Obama and American Public Education

by Sadiq A. Abdullahi

Can President Obama bring dignity and respect to the teaching profession in America? Can his vision for education be sustained? Can he provide adequate funding for public education? These are pertinent questions to ponder as we evaluate his 12 months in office.

President Obama and his education team under the leadership of the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, are taking appropriate steps to support the teaching profession. The aim is to improve the profession in order to improve the quality of instruction and improve student achievement.

Past U.S. presidents have made serious attempt but have failed badly to bring dignity and respect to a profession mired in struggle for respect and recognition for over a century now. We are now living in interesting times, in an era global sensitivity. And never has a past president so concerned about and committed to improving the welfare of teachers and of the teaching profession as President Obama. Can he succeed? Obama has responded to save American public education. He has responded to providing students especially those in high school who are not graduating from high school, responded to those students who are reading below grade level, and responded to those who are not adequately prepared to compete in a world economy. Obama is reaching out to teachers and their organizations for help.

In my over 10 years as a teacher of social sciences and social studies in Miami-Dade County Public Schools district and an adjunct professor of social and curriculum studies at Florida International University, I have never seen our profession so optimistic and pragmatic about the future as shown in remarks made by the present leadership of the two leading teacher professional organizations, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Teachers Federation (AFT) recently.

President Obama, during his run for the presidency, made several campaign promises to the NEA and AFT constituents. It is widely believed that their votes made a difference, and got him elected. Obama and Duncan are well aware of the decadence that has plagued American schools particularly schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

How then would Obama and Duncan support and advance the teaching profession?

First, Obama and Duncan believe that “far-reaching reforms to the teaching profession can only take hold with the support and guidance of teachers and their unions.” Second, they believe that American education system is broken. Duncan has argued that “a broken system, that is, a system of training, induction, evaluation, professional development, and promotion” that is broken should be examined and fixed. Third, Duncan believed that the teaching profession will never receive the respect it deserves so long as teachers are perceived as indolent, incompetent, and apathetic to the teaching profession. He argued that the teaching profession should be “a revered profession” worthy of all the societal values, such as caring, responsibility, knowledge acquisition, skills development, character development, community development. In Asia and Europe, and in some parts of Africa and the Caribbean, for example, teachers and the teaching profession are revered and taking in high esteem, but not in America. In these places, teachers and professors are treated as professional and compensated adequately as well. In some cases, they are adequately promoted and well compensated. Their performance and contributions are periodically evaluated for consistency and quality, and to allow for continued recognition and salary increased as merited by increased in productivity and student achievement. Records continue to show that in some of these countries, students perform better in science, math, and geography, social and global comprehension than students in the same age group in America.

As a response, President Obama and Duncan have injected into the education system some $4.3 billion to address the problems. Because teachers and the teaching profession need help and support, Obama and Duncan are soliciting the assistance of national and local unions by allowing them to voice recommendations in writing to all school district seeking federal financial assistance. State government and their educational agencies have been slow in responding, and in some cases reluctant to engage the local unions in conceptualizing and designing programs for school improvement. Traditionally, school districts and local unions are always in rancor over teacher salary and benefits. Obama’s vision for education is bringing both organizations to together.

President Obama and Duncan’s teaching quality agenda includes teacher evaluation and professional development. They believe that improved teacher evaluation and professional development will enhance the image of teachers and the teaching profession. This rebranding effort is supported by various incentive and reform programs such as Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, the Teacher Incentive Fund, Title 1, and the IDEA Funds. The reform programs are covered under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Some of the expectations include enhanced professional development, more planning time, individualized professional development plan, training and support to use assessment data, classroom observations with timely and constructive feedback. Other expectations include improved communication and collaboration between the local unions and the school district. In Miami-Dade Public Schools system, for example, the superintendent Alberto Calhavo is working to working hard to improve relations with the United Teachers of Dade (UTD) in this area.

How does one reconcile an image of a teaching profession in shambles, a commitment to creativity and imagination, a prescriptive curriculum, and a demanding public with an image and expectations of accountability and evaluation so directly linked to standardized testing and teacher performance pay? If this reconciliation can be achieved, then we should expect that Obama and Duncan’s vision for education to be sustained by all practitioners of the teaching profession. After all, the expected outcomes can only be realized in the classroom where the teacher and student interact.

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