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Obama's Education Disconnect

Ohanian Comment: I'm convinced that the words being able to think critically are produced by an overabundance of hot air in the system.

So far, 36 people have signed the petition calling for the removal of Arne Duncan.

Dana Bennis

The Obama administration is ramping up its focus on education following last week's State of the Union. Unfortunately, it does not seem to go very far in taking a broader look at learning and giving teachers and young people more of a voice in the education process. Positive proposals include expanding the system of rating schools to include more than just test scores and using a student growth-based metric rather than a static grade comparison across schools. However, there is still no talk about more authentic forms of assessment or supporting student growth beyond academics, and the Race to the Top initiative, which guides additional education spending, remains focused on linking teacher retention to student test scores. See today's New York Times article on the subject for more details.

Yet, here was Obama yesterday (February 1, 2010) on the YouTube Interview, responding to a question from a math teacher about what Obama thinks it means to be a well educated person. After first saying that there is an economic component to being well educated (being a good worker and getting paid more as a college graduate), he went on to say:

"It's absolutely true that a high quality education is not just a matter of being a good worker; it's also a matter of being a good citizen, it's also a matter of being able to think critically, evaluate the world around you, make sure that you can process all the information that's coming at us in a way that helps you make good decisions about your own life, but also helps you participate in the life of the country. I'm a big believer that the most important thing that a kid can learn in school is how to learn and how to think... That requires more than just rote learning, although it certainly requires good habits and discipline in school. It also requires that in the classroom they're getting the kind of creative teaching that is so important.

"And that's why our administration has initiated something called Race to the Top, where my Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has helped to design a competition among states so they can foster the kinds of excellence in learning everywhere, not just in some schools, not just in some states, but in every school and every state. If states want money we're going to reward excellence, and we will show them what has been proven to work in terms of encouraging the kind of critical thinking that all of our children need." (emphasis added)

There are some great points in that brief snippet from President Obama, about learning how to learn and gaining the skills to participate actively as a citizen of our society. Yet there is a stark disconnect between Obama's stated goal of nurturing critical thinking, creative teaching, and good citizens, and his support for increased accountability based on student test scores. How does one result from the other? And what can we do ensure that the democratic educational goals President Obama clearly believes in are reflected in educational policy and practice?

— Dana Bennis
Institute for Democratic Education in America


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