04/11/2011 04:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2011

Why President Obama Must 'See Like a State,' Not Like a Teacher

To make sense of President Obama's education policy, we must recall a couple of lessons from the history of the Lincoln administration. But unfortunately, President Obama seems to have forgotten a third lesson of how one of President Lincoln's policies was perverted after his death.

One reason for America's industrial take-off in the late 19th century was the rapid establishment of the intercontinental railroad system, started under President Lincoln. Another almost-forgotten decision made under Lincoln was setting the railroad track gauge at 4' 8.5'' so that the transportation system had a common standard.

Our tech-savvy president understands those decisions. President Obama makes a big deal out of setting Common Core Standards for curriculum, as if it will magically improve schools. The real reason for Common Standards, however, is no different than setting a common track width. They are necessary for building a national digital infrastructure for education providers. Common Core is a pretty good idea, and stimulating a boom in online experimentation could turn out to be beneficial for students, but for the time being, that is beside the point. Now, the priority is spurring the economic growth of educational providers, and their computer systems.

My previous posts on the contradictions in the Obama education policy have prompted complaints by HuffPost readers who argue, correctly, that an overwhelming body of cognitive and social science research shows why his policies cannot help students. Educators feel betrayed when President Obama invests pennies in researched-based policies such as preschool, as he devotes billions to computer systems to fire teachers. But we need to remember the wisdom of educational historian David Labaree, who explains in Someone Has to Fail the reason why teachers are so disappointed by the administration. When President Obama has a chance to think about schools, he "'sees' like a state." The President always must look at education from 30,000 feet. We need to help him, though, to see how big-picture "reforms" work on the ground.

Similarly, the Washington Post explained how White House Aide Melody Barnes has become a driving force in seeing education from an economic perspective. Barnes argues that "education goes beyond fairness." She explains, "We have a realistic understanding of what the private sector is really looking for, and we're looking to align education with what's needed in the real world." She has "spent a fair amount of time speaking to CEOs and others about our educational reform agenda," Barnes says. "They tell me that when they're thinking about where they're going to locate their manufacturing base, they think about the educational opportunities they're looking at. We know they have the opportunity to base their operations in the U.S. or elsewhere."

I have no doubt that a 21st century digital infrastructure for education, and for other sectors of the economy, will unleash economic growth comparable to the growth spurred by the building of the interstate railroad system. And like that world historical transformation, the rapid creation of today's networks needs government subsidies. But, President Obama should remember the lessons of the destructive way that government has subsidized crash programs where corporations gained from government largess, but without being held accountable for their hasty actions.

For instance, the government gave railroads the land beside their railroad tracks in order to accelerate the settling of the West. This encouraged railroads to provoke the Indian Wars by building through gold fields that were located on sacred land, to wipe out the Buffalo, to create environmental disasters culminating in the "Dust Bowl," and to corrupt the political process.

The Obama administration is not using its education policy as a modern-day calvary to defeat indigenous resistance to today's version of the "iron horse." It is not using Race to the Top grants as nonviolent versions of union-busting Pinkerton thugs. The administration, however is using the RTTT and its innovation grants to speed up the destruction of the educational "status quo." He is "incentivizing" states to bulldoze impediments to the desires of the "billionaires boys club," without worrying whether those checks and balances are essential to protecting timeless educational values.

I may be wrong, but I maintain that today's corporate leaders are different than the Robber Barons who wiped out the Indians, damaged the Great Plains, and wrecked our democratic institutions. Today's business leaders do not need to kill off the liberal arts and the teaching profession in order to maximize their profits. In fact, leaders like Bill Gates assume that their opinions about schooling would be helpful for students. The problem is that the educational industrial complex is so fixated on advancing its agendas that little evidence-based thought is given to how it would actually affect school children.

So, I applaud President Obama's rush to establish a digital infrastructure, and promote business-friendly educational policies. We should let Melody Barnes achieve her agenda that "encourages community colleges to develop skills" and "to create economic clusters resembling Silicon Valley." Let their subsidies stimulate "disruptive innovation" and enrich corporations, as they create spin-off industries.

But, to paraphrase Ms. Barnes, we also need a realistic understanding of what the educational sector needs, and to align policy with the real world of schooling. We must remind the administration of the importance of protecting the essence of the "people process" of teaching and learning. We must defend timeless educational values while speeding deeper into the 21st century. Above all, we must protest his "innovations" that threaten to turn schools into test prep factories. We must help our President become another Lincoln, who pulls the nation together, and not another Grant, who impotently watched the corporate rape of his, and our, values.