— February 17, 2011

Obama’s New Nationalism

Posted by Jon Emont

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of education in American political discourse. Ever since George Bush worked with liberals to pass No Child Left Behind, the massive piece of legislation that graded schools based on their students’ test scores and monitored school progress to ensure that not a single student would “fall through the cracks” of the education system, there has been consensus that education must be one of the federal governments’ top priorities. This is the case even though the No Child Left Behind legislation is widely regarded as an under-funded failure that revealed the inadequacies of the American public education system but didn’t actually supply sufficient resources or ideas to solve them. Obama promised to improve on Bush’s attempts. Unlike the majority of Democrats, Obama accepted that student test scores were a reasonable measure of student progress, that teachers should be paid based on their effectiveness rather than their seniority, that the tenure system that allowed terrible teachers to remain in the classroom needed reform and that charter schools – schools established with a mix of public and private funding that experiment with innovative ideas and avoid the bureaucracy of public schools – should be promoted. Obama combined the Democratic belief that improving public education was among the most important issues in American politics, with the Republican belief that public education needed dramatic reform. In other words, he believed that public education needed both more money and better ideas.

Unfortunately, the terrible economy and the messy healthcare debate conspired to prevent Obama from implementing a significant education overhaul. His only major initiative – Race to the Top – was a one-off program that distributed $4 billion between the twelve states that proved the most innovative in transforming their state education systems. But now, education is at the forefront once again.

In his recent State of the Union Address, Obama proclaimed that America needs to “out-innovate and out-educate” and lamented that “ nations like China and India” educate “their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science.” He concluded, “So yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real.” Obama played on American’s fears that the United States was losing its dominant position to argue that only better education can make the United States great again. If this seems overly redolent of the “Sputnik Crisis” – the 1957 Soviet satellite launch that persuaded the United States that the Soviets were technologically more sophisticated and prompted the passage of the National Defense Education Act, which poured billions of dollars into the American science and math education – that’s because it is. Obama even said it: “This is our generation’s Sputnik Moment.”

There are important distinctions to be made between the first Sputnik Crisis and what Obama hopes will turn into the second. When Sputnik was launched the implication was that the Soviets would be the first to develop the capacity to launch nuclear missiles through space, which could lead to the capitulation or utter destruction of the United States. This second Sputnik Crisis is more prosaic. The industrious, mathematically able Chinese and Indians are going to take all the best jobs.

It’s worth noting, however, the paradox that the crises reveal about Americans’ attitudes towards the strength of the education system and their society in general. American policy-makers are utterly convinced of the benefits of a decentralized public education system with no national curriculum and with teachers empowered to teach whatever they want within their discipline. This laissez-faire system inspires a vibrant and creative youth with strong problem-solving skills and a willingness to challenge bad ideas and foster better ones. Who cares if middle schoolers need calculators to manage multiplication?

On the other hand, since well before Sputnik left the atmosphere Americans have been terrified that some country – Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, China – that instills respect for authority and the importance of discipline in its students will transform its youth into studious, mathematical machines who will swat away America’s “creative” children.

This contradiction in American attitudes towards education manifests itself in peculiar ways. A recent study by the Brookings Institute, for example, found that American middle schoolers were far less proficient in math than nearly all of their industrial world counterparts, but expressed far more confidence in their mathematical abilities than any other country’s students. Obama, of course, seeks to end the mathematical incompetence, though no politician yet has spoken of creating a program to better align student confidence with student scores.

“Tiger Mother,” a recent book by Yale Law Professor Amy Chua, caused an extraordinary stir in America with its tale of Chua’s draconian willingness to deny her children play dates, to force them to practice the violin three hours a day, and to call them “failures” any time they brought back below-perfect marks, in order to mold academically successful children. Chua tells her readers that the American mode of parenting – telling kids that they do a fine job no matter how poor their actual marks, thereby prioritizing child happiness over accomplishment – is precisely why the Chinese “Tiger Mother” model of parenting produces children who are better equipped to succeed than the American child.

This sort of talk hits a nerve with Americans, then, because it goes against the “industrious American” stereotype that we have imbibed for so long. For a nation that loves to taunt the French for their effete 35-hour workweek, the charge that American kids are undisciplined – and worse at math than the French – is difficult to take. Has our nation become decadent and contented, a has-been like Italy?

It’s a fascinating and positive development that the United States has decided to channel its angst about its declining position in the world by talking about improving the education system, and not about, say, further expanding the military. But Obama has to be very careful with however he proposes to reform education. A recent and comprehensive study found that charter schools, long the cornerstone of many education reformers’ efforts to change the system, are on average no more effective than public schools. And any major effort to peg teacher pay to student test scores could further bureaucratize the school system, punishing the most creative and innovative educators who would be forced to “teach to the test.” Many Democrats are beholden to powerful teachers unions, who have so far been slow to embrace attempts at education reform.

There are no easy steps forward. But if Obama and the Democrats are serious about turning this moment into a “Sputnik” moment, then they have to propose the sort of serious legislation that Obama has spoken about but has yet to attempt. He has to shorten the summer vacation and perhaps lengthen the school day. He must pay teachers more and find effective ways of introducing merit pay into the system. He must radically reform America’s teacher training colleges, and find metrics to determine the colleges that are most effective, and what those colleges are doing right.

This is all easy to say and difficult to do. And it doesn’t address more vexing questions about how students in dangerous and impoverished areas – provided with little incentive to succeed in school – can be expected to learn when they enter the classroom. But Obama may have enough political capital to introduce a bold reform bill that will attract bipartisan support.  It’s time for him to figure out if he does. For only if he succeeds will America become great again.


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