach their potential as human beings as well as intellectually, artisticly or as producers in an economy.” Government schools do not “produce” people, they try to educate them. It is the parents who produce and raise (sometimes badly) children.

  7. Stan Hirtle says:

    “Produce” may not be the best word because it sounds too machinelike for the process it is describing, whether done by the government or the marketplace. It was the best term I could think of at the time. Parents are of course a significant part of a child’s life but not the only part. We have kids, parents, schools, the immediate community and the larger community (the so called “village”) all contribuing to what children experience. Most parents recognize that they do not have as much power as they would like to shape their childrens’ decisions. This may be good or bad in individual cases but is probably just reality.

    People bettering themselves at others expense may or may not result in a zero sum game, which happens if the aggregate result is even. Major league baseball is a zero sum game, as someone wins and someone loses every game. People play it and watch it anyway. Other situations include the “rising tide lifts all boats” situation, as well as its opposite which can occur if resources are squandered on say wars of choice. In a global economy as with a global ocean, it may be that a rising tide here means a falling tide elsewhere and vice versa. The US has in theory benefitted for a while from falling tides in places like Japan, and now may be threatened by rising ones in China and other parts of Asia.

    A better question is whether cooperation is as important to a successful aggregate economy as competition. This might be something like the Henry Ford model (pay your workers enough that they can buy your car) as opposed to the modern union busting model typified by WalMart (pay your workers less and you can keep the rest for yourself. And maybe they can only afford to shop in your stores.) In biological analogies, whether ecosystems survive by cooperation (bees pollinate flowers and both survive) as opposed to the dog eat dog model (people admire predators but the top of the food chain is actually a pretty vulnerable place.) We can then look to whether the growing division between rich and poor, certainly brought about in large part through the policies of the Reagan and Bush Administrations, is really a good thing, even in economic terms. Let alone whether you want to spend your whole life trying to get over on others. More of a problem is that we may be organized in such a way as we do it without thinking much about it.

  8. Mike Bock says:

    Stan, you write, “But really was there anything less transforming than the moon launch? …

    Kennedy’s moon challenge in fact, did transform NASA, did energize a big section of the scientific community, did inspire talented people to new levels of creativity, did bring a new generation of talent into the space program, and did advance science.

    A big goal — go to the moon, allocate big resources, big attention– did result in a big accomplishment. If a president could articulate a big goal in education, with big resources and big attention, and if he could make this goal as clear and compelling as Kennedy’s go to the moon goal — big if’s — then the new talent, new ideas, new opportunities, new public awareness, etc., may work to transform our system of public education.

    The Obama comment about education that I started with, that suggested this go to the moon analogy, implies a view of the purpose of education that is breathtaking in its implications — more startling, in some ways, than Kennedy’s go to the moon idea. I am suggesting an analogy between a potential Obama challenge to transform public education and Kennedy’s challenge to go to the moon. Of course, every analogy breaks down eventually.

  9. T. Ruddick says:

    Bottom line: education depends on the interaction between teacher and student. If the teacher is burdened by overadministration and amateurish programs–if the student is constrained by a “respect” culture and parents who are anti-intellectual and anti-rational–then nothing the government tries will succeed.

    Therefore I say: make certain that teachers know the subject they are going to teach, and give them some practical (NOT theoretical) guidance in classroom management. Implement an apprenticeship program that will help teachers learn the ropes with closer supervision by experienced teachers, unlike the current system that throws a new graduate in a classroom with too little preparation. Maintain sufficient administrators to do regular classroom observations; make certain those administrators know enough about the subjects and teaching in general to do a good job of constuctive criticism.

    And pay the teachers enough so that few of them are tempted to go work elsewhere. Currently most of our teachers leave the profession in less than five years, because they can make significantly more money and get considerably more respect elsewhere.

    Anything else–any new NCLB/2000/whatever politician-designed program–is crap. Barack Obama favors school choice, fergoshsakes, a movement that has failed, failed, failed, had marginal success, and failed again a dozen times. He doesn’t know; let’s not ask him.

  10. Original Eric says:


    Perhap’s you’ve read your own vision into Obama’s comments. Check out the United Church of Christ website for more details of Barack’s co-religionists:

    Also see: Obama’s Real Bill Ayers Problem.

  11. Stan Hirtle says:

    Here’s a significant quote from the cited United Church of Christ website.
    “• Segregation matters. Race matters. Poverty matters.
    • School finance matters.
    • Civil rights cases in the courts matter and are still necessary.
    • Rural isolation and rural poverty matter.
    • A child’s language, culture, and identity matter. How the school’s culture and the child’s culture are
    folded together matters.
    • Good teaching matters. Respecting and supporting educators matters.
    • Congregations supporting public schools matter.”
    What’s bad about that?

