Obama Failed the ‘Education Nation’ Test

Published October 12, 2010

NBC dedicated a week of programming at the end of September to spotlighting the good, the bad, and the ugly of K-12 education in America under the rubric “Education Nation.”

Part of NBC’s “curriculum” included an interview with President Obama by Today Show host Matt Lauer. The president inadvertently offered an insight into why calling America the “education nation” is like calling a diminutive person “stretch.”

The president said so many things about the nation’s K-12 education system that simply do not square with the evidence that he accidentally provided a wonderful teaching moment for keen observers like me.

Chinese Model?
To the question of removing bad teachers from the classroom, Obama focused on the need to honor the teaching profession, citing China as model.

“When I travel to China, for example, and I sit down with the mayor of Shanghai and he talks about the fact that teaching is considered one of the most prestigious jobs and a teacher is getting paid the same as an engineer, that accounts for how well they’re [China] doing in terms of boosting their education system.”

In Obama’s adopted hometown of Chicago, which also happens to be home to one of the worst public school systems in America, the average salary and benefits package for a public school teacher is $125,000 per year. I’d put that up against the salaries of most private sector engineers these days. Perhaps Obama could explain how well they’re not doing in Chicago “in terms of boosting their education system.”

Incidentally, the average Chinese engineer makes a little more than $4,000 annually. I wonder what would be the NEA’s reaction to scaling teacher salaries to those of Chinese engineers. Actually, no, I don’t.

Educational Malpractice
To Matt Lauer’s revelation that “there are some mediocre and bad teachers in this country.” Obama quipped: “Sort of like politicians and journalists.”

If I might join in the hijinks: Doctors and lawyers, too. And if you think that’s funny, get a load of this side-splitter, served up in the documentary Waiting for “Superman”: Approximately one of every 57 medical doctors and one of every 97 lawyers loses their license annually for malpractice. By contrast, only one in 2,500 unionized teachers get fired each year.

It is not that bad-to-mediocre teachers are necessarily a bigger percentage of their profession than the bad-to-mediocre in any other profession. The difference is the education establishment has proven itself incapable and unwilling to self-police.

Lauer asked Obama if characterizing teachers unions as existing “simply to protect their members and protect the status quo and protect those mediocre and bad teachers and as a result are getting in the way of real reform and really educating our children” was a fair assessment.

Obama responded with a brief history of teachers unions fighting for equal wages for women, a chicken in every pot, and so forth before finally telling Lauer he believes unions can be both “part of the solution” and “resistant to change.”

‘The Answer Is No’
But the president’s signature contradiction came not by way of a question from Lauer (highlighting the president’s point about mediocre journalists) but instead from an ordinary American named Kelly Burnett, from Nassau County, Florida.

Ms. Burnett asked the President simply, “I wanted to know whether or not you think [Obama’s daughters] Malia and Sasha would get the same high quality, rigorous education in a DC public school as compared with their very elite private academy that they’re attending now?”

“I’ll be blunt with you, the answer is ‘no’ right now,” said Obama.

But as Obama is no mediocre politician, he didn’t deign to address the glaring contradiction that his children of privilege should be afforded a choice few other children get. Instead, Obama trotted out his innocent bystander routine, lamenting the “struggling” DC public school system as well as the lack of choices available to children in failing school systems.

Watching the interview, particularly on this obvious bit of hypocrisy, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Winston Churchill’s observation about British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin: “Occasionally he stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.”

Squandered Opportunities
Our failing school systems are not going to be fixed by the federal government, no matter who resides in the White House. Education is a family, local, and state matter (in that order).

But that does not excuse President Obama for squandering his powerful bully pulpit by regurgitating fortune-cookie platitudes authored by the teachers unions and failing to keep his promise to pursue “what works” regardless of ideology.

The president can change the terms of debate on important issues. On K-12 education reform, Obama has consistently pulled back from opportunities to speak creatively and courageously. The Lauer interview was a high-profile instance.

As long as the political leadership in this country is unwilling to say what they know to be true and pursue policies consistent with that truth—to do “what works” in the parlance of the Obama administration—the term “Education Nation” will be a punch line when ascribed to America and a cruel joke on tens of millions of children imprisoned in what the president generously terms “struggling” school systems.

Dan Proft ([email protected]) is a host and featured political commentator on WLS radio in Chicago