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The state of American education: The era of 'Obama-cation'

By Guest blogger on Feb 1, 2011 01:01 PM

This week's guest blog comes from Hernandez D. Stroud, an African American male Teach for America  teacher, who was present at last week's forum on educating men of color in education.

“What we need are teachers who don’t make excuses,” said Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. “I don’t want to hear about bureaucracy. We have always had bureaucracies…We are looking for people who say ‘I can teach a rock to read.’…If it is not the right place for you, then you should find another place to go.”

Attending a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania on how to improve the educational outcomes of men of color, I was stunned in what I saw and heard from our nation’s top urban education leader.

Ackerman’s churlish response to a fellow Teach for America teacher who inquired about how to provide meaningful education while juggling the pressures of the School District to increase test scores made one thing clear to me: the state of education in America is in peril.

As a Philadelphia teacher, few of my colleagues can seek to empower students to think critically or to be fierce, independent social scholars. Instead, most of us are relegated to teaching strategies, tips, and tricks on selecting the best answer on a multiple-choice exam. In short, we treat students like stagecrafts, training them to do precisely what we say, not to think incisively and critically for themselves. When did education become this way?

One word: "Accountability."

Watching President Obama’s State of the Union, I was inspired in his rightful elevation of teachers. I thought, “Finally, teachers will be valued more than low-skilled workers and technicians!” Yet, reflecting on his policies and goals, I began to question the purpose of education under an Obama administration.

Schools and their districts are held accountable through standardized testing performance. Schools must "meet" certain scores to be rewarded or simply remain in the clear, and if they fail to provide evidence of progress, then heads fly.

Now, I’m confident that no one disagrees with the concept of accountability. After all, it gives us peace at night to know without a doubt that our students and children are learning and making progress. But, are our students learning and making progress meaningfully?

While I am an avid supporter of President Obama, his policies are not conducive to meaningful education for students.

Education must stimulate students to think provocatively on their own. It must enable young minds to engage in complex and sometimes controversial discourse on any given topic. Education must immerse students in the deepest of problems, and we must provide them with the tools to adequately evaluate and ameliorate those challenges. This is the only road to true freedom, growth, and self-discovery in our increasingly competitive country and world. This is, and should be, the principle purpose of education.

Instead, we have teachers acting and reading from scripts like robots. We have students mindlessly completing copious amounts of worksheets only to prepare for exams and receive letter grades that do not reflect a true education. And, how dare we wonder why the education field fails to attract high-achieving minds.

If we continue down this path, it will be a challenge for our nation to fulfill the dreams of King and meet the visions of Kennedy.

For a president so fixated on the ideals of democracy at its core, and a president that is my greatest role model, I fear that Obama’s education policies are unfortunately off-the-mark and not in the best interest of our children’s futures.

I want my students to think critically and rise above the confines of their own selves to promote the general welfare. I want them to lead a nation that is able to ask what they can do for their country without seeking to advance their own self-interests. I want them to be more than simply intelligent, but to also possess character, integrity, and leadership. And, like our president, I want for them, most of all, to fulfill their lifelong ambitions and God-given potential to reach the highest positions that our country and world has to offer.

If our students and children are only able to postulate answers to mindless multiple-choice testing drills, then I’m afraid my dreams will only be in the potential and promise of our democracy and never in the realities of our time. Worse, my students’ dreams will never be reachable.

This is not the purpose of education. We are better than this, America. It is imperative that we restore an education system that truly operates in the best interest of our posterity and nation.

And, by the way, how do you teach a rock how to read?

This piece originally appeared on Stroud's blog.

The guest blog section is a place for people, other than our regular cast of bloggers, to share their views. (See our "About Our Blog" note at the top, right.) Got something you'd like to write about? Email us with a pitch, idea, or a completed post.

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Comments (17)

Submitted by Keith Newman (not verified) on February 1, 2011 2:49 pm

As one who has been fighting this fight since the state takeover back in 2001, I welcome your energy and insight. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
1. Urge the union to join and essentially lead our fight
2.Organize ourselves and seek like minded teachers across the nation to become politically active, something TAG is doing ever so slowly
3. Slowly fade away by leaving our altruistic careers and seek our own glory at the peril of the nation.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 1, 2011 4:10 pm

Excellent blog. I absolutely agree with you regarding Obama. I have doubted his education policies since the debates with Clinton. I too am an avid supporter, but his policies, under the guidance of Arne Dunncan, are seriously misguided.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 6, 2011 5:21 pm

WHEN are people going to stop listeing to Bill Gates, as if he's any kind of educational expert? He is a merit pay advocate (as are those in the current adminstration) who hasn't the slightest idea of what goes into teaching a child. and has stated that teaching is one profession in which employees don't get better with age.