    As to this Ayers guy, from what I can tell he was a violent campus radical who later straightened up and became a college professor in the field of education, is respected in many circles in Chicago, and once served on some antipoverty board Obama was also on. Sounds like a success story of ex-offender reentry, something we need more of. (Actually he was never prosecuted for anything, apparently because of misconduct by the FBI). So maybe some don’t want to vote for Ayers if he ran for office. Of course the right is trying to see how much mileage it can get from him against Obama. Fortunately few people remember or care about the Weather Underground at this point, although the sixties remain the big poliitical divide in America.

    The second linked article is more conspiratorial. Ayers was elected to an office in an organization of education professors, so this translates into him indoctinating hundreds if not thousands of schoolteachers in poisonous anti-American teaching. Coming soon to an elementary school near you? Probably not, and this article may not get far outside right wing circles. Then of course Obama knows some crooked politicians in Chicago and McCain knew some crooks in boardrooms during the S&L Crisis, an earlier version of the subprime mortage debacle. So we can expect some negative campaigning, at least at the Swift Boat level, this fall.

  12. Original Eric says:

    Hi Stan.

    The point I had hoped to make is that the UCC vision is a good deal less transformational than Mike seeks, despite supporting “an education for your children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential.”

    Since UCC is religious left (as opposed to looney left) quite a lot of what they say is reasonable, at least on its surface.

    The problem arises with the UCC and Bill Ayers version of “social justice,” which is what Jeremiah Wright is all about. So when Ayers talks about “teaching for social justice and liberation,” that’s pretty much what Wright did in his church, brought into public school classrooms. A better reference point would be Howard Zinn, but I can’t really sort out Wright, Ayers, Zinn and Obama, except to say that Obama is adamant about being more centrist than Wright.

    So, Obama is unlikely to be supporting anything transformational in Mike’s sense and he’s likely to be surrounded by people who are ill-prepared to fulfill his “one America” vision.

    It’s hardly conspiratorial to look at a body of work and assess its political context. Nor is it swift boating to expect Supreme Court appointments that accord with a candidate’s perspective on social justice.

    If only Barack and Hillary had attended Notre Dame, they’d more likely have a clue… As it is, they (with their supporters) probably wouldn’t produce a model lesson plan on Martin Luther King if you gave them four years and five million dollars.

  13. Stan Hirtle says:

    Transformational initiatives from the presidency are relatively rare. In addition to the go to the moon project, to the extent that that applies, I think of the war on poverty. Presidents focussed attention although many ideas came from others. To really work the transformation won’t just come down from a president, but may be lead out from the community, with the president able to focus attention and resources..

    DDN editorialist Ellen Belcher talked a few days ago about how the regional community (not just Dayton) might jump in and improve the education in the Dayton schools in the wake of Superintendent Mack’s departure. That’s more emergency treatment to a starving system with inadequate funding than a transformation of a system, but it’s a step in that direction.

    Obama’s campaign has been more about leadership vision than particular policies, which makes him a blank slate that everyone hopes will see the world his or her way. Actually of course he has a track record of moderate policies, with a platform that is not much different from Hillary’s. All the stuff about how he is the most liberal legislator in the world is nonsense, except that he is more liberal than the conservatives saying it. And his actual legislative record is fairly sparse, and he has not yet made much of a dent in the partisan atmosphere in Washington. So we don’t know how he would bring about this transformation, if he gets the chance. Recent Democrat presidents have not had strong movements to help them legislate (Carter was going to fix the tax system and Clinton the health care system and the racial divide). And most presidents staff their adminstrations with people from previous administrations or leaders of movements that supported them. Obama is saying he would do things differently. In any case he would not do this transformation alone, probably doesn’t and should not know the end result, as that needs to come from a thorough vetting of the situation.

    Schools have proven to be difficult in part because it is not clear what people want from them (to some extent they are about preserving privilege and status) and most people are probably not emotionally in tune with the needs of today’s economy, nor with facts like how schools used to push out people who were not suited for school into the workforce and they could make a decent living, often in a unionized manufacturing job. No more. It is also not clear we have enough jobs for everyone, particularly those that pay a living wage or a comfortable wage, given that America’s share of the world’s wealth can only decrease as capital gets more access to cheaper labor, plus issues like the finite oil supply and the finite capacity of the environment to support our lifestyle. So the idea that we need to educate to eliminate poverty, the remnants of slavery and the school to prison pipeline, and thereby eliminate the say suburbs have it better, is not necessarily where most people are at yet.

