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Obama, Duncan and the Public Schools

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I find numerous similarities between the Bloomberg regime in New York City and the Obama Administration in Washington DC, especially in their attitudes toward teachers and public schools. Obama sends his children to private school. Bloomberg sent his daughter. Both Obama and Bloomberg value smarts and believe the key to success is smart management. Neither seems to value actually knowing something about the issue or job or real life experience.

The people who haven't won the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rebuilt the economy, or delivered on national health care, are now ready to clean up the education mess and they have found an easy target -- schools of education.

Arne Duncan, Obama's basketball pal from Chicago and the educator-in-chief, who was never a teacher and apparently never worked with children or in schools in any capacity, is going to revamp public school education by overhauling the schools of education. Duncan is demanding "revolutionary change" so teachers are better prepared to work with kids with high needs and to use data-driven assessment to improve instruction (don't they already use data-driven assessment to manage industry, banks, and their wars so successfully?).

Before I go any further, in the name of openness and honesty, I am one of the targeted professors of education that Duncan and Obama apparently want to shake up. I guess, I am the problem.

On the other hand, I taught in some of New York City's more difficult schools for fourteen years before becoming a teacher educator -- middle school in District 19 (East New York), and Thomas Jefferson, Charles Evans Hughes, and Franklin K. Lane High Schools.
I am not a fan of professors of education who profess, but have little or no experience in schools. Even while based at Hofstra University, I spend at least two mornings a week working with teachers in public schools. Most of these schools have large minority populations with many high needs children. But changing schools of education is going to change very little.

Duncan wants states and school districts to "link the performance of teachers to their education schools" so they can identify which programs prepare teachers well and which ones don't. He claims he talked to hundreds of great young teachers while serving as Chicago schools chief and they had two complaints about education schools. They said they did not get the "hands-on teacher training about managing the classroom that they needed, especially for high-needs students" and were not taught how to use data to improve instruction and boost student learning." Curiously, just the answers he was looking for.

Also, not surprising answers from middle-class teachers who are grappling with the culture shock of teaching in inner-city communities with little support from school administrators.
The first problem with the Obama/Duncan plan is that nothing short of experience in schools is going to prepare middle-class aspiring teacher education students to work with students and communities that have high social and academic needs. Even if they understand and empathize with the students, it takes three to five years of hard work to develop the judgment to become an effective teacher in any setting, let alone in hard-pressed urban and minority schools. No one can be inoculated to become a successful teacher while in a teacher education program. Change will require ongoing support and training for teachers while they are working and much smaller classes. These revolutionary changes will be much more expensive than futile attacks on schools of education and local, state, and federal governments have been unwilling to spend the money.

They are also unwilling to make the investment in improving conditions in the lives of students. Increasing numbers live in poverty with little hope for the future, despite Obama's election and fine speeches. If Obama and Duncan want to improve schools they will need to rebuild neighborhoods, provide jobs, and help to stabilize families.

The United States has a capitalist economy. Businesses try to make a profit. Governments are concerned with the bottom line. Why don't our schools work better? It has little to do with schools of education. The reality is that it is cheaper to import car mechanics from Jamaica and Pakistan and computer technicians from India and China than to improve conditions in U.S. inner cities and provide students with real educations.

I agree with Obama and Duncan. Our schools need revolutionary change. We just believe in different revolutions.