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In the 2008 presidential election, I cast a symbolic vote for Barack Obama. I would have eagerly done the same for Hillary Clinton.

I believed deeply in the need to confront the lingering and corrosive racism and sexism that haunt the promise of democracy and equity that the U.S. represents (but has yet to achieve).

My vote for Obama had little to do with the hope and change that drove his campaign. I am far too skeptical of politicians to believe that policy will follow rhetoric. But I did hope that a bi-racial president and his family of color and eloquence would conjure a daily picture that refuted the hushed (and even flagrant) racism that still runs through the American Dream.

Four years later, it is palpably obvious that this picture works in an opposite way—reinforcing the middle-class fantasy of meritocracy and the American fetish for affluence. Take for example the recent article by Valerie Strauss and the photograph of the First Family.

There is much I still find compelling about the Obamas, and a hopeful part of me wishes that this photograph were the shield against racism I had envisioned by casting my vote. But Strauss's article reveals the real story: Obama's failing education agenda that perpetuates the privilege he has attained for his children and the inequitable education system his administration is creating for "other people's children."

Dare the School Build a New Social Order? 2012

In the 1930s, in the clutches of economic collapse, proclamations of the promises associated with universal public education were often built on the ability of schools to transform society. George S. Counts personified that social reconstructionist view of public education—notably his most celebrated work Dare the School Build a New Social Order?, published in 1932.

Counts confronted the political nature of teaching and schooling, and his work was unabashedly leftist, transparently revolutionary. While Counts and other left-leaning educational theorists (including John Dewey) eventually lost influence and even became stigmatized throughout mid-twentieth century during the McCarthy Era and its witch hunts for communists, the essential message in Counts's work has remained robust, and even echoed in the words of current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the face and voice of Obama's education policy:

Whether it's in rural Alaska or inner-city Detroit, everyone everywhere shares a common belief that education is America's economic salvation.

They see education as the one true path out of poverty—the great equalizer that overcomes differences in background, culture and privilege. It's the only way to secure our common future in a competitive global economy.

Everyone wants the best for their children and they are willing to take greater responsibility. Nobody questions our purpose.

That education is the most powerful lever to transform society is a central rhetorical element of the narratives coming from Duncan and Obama, as well as the growing crop of corporate-style reformers embracing "no excuses" ideologies related to education.

But the policy and reforms implemented by Obama's administration cast a dark shadow across the photograph included in Strauss's article about the First Family and Obama's two daughters beginning school in the fall of 2012. As the article details, Obama's daughters attend Sidwell:

Sidwell has two campuses, and for a few years Sasha attended school in Bethesda while Malia went to the Northwest Washington campus. Now they both go to school at the Northwest location.

Sidwell, a Quaker institution, is one of the most exclusive schools in the country, with fees in the Ivy League range.

For the new school year, lower school costs $33,268, including, according to the Web site, a hot lunch and textbooks. The middle and upper schools cost $34,268, which, according to the Web site, includes hot lunch. Textbooks aren’t mentioned.

In part, Obama and his family of color personify that privilege can trump race in the U.S., but that same photograph helps distract us from the uglier picture: Obama's education agenda is creating a public school system for "other people's children" that he would never allow for his own two daughters (factually, that he has not chosen for his own two daughters).

Under the Obama administration, charter schools that segregate and implement racist and classist ideologies have received verbal and financial support; Teach for America has received the same sort of support in order to intensify the reality that children of color and children in poverty disproportionately have un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers.

Under the Obama administration, "other people's children" are subjected to the most authoritarian and oppressive discipline practices and an endless battery of test-prep.

In short, under Obama, public school is being reinforced as a mechanism to reflect and perpetuate social inequity, not overcome it.

If public education is to be the "great equalizer," as Duncan claims, our schools must be unlike the inequitable society it is designed to change.

And here we come against the inherent failure of the Obama education agenda. Duncan's words quoted here must be seen in their full message: education is the path out of poverty but only as a mechanism for creating competitive (and compliant) workers.

Rare is the time you will hear Duncan or Obama embrace the role of education to achieve democratic equity.

Obama's educational failure is that he has been blinded by the privilege he has attained and allowed his administration to be consumed by the most powerful agenda in the U.S.: Corporate America.

Obama is squandering his unique moment at the bully pulpit of the presidency. The U.S. needs him to speak to and act upon the possibility of public education confronting the social and educational inequity still plaguing our country—inequity that is driven by racism, sexism, and classism still festering in the American character.

It is time for those of us who still cling to the hope that our schools should dare to build a new social order to hold reformers and politicians to their rhetoric, but to remind them that in order for schools to change society, those schools must be different than that society. If we want to foster democracy, our children must live and learn democracy in our schools—not continue to experience the labeling and sorting of test-based education.

In 1932, Counts argued that "the most crucial of all circumstances conditioning human life is birth into a particular culture."

In 2012, most children are prisoners of that fact as poverty is destiny, just as privilege is destiny.

Obama's education agenda, like the photograph of his family at the Democratic National Convention, is a powerful lever closing the door to equity for "other people's children"—not a lever of change and hope that his own children are fortunate enough to witness in their own lives.