    I will admit to being for social justice and for thinking there is a lot of social injustice in our present system. Justice is admittedly a highly subjective concept in a highly complex society. Fixing social injustice is also a highly complex matter, only part of which is the unwillingness of those privileged by social injustice to give up those privileges. And also the fact that things like injustice and violence often create destructive cycles. So beheading all the artistocrats in France did not necessarily produce a just society. And neither did bombing buildings whether by McVeigh or the Weather Underground.

    To the extent that Jeremiah Wright has been doing social justice ministry for decades in his church, it seems like a positive force in his community, although it has hardly solved all the problems he faces. Wright also is up front about the injustice that his community has faced, and “manages” the anger that injustice causes out of the Christian tradition by calling for reconciliation, another highly subjective and complex topic which is a work in progress in places like South Africa and hopefully some day in Palestine, and here.

    “Liberation” is another subjective and complex term that points to a desirable state which we largely lack. In fact we have ever encroaching power of government (fed in part by the existence of terrorists but preexisting it) and corporate business. Political groups war over the best way to handle this. In fact it sometimes seems that the difference between liberals and conservatives can be explained by taking the words “sex” and “money” and exchanging them. That is an oversimplification of course.

    Anyway I am not able to debate the relative visions of Ayers, Zinn, and Wright in transforming schools. In general, we do expect a certain amount of social justice and liberation from schools as well as wanting people who are both compliant to authority and also willing to challenge it in a changing world. Again we have mixed goals. We want something we call democracy, increased technology, livable communities and various visions of human improvement, all in a heavily changing economy and world. Most of what happens in schools makes these things relatively small parts of the day.

    Unfortunately when the Republicans are running things at least, justice is rarely talked about in the appointment and confirmation of Supreme Court justices. The national news media frames the debate and what the public expects from the President and Senators and they bear much responsibility for this, for whatever reason. I think that is a loss, because justice should be the Judge’s ultimate goal, even though the law has to tell him or her how to get there. Maybe a President Obama could transform that process too.

    I did not go to Notre Dame either so I may not have a clue either, at least about what goes on there other than sports. Given that Obama is an educated guy who worked as a community organizer in Chicago, I suspect that he could probably teach a pretty good class about MLK, even if he doesn’t know what makes a model lesson plan.

  14. Mike Bock says:

    Original Eric, Thanks for giving reference to the article on the Bill Ayers, “Obama’s Real Bill Ayers Problem.” I learned a lot. I did not know that Ayers is a University of Chicago education professor and that, according to the article, he is a leader in educational circles, that he has written a series of 12 books on social justice teaching, including one titled “Teaching Science for Social Justice.” The author of the article, Sol Stern, accuses Ayers of wanting to, “turn the nation’s schools into left-wing indoctrination centers.” I wonder how Ayers would reply?

    A second article by the same author, Ed Schools’ Latest—and Worst—Humbug,
    gives details about social justice teaching in many teacher training schools of education around the nation. Interesting. Says Stern, “For all their talk about teaching for ‘freedom and democracy,’ the professors often run their own classes like leftist political indoctrination sessions. … One by one, the education schools are lining up behind social justice teaching and enforcing it on their students—especially since they expect aspiring teachers to possess the approved liberal ‘dispositions,’ or individual character traits, that will qualify them to teach in the public schools. …Social justice teaching is a frivolous waste of precious school hours, grievously harmful to poor children, who start out with a disadvantage. School is the only place where they are likely to obtain the academic knowledge that could make up for the educational deprivation they suffer in their homes. The last thing they need is a wild-eyed experiment in education through social action.”

    Stern asks, “So why do education professors who claim to care for the poor continue to agitate for instruction that holds back poor children? Either the professors are stupid (possible), or (more likely) they care more about their own anti-American, anticapitalist agendas than they do about the actual education of children.”

    This is strong stuff, but maybe Ayers deserves such criticism. I don’t know. I’ve not made any effort, before this, to read about Ayers. It will be interesting to eventually hear Ayers’ defense of his own education career and motives — and it will be interesting how Obama responds.

    In my go-to-the-moon analogy, I imagine that John Kennedy met with respected science advisers and asked “Is it possible, do we have the science and the capacity, to meet this challenge?”

