THE BLOG
03/06/2014 09:31 am ET Updated May 05, 2014

Coming Together to Become Our Brothers' Keepers

I believe the real Barack Obama is the one who sat cross-legged with students at Washington DC's Powell Elementary School. As the Washington Post's Emma Brown explained, the president rejected the offer of a stool, "taking one boy into his lap as the class spelled out a sentence."

Given his to-do list, I doubt President Obama has had time to consider how his test, sort and punish education policy has done so much harm to poor children of color. Given all his other worries, it is no surprise that he has deferred to data-driven reformers, letting them impose rote instruction and nonstop test prep on students and teachers. As the end of his presidency approaches, I expect Mr. Obama will pay more attention to educational justice, not just using the issue as an opportunity to sound tough, using the word "accountability" over and over.

I believe that the real Barack Obama is his brothers' keeper. We teachers can't let our anger at ill-conceived school reform distract from a united response to President Obama's new campaign, "My Brother's Keeper."

As the New York Times' Michael Shear explained, the president is "mindful of the legacy that his administration will leave behind on race and other civil rights issues like same-sex marriage and immigration." Shear wrote:

Although Mr. Obama nods on occasion to his history-making status as the nation's first black president, he has sought to avoid being defined entirely by his race. He most often emphasizes that he is the leader of all Americans. But in recent years, the president has spoken more about the black experience in the United States.

After spending billions of dollars on computer systems for keeping score and using bubble-in testing to fire teachers, President Obama only has relative pennies to invest in the science-based policies of early-childhood development and school readiness. So, Shear explained that Mr. Obama "offered hope in the power of his office to bring together people as diverse as the Rev. Al Sharpton, the television host and civil rights campaigner, and Bill O'Reilly, the conservative host on Fox News and best-selling novelist. Both attended the event at the White House."

I still believe that the president was sincere when he said that the diverse guest list "means that there are people of good faith who want to get some stuff done." Having campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, I hope he will reject the scorched earth edu-politics of the last 12 years, rein in (or fire) Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and reject bubble-in accountability. We teachers and our unions, who have proven our commitment to the principles of equity and opportunity, are not villains. We would have loved to have partnered with the administration that we have loyally supported. If we could get some constructive stuff done in the next two years, the Obama post-presidency and, more importantly, poor children of color would benefit greatly.

The Obama administration's education policy was rooted in the "New Democrat" neoliberalism of President Clinton. It began as a "Sister Souljah" tactic where the Democrat appealed to the elites by beating up an ally. Just as Clinton chose to "end welfare as we know it," in order to get reelected, President Obama apparently embraced market-driven reform to please the Chicago "Gold Coast" donors. I suspect he merely meant to bloody teachers' noses. He could not have anticipated that reform would morph into privatization and "neo-Plessyism," creating an existential threat to the principle of public schools.

As to why President Obama has allowed Arne Duncan to push competition-driven reform to its logical, and brutal conclusion, I have no idea. Does he know how much aid and comfort that Duncan has provided to his teacher-bashing allies, such as Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Michelle Rhee, and Governor Scott Walker? Surely the president knew the political danger that his former chief of staff, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, created for his reelection when he provoked the Chicago teachers strike. I wonder if he understands the wisdom of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis who says that the contemporary reform movement produces "masters of the universe and Walmart greeters."

But, Barack Obama is both the person who I admire and the head of state of a superpower. He faces terrible life and death dilemmas. The unintended consequences of many of his world historical decisions dwarf the destructive fallout of his administration's embrace of the bubble-in school improvement shortcut. And, educators must always remember that our suffering is nothing in comparison to the hardships faced by so many of our students.

If President Obama can play nice with Bill O'Reilly, he can rebuild his relationship with educators. If the president is offering us an olive branch, teachers should jump at the chance of participating in a team effort to improve of schools and to increase opportunities for our students. Together, we could create a real school reform movement, a real civil rights movements for the 21st century. Together, we could be our brothers' keepers.