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 09:48 AM PDT.

Also republished by Education Alternatives.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I think the education focus here is to narrow (3+ / 0-)

    What Obama and his whole party lack is any interest in poverty.  We've traveled backwards, backwards, and then backwards some more since LBJ's time.  To see education as the leading edge of addressing poverty is, regrettably, part of that long road backwards.  At best, with everything working as imagined, it would make a dent in poverty years and years from now.

    Romney '12: Berlusconi without the sex and alcohol!

    by Rich in PA on Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 09:57:50 AM PDT

  •  Not to mention, all this President's talk... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassiodorus, Xapulin, joe shikspack

    about austerity the deficit means this already broken vision of education will continue to be underfunded for the foreseeable future, too.

  •  And where's the chicken I was promised?!? (7+ / 0-)

    Still voting for Obama - he's the only sane, non-lying, close-enough-to-Progressive person in the Presidential race.

    •  He's only done more to expand pell grants and (7+ / 0-)

      invest in educational programs more than any other President. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama invested $2.1 billion in Head Start and Early Head Start, expanding these programs to reach tens of thousands of children and families.

      An important tenet in his policy to bringing back the economy is to extend more and more focus on improving education.

      Yes, perhaps we haven't seen satisfactory results as it stands now, but this President is genuinely doing more to assist parents and students and the struggling educational system far more than any other President in recent history.

  •  Nobody thinks like Counts did anymore. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    gooderservice, joe shikspack

    The Red Scare of the 1950s made sure of that.

    "Once the Lords of Capital are no longer the lords of anything, humanity gets another shot at rational development of the species and the planet." - Glen Ford

    by Cassiodorus on Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 10:12:29 AM PDT

  •  Also see my diary of last week: (6+ / 0-)

    "Once the Lords of Capital are no longer the lords of anything, humanity gets another shot at rational development of the species and the planet." - Glen Ford

    by Cassiodorus on Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 10:14:00 AM PDT

  •  I hope that with a new term (11+ / 0-)

    we get a new Secretary of Education.

    I have no beef with Obama's daughters attending Sidwell Friends. Being First Daughters, they have needs for security and flexibility that would be disruptive in a public school. I also have no objection to them getting the kind of massively cool education that can be had at an amazing school like that.

    The reality is - and I have my daughter in public school - that the taxpayers will never fund public schools to that level.

    I appreciate that Michelle Obama has made connections to the local public schools, inviting kids to the White House and working with them in various initiatives.  (And I have no beef that my daughter's school, 3,000 miles away, wasn't invited; we all get to do things unique to our local area.)

    Duncan's qualifications for the job in the first place are suspect, and he's really been terrible, terrible at listening to teachers, terrible at advocating things that make no sense, sending out press releases like this one on Feb 9:

    WASHINGTON, DC – Today, at 2:45PM, Cecilia Munoz, Director of the Domestic Policy Council and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will host an on-the-record conference call to discuss the President’s announcement that ten states have agreed to implement bold reforms around standards and accountability will receive flexibility from the most burdensome mandates of the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind. The ten states approved for flexibility are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
    Why wouldn't you want EVERY SCHOOL to receive flexibility from 'burdensome mandates' if it's in your power?

    W.T.F.?

    Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

    by elfling on Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 10:31:35 AM PDT

  •  Arne Duncan 'seems' to favor turning education (6+ / 0-)

    into a corporate profit center with tax dollars flowing into the corporate hijacked charter school movement.

    I say 'seems' because he often compliments tax funded charter schools and damns Teachers with faint praise and growls at Teachers Unions, not foam flecked barking, but a low threatening growl. Teachers aren't the problem their unions are the problem. Just like the conservative talking point , African Americans aren't the problem, their leaders are the problem'.

    The fact that he has history in Chicago's anti Teacher, Union busting approach to school 'reform' does not recommend him as having a fair approach to our education problems. His former colleagues in Chicago are forcing a Teacher strike even now. And Rahm is doing this in the last six weeks of the election. Wouldn't it be better to have these loyal Democrats using their Union organizing muscle campaigning for Democratic candidates instead fighting Union hating prick Rahm Emmanuel?  

    President Obama's choice of Duncan indicates to me that Obama and the Dem leadership have sided with the
    corporations and other Union haters and have planted a for sale sign on our public schools.

  •  What is your proposed curriculum? (0+ / 0-)
    •  Curriculum? I wouldn't turn our schools over to (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      coquiero, not this time

      wall st sticky fingered shit heels for starters. Most public schools can be turned around, not all, but most. But hungry corporate gators who want to feed on tax dollars and pay non-union teachers peanuts aren't going to be useful in finding the best solution.  

      We need to preserve our public school system, the middle class jobs with benefits it supports, and keep locals involved with their kids schools up to their balls.

      The only people that should find the school doors closed to them are the corporations who have hi-jacked the charter school movement.

      We have seen privatization and deregulation results for 30 yrs now. Bailouts and paying more for less service is the price. The only way to find a workable solution is to keep the privatizers and profit seekers away from our schools.

