THE BLOG
08/29/2011 04:41 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2011

Why I Still Think President Obama Can Bring Us Together

I used to think that Barack Obama would follow the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln in bringing us together. I used to read that President Obama adopted a balanced, inclusive, "team of rivals" approach to major foreign policy and domestic challenges. Now, I think I know why his education policy is the big exception.

President Lincoln famously adopted a "team of rivals" approach to healing our nation's divisions. He had to listen to policy debates that must have been excruciating. The president's openness, though, allowed him to see all sides of our toughest issues and he became "the Great Emancipator."

I used to think that President Obama would lean towards the data-driven reformers, but that he would give a fair hearing to traditional reformers and social scientists like Linda Darling Hammond. After all, Darling Hammond led the transition team for education. The overwhelming majority of Obama's high-profile appointees, however, came from the Gates Foundation or other cadres of accountability hawks.

Steve Brill's Class Warfare paints a troubling picture of the way that the Obama education team was chosen. Brill describes "'one of the greatest inside baseball battles in edu-history,'" where a "reform" policy group used funding from billionaire Eli Broad to devise a pre-election plan to exclude anybody who was not a true believer in their brand of test-driven accountability. They drafted a memo that would prove to be a "game changer." The first part of the document was designed to sound "moderate." A detailed second section laid out a plan to "flood the White House domestic policy office, the Department of Education, etc., with reform-minded folks." The memo even "slotted heroes and worker bees" into a team, "'comprised of savvy, trustworthy team players.'"

Brill cites the memo's explicit attack on "a 'team of rivals' approach." Broad and the "'other billionaires'" wanted to do more than exclude Darling Hammond from the administration. They were especially determined to defeat "the idea that someone like her could get a seat at the table."

Sure enough, the Obama administration was stacked with "reformers" from the Gates Foundation and other disciples of test-driven accountability. Their biggest accomplishment was creating the Race to the Top (RttT) competition for federal aid. These crusaders were appalled, however, that in contrast to their corporate practice, the initiative had to follow federal law. For instance, the General Accounting Office had regulations to protect against conflict of interest. So, the "reformers made the RttT, "prescriptive. Extremely prescriptive" and "unrelentingly prescriptive." They turned the RttT into "a state-of-the-art blueprint for achieving the reformers' agenda." Not only did the administration borrow the RttT format from the Gates Foundation's previous competitive grant system, it allowed Gates to fund $250,000 grants for 24 states for drafting their applications!

The rest is history. The administration ignored the protests of the National Academies of Science, and virtually every scientific organization that sought input, and the opinions of "the billionaires boys club" became our nation's educational policy. Policy has been set by true believers with little experience in schools and no desire to consider the wisdom of practitioners. The big disagreement between the Obama team of the like-minded, and the free market ideologues who want to destroy the educational "status quo," is whether teachers and our unions should just be defeated or completely wiped out. The Obama cadre's carefully laid plans spun out of control, however, and have empowered governors Scott Walker and Chris Christie, and the other Tea Partiers.

I still think that President Obama can bring us together. Except in the field of education, it was the far Right Wing that declared war on his balanced policies. As President Obama again reaches out to moderates and independents, maybe he will take the time to reread A Team of Rivals. Even better, perhaps he will consider the wisdom of I Used to Think ... And Now I Think ..., edited by Richard Elmore. That brilliant book shows how the president's "teacher quality" drive could be saved by listening to educators like Deborah Meier and Mark Simon. The administration's school turnaround effort could be salvaged by listening to administrators like Rudy Crew and Charles Payne. And the bubble-in testing madness would certainly be curtailed if President Obama studied the words of virtually every contributor in the anthology.

Another contributor, Rick Hess, is a reformer who I disagree with, but he may have said it best:

The right mix of experts can help identify tensions, incentives, and the contours of possible solutions. If one assembles the right mix of experts, their competing views can prove enormously helpful in crafting smart polices. The key, however, is to not empower any one expert to play guru but allow competing expertise to illuminate and inform complex decisions.