Saturday, November 22, 2008

My Feverish Look at the Obama-Biden Plan for Education



So I have been home sick most of this week—fever, headache, you know the drill—and therefore gifted with a failing body and a racing mind, I am simply full of ideas.

I sit at my desk, and in a fit of delirium, begin flailing through my folder labeled “Potential Blog Topics.” Like cascading autumn leaves, the air is thick with fluttering sheaves of paper. Then, right in front of me, there it is: The Barack Obama and Joe Biden Plan for Education In America. Change we can believe in, right?

I started rereading the plan, available here. Obama wants to reform No Child Left Behind. Is it worth reforming something that arguably has failed? He will start by funding the plan, something Bush forgot to do. That might change failure to success.

“Obama and Biden believe teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.” Amen and hallelujah. “He will improve assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college and the workplace and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner.” Okay, is the “he” Obama or Biden? Or, is it some kind of two-headed beast: the Obama-Biden Education Monster. (It’s the fever talking.) The sentence has to be incredibly awkward and wordy, as well as offering to change the entire world of American education in one fell swoop.

Obama-Biden will “make math and science education a national priority.” I hate math. I can say that because I am over-compensating for my intense fear of math. Science, I can snuggle up to, but why make only those subjects a national priority? Make them all a national priority! And where is the literature? And where are the writing skills? And what about history, and languages, and culture, and philosophy, and geography? What about theatre, dance, art, photography, and ornithology? (Where did that last one come from?) How about ichthyology? (Jesus, I need a B12 shot.)

In an article in The New York Times a while back called “Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?” (here), we learned that some of our most prominent, influential Americans, like American Idol runner-up Kellie Pickler (surely the Joni Mitchell of her generation [sorry, Joni]) do not know that Europe is not a country. In answer to the question “Budapest is the capital of what European country?” Ms Pickler responded by saying that she thought “Europe was a country.” She had never heard of Hungary. “That’s a country?” said Ms. Pickler. “I’ve heard of Turkey. But Hungry? I’ve never heard of it.” If Hungary, eat Turkey. I swoon.

The article goes on to quote Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, who says that America and its citizens are in a bad place, firmly caught up in “anti-intellectualism (the attitude that ‘too much learning can be a dangerous thing’) and anti-rationalism (‘the idea that there is no such thing as evidence or fact, just opinion’).”

“Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge,” Ms. Jacoby says, “but they also don’t think it matters.”

The only thing that matters is that we be seen at the mall with our Gucci dog carrier and our adorable Chihuahua. But I digress.

All in all, Ms. Jacoby asserts that “Although people are going to school more and more years, there’s no evidence that they know more.”

Obama-Biden should make all the subjects—in fact, all knowledge—a priority. That way, we might just make it to Mars, and be able to tell a rock from ice from sand from alien life, and possibly have read Ray Bradbury and H.G. Wells as well.

Hop scotching around the plan, our new fearless leaders will recruit teachers with promises of scholarships. They will require all schools to be accredited. And most controversially, they will reward teachers for their excellence: yes, this means merit pay.

Why is merit pay such a problem? If someone does a good job, shouldn’t they be rewarded with more pay? In the business world, in the real world, aren’t employees rewarded with higher pay for greater productivity, higher sales figures, better job performance? Why should schools be different?

I am dreamy with excitement and the buzz of last night’s shot of Nyquil. I believe that Obama-Biden might be the breath of fresh air we have been looking for. I am buying into the hype, the promise; I am not just drinking the Kool-Aid, I am swimming in it.

Then Nicholas D. Kristof, writing in The New York Times, throws cold water in my feverish face. “President-elect Barack Obama and his aides are sending signals that education may be on the back burner at the beginning of the new administration,” Kristof writes here. “He ranked it fifth among his priorities…”

Kristof believes this is a mistake, and I agree. He believes, and claims there is a “fair amount of evidence” to suggest that it is our school system, “which for most of our history, was the best in the world but has foundered over the last few decades” that has made America great.

Once again, we hear America’s greatness in the past tense. We were once. Will we ever be again?

Politicians are forever running on a platform of educational reform. They promise change, they promise accountability, they promise money, they promise the moon. Then they get elected and education is forgotten.

I hope this time it is different. I hope. But I have my doubts.

In the fitful dreams of a feverish slumber, education and the life of the mind become America’s first priorities. Oh, and I look like Brad Pitt.

Hey, a boy can dream.