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President Obama Is Leading Us to the Global Cesspool of Corporate Standards

Publication Date: 2010-02-23

Obama's hot air on education is both disingenuous and dangerous.

At a White House dinner with the governors, who were decked out in tuxedos and formal gowns, President Obama picked up on his theme of yoking education to America's economic competitiveness in a tough global marketplace.

President Obama says he was inspired by a visit to Korea. Funny thing: I also visited Korea--invited, not by corporate politicos, but by the Korean Teachers & Educational Worker's Union (KTU), who were holding a joint conference with the Solidarity for National Movements for Educational Welfare.

One of the KTU conference organizers contacted the NEA, asking if they would recommend someone to speak against NCLB. When NEA chose not to respond, the KTU contacted me.

Conferences organizers asked me to talk about the damage done by No Child Left Behind, and so I titled my speech "Rejecting the Big Business Imperative and Speaking out for Students' Right to Learn: A Critical Review of NCLB." I told them about the work of the Educator Roundtable, our unions' refusal to support the petition ending NCLB, and the Business Roundtable's longtime push to standardize our schools.

Peter Johnson, President of the Finnish Principals Association, was in Korea, too, and he gave a view of national education policy in sharp contrast with President Obama's corporate scheme, pointing out that the Finnish education system was highly centralized before the great reforms in the 1970s. "Schools were strictly regulated by the central agencies; a dense network of instructions regulated the daily work of teachers. The gradual shift towards trusting schools and teachers began in the 1980s.” In the early 1990s, "the era of a trust-based school culture formally started in Finland." Now, Johnson pointed out, while the global trend is for standardization, Finland emphasizes flexibility and what he called "loose standards."

Martin also pointed out that while the global trend is for Basic knowledge and skills in reading, writing, mathematics and natural science as prime targets of education reform, Finland chooses to pursue Broad learning combined with creativity: Teaching and learning focus on deep and broad learning giving equal value to all aspects of an individual’s growth of personality, moral, creativity, knowledge and skills.

During my stay in Korea I visited a variety of schools and saw everything from kindergartens filled with the play house items that used to fill our own kindergartens, to third graders learning the intricacies of the tea ceremony, to students in an alternative school running a coffee shop. I also visited a middle school where students eat dinner at school so they can return to their study carrels and study for very high stakes competitive exams until 10 p.m. or later. It is this sort of pressure chamber practice the KTU is fighting against.

President Obama seems set on outdoing the Koreans and molding our schools, starting in pre-K, to that image of 12-year-olds hunched over their books at 11 p.m. Certainly, Bill Gates and Eli Broad are ripe for helping him out and funding something called Midnight Scholars.

You heard it here first. Look for Michele Rhee to introduce Midnight Scholars in D. C.

Meanwhile, Finland, with a national policy of respecting and trusting its teachers, scores at the top on international tests.

If there were any corporate-politico shame regarding education policy, President Obama would not employ the stock phrase "college-ready and career-ready." Of course no one knows just what "career-ready" means. It's just stuck in there to placate the people who would rightly argue that not everybody needs to be college-ready. If truth be told, not even half the students in high school should go to college. I say this for a variety of reasons, but for those whose eye is on the paycheck, I'd just say examine the projections of the Bureau of Labor: We don't have now--and won't have in the future-- enough jobs for all those people with college degrees, and young graduates with heavy debts to pay off are pretty ticked off to find themselves delivering pizzas.

New York Times reporters write that the common standards in math and reading, coordinated by the National Governors Association "was a bipartisan project at variance with the highly polarized political mood in Washington." They fail to note that this was a unilateral policy leaving out teachers, students, and parents.

Take a look at the Common Core standards in English Language Arts. [pdf file] Ask your governor when he/she read As I Lay Dying. Ask him/her which of the 15 narrators of this stream-of-consciousness novel he/she found most reliable. Oh, by the way, another "exemplar text" for 11th graders is Pride and Prejudice. Yes, a really good teacher can drag her students through these books, leaving most of those kids feeling they never want to pick up another novel.

Some of us see it as our calling to help individual students find individual books that will knock their socks off, engaging them in such a way that they will be tempted to pick up another book--on their own.

Let's organize rallies outside every governor's office in the land, wherein the gathered protesters read As I Lay Dying aloud. Actually, it would be instructive to read it at newspaper offices too. And at your local state education department After all, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) is complicit in this common core standards debacle. This organization represents the chief school officer in each state. Ask yours what the hell they're thinking of (as well as who the most reliable narrator is in As I Lay Dying.)

Tell the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association to stop scrambling for seats at the flimsy tables set up by their lobbyists in Washington, D. C. and stand up for professionalism, which means respecting teacher savvy and individual student need. If you belong to these organizations, YOU are paying for those lobbyists, which means YOU are paying to put As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice on the required reading list of every 11th grader in the land.

And worse.

President Obama's hot air on education is both disingenuous and dangerous. Isn't it way past time that the so-called education progressives break their silence and call him on it?

And isn't it way past time that the rest of us call out the so-called education progressives who have chosen to remain silent?

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