05/09/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Education in Chicago: Mr. Secretary: Quo Vadis?

In 1959, Jacques Barzun, the most perceptive 20th-century observer of American schooling, declared in The House of Intellect that to change any part of our pedagogy, "more will than we have ever used about 'education' is needed to make the least of our hopes into a deed."

Why is it so difficult to change the smallest feature of our schools? Because, in Barzun's words,

The schools are as fully the product of our politics, business, and public opinion as these are the products of our schools. It is because the link is so close that the schools are so hard to change.

The virtual identity of citizen and school explains why nothing fundamentally new in the last 80 years has been accomplished in American education by the tens of thousands of experimenters, researchers, prophets and reformers in government, foundations, and the universities.

In other words, our schools are in the mess they're in because the vast majority of the group by whom America is governed--the educated, conservative, upper-middle-class white suburbanites--want it that way. They are comfortable with a disguised mediocrity at every level of public education, from kindergarten through graduate school.

Undoubtedly some of these suburbanites would be dismayed if told that only two out of every hundred urban black high school graduates earn diplomas from a four-year college, but none would lose sleep over that fact.

Furthermore, as we've seen in the last several months, President Obama is doing everything in his power to reassure the conservative core of this country, both Republicans and Blue-Dog Democrats, that he shares a great many political and social convictions with them, and will not upset them by suddenly turning radical.

I think the President has done this with a masterly, Lincoln-like hand. It was inevitable, necessary, expedient, and principled, no matter what the left wing of his party may say.

But he and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have wildly underestimated the job they've undertaken: What they are proposing in Duncan's "Race to the Top" is no less than the deepest reform of teaching and learning in this country yet. In a word, radicalism.

If Duncan and Obama really expect five million more students to graduate from two-year colleges by the year 2020, they must for the first time in history make American schools into thoroughly intellectualized, serious places. And that, I submit, means bloodshed, tears, and suffering--and heavy odds in favor of failure.

Standing in the way of the basic reform they want are huge obstacles they ignore:

1. Suddenly, for the first time in our history, teachers are to be held accountable for teaching students. If the Obama-Duncan reforms take hold, many teachers will lose their jobs. Teachers are justified in asking, "Why now? Why, after nearly one hundred years of ignoring us, of treating us like menials, of shamefully low salaries, of letting us teach in rat-infested hellholes, of minimizing or ignoring the physical dangers we face every day in our classrooms, why are we suddenly the only culpable ones? Why are we alone to be punished for our students' refusal to learn? What about buck-passing parents? What about cowardly administrators who year after year abandon new teachers to their fates in war-zone classrooms? What about schools of education and university professors who insist that methods, not knowledge of subjects, are the sine qua non of pedagogy? Why not blame academics who send many more than half of us out to teach unprepared, ignorant of good practice and unready to face the new classroom atmosphere of contempt, hostility, obstruction, and defiance?" These questions are unanswerable.

2. Obama and Duncan are really talking about toughening academic standards for everyone. Not just the bottom ten or twenty percent, but the brightest and the mediocre middle as well. College-educated American parents won't stand for this. They believe that what they would describe as an "over-emphasis on academics" is neurotic and unhealthy. It creates sallow-complexioned grinds; it courts ridicule and ostracism for their offspring.

Much better to set up elaborate schedules stuffed with extracurricular activities for their "well-rounded" kids: Sports first, of course, then band, then theater, field trips to D.C. and Disneyworld, mid-term ski trips to Aspen, community service for the college admission application: the list of licensed distractions from more diligent study grows longer every year.

The shock of this new toughness, Mr. Duncan, may result in upheavals you can't control, that is, outright revolt by powerful school districts and influential parent groups.

3. Secretary Duncan has said, "Children who face remediation after high school have been lied to for years and years." Yes, Mr. Duncan, that is true, and it is inexcusable. Administrators, counselors, and teachers on being hired should be made to sign an oath that they will never to say to their charges, "Jason, you have so much potential! If you'd just apply yourself!" Teachers more than any other professionals must insist on performance alone.

But, Mr. Duncan, the deception has been mutual: Teachers hear more lies every day from students (and parents) than they can possibly reciprocate. What is to be done under your new law to mitigate student and parent contempt for teachers, not to mention obstruction and lack of discipline in the classroom?

4. Who is going to certify that the student beneficiaries of the new strictness embodied in "Race to the Top" are ready for higher education without remediation? We know that state boards of education routinely lied and surreptitiously lowered their own standards (Illinois, too, did this on Mr. Duncan's own watch as the CEO of CPS) under No Child Left Behind, and for the best of reasons. They lied heroically, selflessly, so that the schooling of the children in their states wouldn't suffer from the sudden withdrawal of federal dollars. What in your re-writing of NCLB, Mr. Duncan, will prevent this exact same thing from happening again?

5. Who is going to judge teachers and decide who is going to be fired? The answer to this question is crucial since everyone already knows teacher evaluations are a joke. Harassed and overworked principals who right now cannot find the time to visit every classroom in their schools more than once every two weeks for twenty minutes are not going to magically discover big blank periods in their schedules. Who then will do this very important job, which has been neglected and left undone for eighty years and more? Who will write the reports and file them? I understand that discharging teachers is to be made much less cumbersome and time-consuming. How? How much more will "faster firing" cost school districts?

I want President Obama and Secretary Duncan's "Race to the Top" reforms to succeed. But everything I've read tells me that these two think fundamental reform happens by dangling a carrot of sufficient plumpness in front of those to be reformed. Not so. Their assurance is in itself a very bad sign. More sobriety, a spirited pessimism about results, would augur better for lasting reform.