    This article by Stern points out a huge problem for a go-to-the-moon goal to transform public education. In Kennedy’s time, as now, there was a strong scientific community that was dedicated to understanding and applying scientific principles and theories and to developing and applying scientific knowledge. Kennedy could be pretty certain that a Ph.D. from MIT or Cal Tech or Ohio State was not a crackpot, zealous to promote some whacky pseudo science. The scientific community monitors its own and has a high regard for objective truth and a high standard for what constitutes scientific principles and theory. Stern’s article about educational schools charges that in the educational community there are plenty of crackpots advancing ideas not supported by sound theory and that in some education schools these crackpots have gained the upper hand. Stern charges that Ayers and his left wing social justice buddies have hijacked schools of education for the purpose of indoctrinating children with their political views. It would seem incredible that a science department at a major university would allow pseudo science to gain dominance as a means to indoctrinate students in faulty science but, I have no such confidence in an education department. So, I can’t dismiss this charge against Ayers as nonsense. Sadly, it seems possible to me, based on my impression of how the educational establishment works, it could be true.

    The huge problem for Obama, or anyone seeking to direct public policy about education, is the fact that, the educational community lacks credibility — there’s a diverse collection of individuals in education, all with big degrees from education schools, promoting largely unsubstantiated ideas and disagreeing with each other. Any state legislator who might have a idea about writing legislation requiring a new state regulation for schools, regardless of how goofy or ill considered the idea may be, will be able to arrange for a chorus of education Ph.Ds to serve as his amen corner. Can you imagine the science community keeping quiet about pseudo or discredited science?

    A big task for any educational reformer of public education is to determine what the goal of public education should be. My point: The Obama comment about education that I started with, that suggested this go to the moon analogy, implies a view of the purpose of education that is breathtaking in its implications — more startling, in some ways, than Kennedy’s go to the moon idea — “an education for your children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential.”

    Stan points out that “Obama’s campaign has been more about leadership vision than particular policies.” Yes, and leadership means articulating a vision that unifies and inspires. Transforming public education will require a twenty year process, at least, but what will propel it will be a vision of what is possible. This vision of what is possible must be such that the public and a new generation of educators will grow to embrace this vision — while those educators already embedded in the present system, fiercely protective of the present system, will retire and fade away. Somehow we need to stop simply replicating the present system.

    This vision of what is possible is not a simple matter. A Nation at Risk, for example, regardless of its blue ribbon experts, had little or nothing to say about what a transformed system might look like. Goals 2000 listed some good goals, but didn’t explain how to accomplish the goals. We tend to define school reform as how to help our worst schools. But the change that public education needs is transformative for all schools because what is needed is a transformed view of the purpose of schools, the meaning of education. We should focus on the schools that we now consider our best schools. We need to understand why even these best schools are falling so far short of helping students to understand or fulfill their potential. In terms of the standard that Obama suggests, all schools are falling far short. Our “best schools” should be the schools that lead the way toward showing a new vision of what public education should move toward, but the public that supports these best schools has little interest in fixing what is perceived as not broken. There must be a public that seeks and supports transformation, but without a clear vision of what transformation might look like, the public will remain complacent.

    Dr. Ruddick emphasizes the importance of effective teaching. He writes, “Bottom line: education depends on the interaction between teacher and student. … And pay the teachers enough so that few of them are tempted to go work elsewhere.” Yes, to transform our system of education will mean to transform the profession of teaching. Teaching is really not much of a profession at all at the present time, not as school systems actually work — the master teacher contract, the relationship of teachers with administrators, the definition of what constitutes a teacher’s responsibility, how teachers are evaluated — the role of a teacher is simply not a professional role.

    What needs to be thought through is what a system would look like where an ambitious teacher could transcend the current institutional definition of what encompasses teaching, and, instead, could become an artist in the teaching profession — and where such a teacher would receive professional income. It’s an interesting question, if teaching was a true profession, what would define the best of the profession: There are surgeons who are considered artists, architects who are artists. What would define what it would mean to be an artist in teaching? Again, it comes down to how the purpose of teaching is defined. Right now, the purpose of teaching is defined in terms of achieving fairly shallow institutional objectives.

    It seems unlikely, make that impossible, that a government controlled, bureaucratic, hierarchical system of schools will ever empower teachers to the level of professionalism, the level of artistry, needed for the future. The system itself is a failure and must be changed, and, my word, this is a conclusion that seems inescapable; we would expect a system of government controlled, bureaucratic, hierarchical system of grocery stores to be a failure also. It is the system itself that must change. Ann Landers used to say, “Wake up and smell the coffee.” It seems to me that our only hope to build the system of public education worthy of our future is to find a way to use the power of entrepreneurship and the free market to transform a system of bureaucrats to a system of teachers. My thought is, there must be a way to plan a long term transformation to a free market system of public education, 20 years in the future, and a way to way to set a strategy, in cooperation with educators in the present system, to move toward and to build that future.

