02/20/2013 08:53 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Two Cheers for President Obama's New Education Policies

I admit to grasping at straws in the hope that the president I love will stop his teacher-bashing and subsidizing bubble-in educational malpractice for poor children of color. But, still, his State of the Union Address was encouraging. While not apologizing for the "junk science" that informed his administration's Race to the Top (RTTT), School Improvement Grants (SIG), and "teacher quality" experiments, he now makes a commitment to science-driven pre-school.

President Obama now endorses the early education recommendations of the Center for American Progress (CAP), which is a neo-liberal think tank that also may be realizing that bubble-in "reform" is doomed. It summarized research literature which found that without a high-quality early childhood intervention, an at-risk child is:

  • 25 percent more likely to drop out of school
  • 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent
  • 50 percent more likely to be placed in special education
  • 60 percent more likely never to attend college
  • 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime

The CAP also estimates that high-quality early education could be provided for only $12.3 billion a year.

Education "insiders," who have often derided calls for improved pre-school as "excuses" for teachers' failure to overcome the effects of generational poverty and trauma, have already pronounced the president's call as "Dead on Arrival." That is not surprising, given the big bucks that consultants have been paid for cheaper and easier "reforms" based on scapegoating educators. On the other hand, they have a point. Creating high-quality early education programs and integrating them into the public schools is a far more difficult (and less profitable?) enterprise.

If anything, paying for pre-school is the easiest part of the equation and the president's call for collaboration with the states deserves a second hearty cheer. Business conservatives are among the most enlightened advocates for pre-school. In my state of Oklahoma, corporate leaders have defied our state's Tea Party and joined with teachers, unions, scholars, and social service advocates and promoted high-quality early education. In fact, it drives me up the wall when right-wing Republicans push for holistic reforms that are more humane than nonstop test prep promoted by the "Billionaires Boys Club" and the Obama administration.

The problem is that the consultants, who've grown richer peddling their "quick fixes" to frantic school systems, are right on another thing. Pre-school must be high-quality and high-quality implementation is something that under-the-gun central offices don't do. Even if money were no object, there are only so many hours in the day. School systems are overwhelmed by the RttT, SIG, Common Core, firing teachers using dubious statistical models, and the rest of Obama's first term "innovations." Districts lack the capacity to plan for thoughtful implementation of anything new, regardless of how much more promising it would be. And, how are they supposed to build the diagnostic data systems required for teaching reading comprehension by 3rd grade, while also erecting a 3rd to 12th grade testing edifice for punishing schools and individuals?

I support high-quality pre-school, but we should not repeat the errors of "reformers" who mandated risky top down policies without first contemplating the social science. We must turn a fiscal lemon into lemonade. In the short run, we may only be able to afford a collaborative planning process. We need a tough-minded conversation, for instance, on the advantages of universal pre-school funding versus programs targeted to low-income children. (I lean towards the more modest targeted approach but the other side of that issue has a point.) We must thrash out differences of professional opinion regarding the proper balance between instruction for cognitive and non-cognitive skills, as well the roles of various types of service providers. And, coordinating the efforts of those providers will require intensive planning.

I did not expect President Obama to volunteer an explicit apology for his previous rush to reform and its unintended consequences for poor children of color. He seems oblivious to the disappointing results produced by his RttT and to Common Core's poor prospects. The Obama administration is rushing an untested metric for embarrassing higher education. Its new push to remake high school could simply provide more corporate welfare for online "learning" providers.

President Obama deserves two cheers, however, for restarting the conversation about the best ways for overcoming intense concentrations of poverty and trauma. And, who knows? Someday he may earn the thunderous applause of educators and families by repudiating the educational blame game and rejecting the silver bullet of high-stakes testing.