Monday, March 16, 2009

Sunday Commentary: What Can Obama Really Do?

Following his first major address on education, the education world has been abuzz with reaction to and advice for the President. Every major newspaper ran editorials, and every blogger threw in their two cents. But two things about the dialogue over the past week bother me:

1.) Too many people base their judgment on the degree to which their pet reform was mentioned in the speech rather than the degree to which new policies might affect our schools

2.) Too few stop to ask what, exactly, the federal government can do that will actually impact our schools

Call me cynical, but I remain skeptical that the president or the Secretary of Education can enact any policy that will turn around our worst school systems. The problem with school reform is that it never works unless it affects the details of daily school life. Everybody thinks they know how school should be taught but very few can say they have actually turned their vision into reality.

The federal government is so far removed from your typical classroom that it is incredibly difficult for decisions at that level to effect significant and sustained change. Schools are largely local endeavors in America, and it becomes increasingly difficult to effect change the further removed one is from daily life in the classroom. It is difficult enough for teachers to impact students' lives, but it is many times more difficult for a principal, a superintendent, a mayor, or a governor, yet alone the President or the Secretary of Education.

In order for the federal government to effect change it either needs to change the way that schools are governed -- so that teachers report directly to the president -- or, more realistically, it needs to affect the way that governors, mayors, school boards, principals, teachers, and students behave. In other words, reforming schools from the oval office is a bit like playing telephone -- the odds are that the person at the end of the chain is not going to hear the message the way you meant it to be heard.

That said, I will be the last one to argue that we should give up. But before we lay out sweeping plans, we need to be aware of how they will end up affecting individual schools, classrooms, teachers, and students. And herein lies the largest dilemma for Obama and Duncan. If they lay out broad and sweeping reform, only little bits will trickle down to the classroom. But if they lay out detailed and incremental reform, they will hardly inspire the nation. In short, they are between a rock and a hard place. I don't envy their position.

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