PARADE: What did you learn from working with your kids?

BG: Teaching's hard! You need different skills: positive reinforcement, keeping students from getting bored, commanding their attention in a certain way. I'd be better at teaching the college-level stuff.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on February 1, 2011 4:36 pm

 Hernandez, Thanks for this and also your insightful posts on your own blog which I just finished reading.   I would urge other Notebook readers to check it out.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 1, 2011 4:31 pm

Maybe the teachers as well as students should get outside of the box. Ackermans' statement was obtuse to be push to get rid of Ackerman and as a unit, demand a critical thinking, outside the box leadership in the School District who will allow teachers and students to be creative. In my mind public schools should be as creative and high bar about education as any Prep/Boarding School in the country. In my mind, it starts first with an initiative that requires our nation to make education not just a civil right, but a national security imperative.

Then promptly make changes at all levels of public education with a selfish eye to the kids; not unions, not special interests, or governments, but the kids first and demand that all things considered be highly functioning and useful to the life effort of the child with no functional standard left untried....

We ARE in a Sputnik moment, no one paying attention misses this fact. China is the #2 economy in the world, with 10 hour school days, 6 days a week. Our response in the 50's was a science and math imperative. No less should be required now.

Submitted by Philadelphia Citizen (not verified) on February 1, 2011 5:44 pm

Another thoughtful blog by a professor at the University of Oregon,

Submitted by go eagles (not verified) on February 1, 2011 7:05 pm

Mr. Stroud,

While I agree with you, I'm compelled to play devil's advocate:
Yes, our kids need to learn to be critical thinkers, social scholars, and intellectual warriors who will eventually win the future. But that is impossible if they cannot reach basic levels of literacy (in civics, language arts, and mathematics).

Before NCLB, our schools were certainly teaching more culture and our educators had more freedom. But the students, especially those in high-poverty areas, were entering the professional world without the fundamentally necessary skills. Parents and civil rights leaders pushed for NCLB because they saw educators teaching very passionately but achieving very little.

Again, I agree with you. But proponents of data-driven instruction are going to make this point. Where do we balance the need for skills vs. personal and intellectual development? (And yes, I realize many students do not have skills because urban education is criminally underfunded. I don't really see that changing).

Submitted by Anon and anon (not verified) on February 1, 2011 8:39 pm

It doesn't have to be (and I would say, it CAN'T be) only one or the other (basic skills or advanced, critical thought).

Kids who learn HOW to learn, how to question, and how to think can acquire basic skills at a much faster rate, and will do so outside of school hours. More importantly, kids who learn that learning can be fun and interesting will WANT to work harder to acquire skills at all levels. Any skill, basic or advanced, can be taught in an engaging way.

However, kids who are only exposed to "drill and kill" will never learn to love learning, and the best they can hope for is to master some mechanical skills.

Most importantly, kids can't learn to love learning when their teachers are reading from a script. Let's face it, we ALL hate these scripts, and our passion for kids, for knowledge, for teaching drains away. The kids notice that, of course. They see learning as a chore, a drag, and BORING. No one wins.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on February 2, 2011 9:09 am

This is stated so well. I agree, totally. No one wins with the programs in place now. Discipline problems are increasing and I fully believe this is hugely based on the frustration and boredom of the kids.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on February 2, 2011 9:41 am

"Where do we balance the need for skills vs. personal and intellectual development?"
We balance these two sides by acknowledging where the children are beginning this educational journey. We do this by starting with practices that are proven and based on the needs of the kids. We do this by basing the lessons for today on the data and observations of yesterday. We must put flexibility into the day. We need to acknowledge the elephant in the room, whether it is snow, house
fires, police activity of hunger and deal with it as it happens. We do this by fixing the issues of class size, discipline, attendance, illnesses and out dated policies. We do this by helping the kids use their personal strengths to support their weaknesses and learn from the process.
We do this through conversations, debates and practice. We do this from teachers studying their own practices and honing their own craft. We do this through teamwork and honesty. We do this is safe schools, with consistency in discipline and attendance, from the students and the teachers. We do this step by step, keeping the goals in sight and the bar held high.
We were doing just this before we were dumped into the mess we are in now.