  15. Stan Hirtle says:

    Do we think that entrepreneurship and the free market will transform schools? Charter school advocates say that, but there isn’t really enough money to make that happen. Charter schools are mostly small mom and pops struggling with the same problems that the public schools. The franchises haven’t done much either.

    Our system of colleges is sort of like what you describe, particularly as state legislatures abandon the subsidies that make them affordable. You have Harvard and you have the Ohio States, Wright States, Central States and various diploma mills on the bottom. There are private colleges that are expensive and upscale in between. Of course colleges have much highly developped students than our k-12 schools do, and most importantly they are not for everyone, so you are not stuck with really difficult kids and problems. And the biggest movement is for colleges to be unaffordable.

    The main way for schools to be successful is to be selective about who you let in, which creates winners and losers but not a transformed system. In addition schools are collections of relationships among hopefully skilled professionals and students, and to a lesser extent parents and the communities. Relationships are not amenable to being franchised, mass produced or handled in a corporate manner. Putting a boss in charge of school and giving them untrammeled power over teachers, a popular idea in the business community, is like having a king and hoping he’s Arthur rather than Saddam Hussein. The latter happens too often in the schools we have now.

    To even think about this you would need to spend huge amounts of money to reward the entrepreneurs who are successful. And you have to do something about the fact that the success of most schools is dominated by the raw material of who goes there, and the privileges they have. Supposing we took some percentage of the military budget and gave it to whoever could do the best job of educating disadvantaged urban kids? Which assumes that we have a way of measuring that competitively without people making it meaningless by gaming the system, which is a problem with the present No Child Left behind system. Would a profit motive produce better schools? We still have to know how to make the schools better, using analysis of what is causing the problems rather than assuming that there is magic in the marketplace.

    In addition, Dayton found out that schools pretty much need to be local institutions, or at least that bussing everyone everywhere did not make things work well. But local institutions mean that local problems that come from neighborhood race and class segregation dominate efforts to correct them.

    I think that the market and entrepreneurs may work well in certain economic systems where we are trying to manufacture things like automobiles (although you would expect GM to catch up with Honda and Toyota after decades, and it hasn’t happened. That is also what many believe happens with public schools, that people running them prefer to stay the way they are than change.) But mostly money chases what is most profitable, and I don’t think that works with schools.

  16. Original Eric says:

    I had hoped to highlight the merits of Notre Dame over Wellesley and Harvard as elite undergradutate schools, not imply that non-Notre Dame graduates (myself included) are clueless. I have visited Notre Dame’s library to see Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient (and past ND President) Father Theodore Hesburgh’s PhD dissertation. As he said 54 years after his dissertation, “Poor people don’t need … a bunch of incompetent hacks running around acting busy.” Perhaps I should have written, “If only Senator Obama and Senator Clinton had attended St Albert the Great Elementary School, their Harvard and Wellesley educations would not have been so limiting.”

    The constructive approach that comes to my mind is to approach Jan Resseger (Minister for Public Education and Witness in the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Witness Ministries) and ask whether Obama’s education platform will follow UCC’s lead and ignore Catholic Principles for Educational Reform in the United States. The Catholic approach is closer to Elen Belcher’s suggestion than the UCC approach, which largely ignores governance. Many people (not just Catholics) would object to an approach of “let’s send adequate resources (more money) to do something we aren’t all agreed on without a mechanism to prioritize the spending.” In addition to ignoring the Catholic contribution to the debate, the UCC also marginalizes the business community’s ability to contribute. In contrast, the Catholic Principles state, “There is a need to take advantage of the potential resources to be found among business, civic, cultural, educational, and religious groups in our society to improve the overall quality of our nation’s educational system.” The Catholic approach leverages Deming, Baldrige, and the Kettering Foundation; the UCC approach does not.

    In practice, Catholics are quite busy trying to maintain an urban presence while the Jan Resseger promotes a very union-friendly vision of education “reform” within the National Council of Churches. In this context, Senator Obama’s trip to the moon becomes “Let’s take a trip; I’ll bring the munchies…” led by a Senator who “has not yet made much of a dent in the partisan atmosphere in Washington.”