      •  I meant eyeballs. Swear ta gad! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        coquiero
      •  We agree on that. (0+ / 0-)

        But my impression was this diary was also making a curricular case as well.  I'd like to know what that entails.

        •  Diarist seems to me to be calling for an end of (0+ / 0-)

          teaching for 'the test' and the teaching of actual subjects to students, grading these courses and guiding the student academically based on performance and aptitude.

          I went to school in a rural area beginning in 1957. Before high school my classmates and I had been exposed to RW&A as well as civics, state, Us, and world history, geography, science music, art, phys ed, and sports. There were classes for students with learning disabilities, average performing students, and classes for the smartoids. All managed by public school employees with the PTA looking in and helping out. It wasn't Cranbrake or Hogworts, fer sure.

          Many of these teachers were knuckle rapping tyrants, but even most of these, if boring and charm challenged, would give you a solid learning experience if you leaned in and buckled down.

          This little village was able to send an impressive number of my cohorts off to college and secured scholarships for high performing students with cash flow problems. My cousin got a math ride to MIT in 1968. There was no elite wealth and quite a bit of rural poverty. But most families had good jobs.

          How have we fucked this up?

          It was also the booming 50s and 60s so school bonds actually passed in working class communities. The wages are now shit and bonds don't pass. No art classes, bare bones band, etc, and the TEST.  

          The testing companies, the resurgence of social darwinism, and poverty are wrecking our schools.

  •  i don't expect much on education out of obama... (4+ / 0-)

    his concerns appear to have more to do with busting unions than educating kids:

    How Michelle Rhee Is Taking Over the Democratic Party

    i'm part of the 99% - america's largest minority

    by joe shikspack on Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 02:05:17 PM PDT

  •  .... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Grabber by the Heel, chimene

    Duncan is a terrible choice.  What kind of hands-on experience does he have teaching in a public school with many children of poverty?  ZERO unless there is something that is not being released.  

    Would doctors want to be headed by someone who has never practiced medicine?  I would not presume to tell them how things work.  I would be glad to be part of the conversation, and if Duncan stays he should be part of a broad group that includes veteran teachers who have gone in and worked and tried different strategies that will help children be more successful when they are frequently hungry and walk to school in the winter in short sleeve shirts with no coat.  

    I could have more support for Duncan if he went in and tried to volunteer more with actual schools, teachers, and students.  He doesn't seem interested in that.  As far as Race to the Top is concerned, should the students of a state be penalized because the people in charge don't want to adhere to the requirements put forth by Duncan and Obama?  I'm in Texas and you know what that means in education.  What we need most is not more charter schools and dog and pony shows.  We need funding for public schools and not the racetrack Perry wants to build that will be used a few days a year at most.  

  •  Let's make this easy... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Grabber by the Heel, coquiero

    Standardize testing is a farce. Start by getting rid of it and save billions (why spend that money when any self-respecting faculty can write a test. THEME: follow the money).

    Next, cut administration pay. Why should someone be rewarded with a 6-figure salary for leaving the classroom.

    Lastly, audit district spending. (remember the THEME).

    This is the starting point because it's about being IN the classroom WITH students. Education is a process that should be life-long and will never be measured by some stupid test.

    Only the weak & defeated are called to account for their crimes.

    by rreabold on Sun Sep 09, 2012 at 02:52:12 PM PDT

  •  Good piece & agree Obama's ed agenda... (0+ / 0-)

    is perpetuating an outdated education system.

    Two things I take issue with...

    1.  You say...

    Under the Obama administration, charter schools that segregate and implement racist and classist ideologies have received verbal and financial support
    I don't think that is fair to single out charter schools that way for implementing racist and classist ideologies.  Regular public schools generally segregate the poor kids into "bad" schools and the more economically privileged into "good" schools, which reinforces race and class stereotypes.  That has nothing to do with charters... that's the whole system doing what some radical educators say it was designed to do, identify society's winners and losers.

    2. I think you are missing one of the key aspects of Obama sending his own kids to a private Quaker school.  It is not just the economic exclusivity of the cost, it is the fact that their school provides a more holistic learner-centered education that does not rely on the teach-to-the-test methodology being adopted by more and more public schools.    Obama's kids are getting a more broad-spectrum education than can be gotten in even the best public schools.

    Cooper Zale Los Angeles http://www.leftyparent.com

    by leftyparent on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 08:07:26 AM PDT

    •  To clarify (0+ / 0-)

      (1) Charters segregate (like community-based public schools) ; thus, they aren't a solution to those of us seeking equity (that's why I highlight the segregation; not to suggest it doesn't exist elsewhere)

      (2) Don't think I missed this, as I agree 100%, and believe that is the whole point of my piece: reformers creating a schooling experience for other people's children UNLIKE what they had, give to their own

      thanks as always for feedback

      •  You're welcome... I really respect your... (0+ / 0-)

        research and thoughts in these areas.

        I have been thinking a lot lately about applying the ecological/agricultural metaphors of "monoculture" and "polyculture" to describing education systems.  Our public school system being more of the former with all the weaknesses of such.

        Cooper Zale Los Angeles http://www.leftyparent.com

        by leftyparent on Mon Sep 10, 2012 at 09:32:55 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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