Submitted by Ms. Chips (not verified) on February 2, 2011 8:30 am

Now there's an idea: build a cairn outside 440, & ask administration to have it meet AYP. Because we know that metaphors or other inductive thinking is not in the script. And we know that minerals are incapable of learning. And that a nonsense response from the Queen deserves a reaction she may be capable of understanding.

Your instincts are absolutely right, Mr.S: the current focus on measurable points is not education. But there is another unspoken aspect here. As we limit real education, stifle creativity and encourage everyone to become not excellent, but "adequate," there is another class of student that IS being educated. We know that the way to raise performance scores at all levels is to present varied opportunities for students to study language, music, art, sciences, math & sciences. And there are schools that provide rich curricula, encourage creative exploration, and honor the individual teacher and student. Unfortunately, most students in Philadelphia do not experience this.

This segregation will inevitably maintain a class divide, in the city & in our country, and may very well doom the majority of our kids to lives of minimal reward and quiet (or not) desperation. This approach may well increase graduation rates, but to what end? How does this "graduate" then explain a transcript with multiple remedial courses? SATs in the 600's? An attendance rate of 80% or less? A reading/algebra score that puts them into more remediation in community colleges?

In the American Colonial Era, 10% of the (male) population attended universities. This is approximately the percentage that now attends highly selective colleges. While this is, of course, not the only route to a fulfilling life, it does measure a sort of metrical competitiveness that we are working hard in the SDP to assure is not open to our kids.

We've got to break this mortal, immoral approach.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 2, 2011 11:56 am

I'm sorry, and this will probably upset some people, but this post pretty much touts the same things everyone already knows. I agree with it, you agree with it, everyone here agrees with this; this does not raise any poignant issues but simply plays to an audience here. Yes, it is well-written, but for a guest blog can The Notebook possibly get different or creative authors who offer some idea of solution?

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on February 2, 2011 11:40 am

Thanks for your feedback. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to submit a guest blog yourself, or suggest someone for me to contact.

This piece does repeat a lot of themes people have discussed previously on blog posts or in comments, but it does a good job of gathering those themes into one well written piece. It's sparked a good conversation, and it'll be a single piece we can continue to link back to when people want a citation for the "accountability debate," for example.

One of the things I really value about our blog, and we've heard from readers that it's a major thing they value as well, is that it is a space where people can speak about their concerns and feel supported. Sure, it gets old to say the same ole, same ole and not feel like the conversation is moving anywhere, but there is value in having the conversation. Please do share links or blogs that take a different perspective or offer ideas worth discussing.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 6, 2011 5:56 pm

Both Obama and Gates are of the philosophy that students must be "prepared" for the workforce,and be able to compete in the interrnational arena. While this sounds good on paper, they are missing the point of a good, well rounded education. Gates has actually claimed that he's interested in preparing students to work for MIcrosoft in the future.

The looks on student's faces as I describe being present at the March on Washington in 1963, is as much of a learning experience as any I've seen. "Who, what, why, how", they ask, and that is only my small contribution to Black HIstory Month in a day. The current Administration, and those seeking to measure teacher accountability by means of student's tests only, are missing the POINT of the natural curiosity, and give and take process of real education. Next up: Women's HIstory Month, and Labor unions in the US.. :)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 2, 2011 6:01 pm

It's extremely important to have these discussions.

Mr. Stroud, I think this is one of the most well-written pieces that tie it all together.

What the education debate needs are educators. Keep up the great work; I hope to read more from you soon.

Submitted by Keith Newman (not verified) on February 2, 2011 10:20 pm

So what are you all going to do? Discuss
While our class size gets larger
While our kids are taught to respond instead of think
While children are classified by test scores
There must be something we can do!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 6, 2011 7:10 pm

I'll bring rocks. When do we start to build the cairn? Maybe video all of us and our students saying "I am not a rock. A teacher taught me how to read."

Metamorphic, igneous, sedimentary; a rock is still a rock.

Meanwhile continue to use every spare moment teaching what you know works and take pictures of your students participating in creative, thoughtful activities. Forward this blog post to President Obama and share your experiences. Individuals acting together can make change.

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