    There is also a big difference between the UCC and Catholic perspectives on social justice. The Catholic Principles state, “Governments at all levels should advocate policies that foster educational, social, and economic justice for all people.” That implies citizens are prepared for participation in “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The UCC seems eager to elect a President and Senate who will nominate/confirm Supreme Court Justices who are willing to consolidate metropolitan school districts and assign the best teachers to the worst schools. Perhaps someone could get the UCC or the Obama campaign to clarify their intent in this regard: do current school district boundaries advance legitimate expectations of persons in once-preferred groups or do the boundaries perpetuate “the effects of past discrimination?”

    In brief, the Catholic Principles encourage communities to work together to ensure school systems serve the constitutional purposes of public education. The UCC ultimately holds the Supreme Court accountable to redraw district boundaries to remedy effects of past discrimination–after spending millions on union-friendly “reforms.”

    BTW, Stan, your critique of free market reforms is solid. The difficulty is building support for public school reforms likely to work.

  17. T. Ruddick says:

    Mike, let’s address your comment:

    “It seems unlikely, make that impossible, that a government controlled, bureaucratic, hierarchical system of schools will ever empower teachers to the level of professionalism, the level of artistry, needed for the future. The system itself is a failure and must be changed, and, my word, this is a conclusion that seems inescapable; we would expect a system of government controlled, bureaucratic, hierarchical system of grocery stores to be a failure also.”

    Well, kids ain’t eggplants, you know, so let’s leave the supermarkets out of this.

    If it’s impossible for a centralized system of education to create effective teachers and successful students, then why do all of the nations that have even MORE centralized control of education do better than the USA? Japan and all of those European nations that regularly outscore our students on science and math–they have no local school boards, no independent state educational authorities,and no NCLB/Workforce2000/blah blah federal initiatives. What they have is a national department of education that provides comprehensive guidelines and direct supervision for local districts.

    I’d say you are correct that the system needs to be reformed. But so far all of our attempts at reform have been focused on bottom-up methods; give the teachers new ideas and fine-tune curriculum and the students will respond like lab rats.

    A diametrically opposed reality presents itself; we will not fix education in the USA until we fix it at the top. I’ll note that Gov. Strickland seems to have drawn that conclusion, and so far Eric Fingerhut as a fully-empowered chancellor of higher education has shown more promise in correcting the (relatively minor) problems at that level than all prior efforts. Mark my words; higher ed. is going to see less duplication and become far more accessible to Ohioans in a few years.

    My not-so-humble proposal to improve K-12 education would go something like this–not necessarily in this order:

    1) Greatly reduce the “education” curriculum in higher ed. Over 90% of what passes for “research” in education is actually little more than an uncritical report of a program pursued at some school or by some administrator. Teachers need fewer courses in education and more in the subject(s) they intend to teach.

    2) Centralize education administration. We’ll save millions if we have one school board per county–and even more if we have one school board for the entire state. At the same time, somehow get legislators to understand that it is their job to fund education, voters ought not to be asked to do it themselves, and get them also to resist the urge to create costly new programs and initiatives. The overall number of administrators ought to decrease, and those that remain should be charged with running the physical plant, observing and evaluating teachers, maintaining discipline, and reporting essential information to the state–not doing recruiting, public relations, politics, and other duties with which they’re now burdened.

    3) Fix curriculum and instruction. Direct instruction is the best pedagogy for maybe 80% of our elementary school kids, so implement it–and provide special ed for those who need it and honors study (where direct instruction isn’t the method) for those who qualify. Secondary education ought to loosen up the pedagogy a bit to expose students to other modes of learning. Build a system of quick rewards for elementary school kids. Get somebody who understands Piaget to write curricular guides for all subjects in all levels so that students aren’t asked to do things they’re developmentally not ready to do.

    4) Restructure the teaching profession. Currently we run a young adult through four years of college with a little student teaching at the end, then put them in charge of classrooms immediately. There needs to be an extended apprenticeship program after completing college, during which time the new teacher is closely supervised, guided and mentored by an experienced teacher. (Note that this sort of program would help in Direct Instruction, where the teacher’s job is more labor-intensive and tiresome). It takes a new teacher about six years to really learn the ropes of the vocation; let’s give them more support as they do.

    5) Pass tort reform legislation that prevents frivolous lawsuits against educators.

    That’s what I’d do if I were suddenly promoted to emperor. Is it impossible for these things to happen? Only if we choose to accept impossible.

  18. Rick says:

    Wow, you have lots of good stuff in your post, Dr. Ruddick, including an apprenticeship period, having legislators refrain from requiring costly new programs, using direct instruction for those kids that could best benefit by it, passing tort reform legislation to discourage frivolous lawsuits, greatly reducing the “education” curriculum in higher education.

    I have one minor quibble concerning your excellent post, you state, “At the same time, somehow get legislators to understand that it is their job to fund education, voters ought not to be asked to do it themselves….” Legislators will not fund the schools, taxpayers will. The only question is which taxpayers?

  19. Mike Bock says:

    Stan, you write, “We still have to know how to make the schools better, using analysis of what is causing the problems rather than assuming that there is magic in the marketplace.”

    “Better” is the key word. When you say, “How do we make the schools better?”, what the government controlled educational establishment hears is, “How do we raise test scores?” I’ve written about the East German car, the Trabant. Over time, the auto managers made improvements in the Trabant, making it “better.” But a better Trabant was still a Trabant. An education defined by better test scores is still an education defined by test scores.

    Dr. Ruddick responded to my comment — “The system itself is a failure and must be changed … we would expect a system of government controlled, bureaucratic, hierarchical system of grocery stores to be a failure also.” — by saying, “Well, kids ain’t eggplants, you know, so let’s leave the supermarkets out of this.”

    Kids aren’t automobiles either, but, the idea that a government controlled, bureaucratic, hierarchical system will ever produce quality has been proven to be nonsense. The Trabant is only one example. Go to Cuba and see how a talented people have been encumbered by a lousy societal organizational structure. The idea that the key problem with public schools is how they are organized and structured is obvious; it should not be a matter of big debate. It is a controversial idea only because it is an idea that threatens the educational establishment.

    What is curious is why voters in heavily Republican school districts have not pushed for the restructuring of their schools. And again, it comes down to the word “better.” I actually heard a school board member in one of these Republican districts saying that since the district had already received the state’s highest ratings that there was no way to improve, but that the district should simply be vigilant to maintain the status quo. I guess it is a simple matter in these Republican school districts: if you can’t imagine something that is “better” then why change what is perceived as not broken?

    It is a major failing of the educational establishment that it has not provided any balance or wisdom to help guide or influence a politically generated definition of school purpose — to the point that making a school or school system “better” simply means making test scores in the school or school system better. The problem for the educational establishment is that, by buying into a degraded and uninspired view of the purpose of schools and a degraded view of how to define the public good in public education, the concept of teacher as professional is in danger of disappearing. A new generation of low cost teaching machines, teaching robots, will be shortly on the horizon that will very effectively and efficiently transmit curriculum, and will patiently and creatively work with children to help them increase test scores. I agree with Dr. Ruddick that teachers and the teacher / student relation is of central importance in a system of education. But the purpose that teachers seek to accomplish must far transcend the purpose that now guides schools, and, if for no other reason than to advance the hope for teacher professionalism into the future, it must be a human purpose that cannot be machine duplicated.

    Dr. Ruddick’s five points suggest improvement, but they do not show the way to bring talented individuals into the teaching profession or to empower and inspire them to the level of professionalism, the level of artistry, needed for the future. If we had a system where a talented young person would know that if he or she developed to the top of the profession he or she could earn, say, $200,000 in a year, then that would be a good start. But why pay someone big bucks to accomplish a task when you can get a machine to do it for pennies? If education is simply defined as transmitting curriculum for the purpose of raising test scores, then there is little point in thinking much about teacher professionalism.

    Where will schools find the money to pay top teachers $200,000 per year? Simply put, there is already a ton of money in education. We need to find an organizational structure that works to allocate money where it will leverage the most quality. In one sense, the system as it is presently designed has too many individuals who are called “teacher.” Imagine what the medical profession would be like, if every graduate from college with specialized training could simply be called, “doctor,” or “surgeon” and where everyone would be on the same pay scale where pay has little or no connection to performance — and, where the hospital administrators made the most money in the profession and had the most influence. What is needed is a profound change in the system.

    The argument for the funding of public schools via forced taxation is that public schools serve the general good. A school that would serve the general good would provide for education that would very much transcend what test scores now measure.

    Obama’s words — “an education for your children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential” — implies an astounding change in school purpose. And this astounding change would mean a whole new range of opportunities for teachers, a whole new way to think about teacher professionalism. Obama speaks like a wise parent speaking about his own child and his comment reminds me of John Dewey’s statement that schools should provide for every student the education that the wisest parents in the community would want for their own children. If a school could actually educate children in such a way to empower and inspire them to understand and fulfill their human potential, then certainly such a school would serve the general good, would prepare children for effective citizenry, and would be very worthy of receiving tax money. Such a school necessarily would be much different from the schools of today.

    Original Eric, thanks for giving links for research. It is interesting to compare the views of the Catholic Church and the UCC’s views on public education. I don’t understand your last comment, “When an academic uses the word ‘transformative’ with ‘education,’ be afraid. Be very afraid.” I did read some of the book you referred to, but I still don’t understand the point you, or these book authors, want to make about transformation.

  20. T. Ruddick says:

    Rick; thanks for your praise. My comments about legislators funding the schools have to do with my dislike of one of the election-year tricks that they keep pulling. It goes like this:
    1. Candidate promises not to increase taxes.
    2. Government continues collecting taxes.
    3. Candidate, now elected, threatens not to provide state funding unless the citizens vote to increase their own taxes.

    Note that the state did this with community colleges until 1963 when Miami, Darke and Shelby counties successfully sued and founded Edison without a local tax levy. The state recently did this with school construction funds. They do similar things with non-education programs.

    Yes, taxpayers will provide the actual money for schools. But expecting taxpayers to micromanage revenues and budgets is a little like that TV commercial where the surgeon is telling the man how to remove his own appendix. Legislators are supposed to understand the needs of the state and to set a fair, efficient system of taxation to support a reasonable budget. They are FAR from doing that job; instead, in education, we taxpayers have to keep going back to the ballot box to approve or reject another inflation-adjustment levy that, frankly, few of us have the capacity to fully analyze.

    That’s why I say I want the legislators to fund education. No, I don’t believe that money spontaneously generates whenever a politician enters the state house :-)

  21. T. Ruddick says:

    Mike, I think your blanket rejection of any “government controlled, bureaucratic, hierarchical system” continues to be a hasty generalization.

    True, Soviet consumer goods were poor and in short supply; true, the Trabant was almost as good as the Yugo.

    But the US military is the greatest force of its type in history. The Canadian, French, and British central health care systems outperform ours and cost less at the same time. The public education systems in Europe and Japan are more centralized and hierarchical than in the USA and we accept that our students are not keeping up with theirs.

    I consider the marketplace to be appropriate when the demand for the goods and services is somewhat arbitrary and the market is perfectly competitive. Supply and demand seems to work fine for LCD monitors and digital cameras and guitars and neckties. But when the goods or services are essential (health care, public safety, national defense, and yes, education) and the marketplace is not perfectly competitive, then centralized management works better–if we can find the right managers and set up the right system.

    You ask how we can attract the right talent for the teaching profession? More money would help, but at present there are plenty of young people majoring in education. They’re doing it because they think that the current salary is enough and they are inspired by the promise of fulfillment from teaching itself. We can do better by giving them effective professional development and removing the soul-sucking demotivators from their work environment–thus keeping them in the profession longer and maintaining their idealism as they increase their skill and experience.

    I do agree there’s enough money in education already if we quit burning up so much of it on overadministration, fragmentation, marketing, student loan interest subsidies, and other bloat. I don’t think that suddenly inflating the top tier on the salary schedule to $200K is the most effective way to re-use that money.

  22. Original Eric says:

    Obama’s words – “an education for your children that will allow them to fulfill their God-given potential” – implies an astounding change in school purpose.

    To whom?
    Are the purposes of Chaminade Julienne “an astounding change” from the purposes of public high schools? Do schools such as CJ fail to develop harmoniously their physical, moral, and intellectual qualities of their students?
    The UCC/NCC seems to hold that urban schools only need the resources of suburban schools to succeed.
    Dr. Ruddick suggests that better prioritization of existing resources toward more effective instruction suffices.
    Academics talk about a “pedogogy of transformation” which appears to mean politically correct indoctrination.

    Why can’t a Trabant be continuously improved into a Fortwo? Or must we insist on something appropriate for George Jetson?

    If we we’re really interested in quality schools, we would ensure a professional stamdard of care and consult with (preferably informed) customers. The standard of care derives from our state’s constitution and other legal sources.

    What you suggest Obama pursue is something distinct from what the oath of office requires. It’s not clear that a President can do both.

  23. Mike Bock says:

    Dr. Ruddick and Original Eric — I started with a reply to your comments and then it became so long I decided to simply make it another post. I have been trying to put my thoughts together on some topic on a regular basis and write a post. It is a good discipline. At first my goal was every week, but now it seems to boil down to more like every two weeks. You both have a lot to say — It would be great you both — and Stan and Rick — would become an occasional, or regular, columnist and post here at DaytonOS.

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