Finally, a Stimulus with Promise

A year into his presidency, US President Barack Obama is set to announce spending that actually has a chance of creating long term economic health and may also create a realistic way of fighting the current “war on terror.” During his State of the Union this evening, President Obama is set to announce an increase in spending on education of nearly $4 billion. That’s roughly 2% of the money spent to bailout the insurance giant AIG and merely a 6.2% increase in spending on education. While it fits with the promises Mr. Obama made on the campaign trail about strengthening America’s educational opportunities, it is perhaps a tale of too little, too late, despite the administration’s assertion that this spending “will improve outcomes for students at every point along the educational pipeline.” In examining this educational spending “boom” it is important to consider three things: what the money is earmarked for, who it will benefit and what the overall prospects are for a more educated American populace.

Of the $4 billion in dollars Mr. Obama plans on spending, $1.35 billion is earmarked for spending on his educational innovation program, known as “Race to the Top.” This program will provide grants to educational programs that are innovative. Sometimes innovation can be a wonderful thing and, in truth, the American educational system is much the same as it was when the first free public school was founded in Dedham, MA on Jan. 1, 1643. Grade promotion, reliance on the same texts year after year, and a system that has stifled teacher activism in favor of laissez faire recitation programs have limited the American school. There have been changes: integration, public schools with indoor toilets, co-operational schooling to incorporate members of the community and their experience with education, multi-age classrooms, block scheduling, charter schools, schools which focus on the arts or science from a very young age – all have met with some degree of success.

Despite these innovations, and the rather heroic work done by many of America’s public school teachers, the system is broken. It lacks funds (so it’s hard to introduce new books), it lacks any reward system for educators (so it’s hard to maintain a class of employees who are striving to innovate), and its general attitude of tradition over innovation has stifled both teacher and student. American students are still taught from the very earliest through high school with the Cold War mentality that America is the best nation in the world (as if there is even a way to quantify that) and that the actions we have taken as a nation are correct (again, not really quantifiable, but the failure to show that national pride should be tempered with real consequence has led to a non-thinking populace). The system has been in need of a great overhaul for some time. Even the previous administration saw that, though their leadership probably did more damage than good in the form of No Child Left Behind. Mr. Obama’s second $1 billion will be spent in an effort to overhaul this.

No Child Left Behind, while well meaning, had the effect of tying educators’ hands behind their backs and telling them that they will lose funding if test scores do not reach a certain level. So a rational person might say, “Hey wait, you are telling me that the schools that are already struggling the most, because of poverty or crime or language barriers or a combination of all three, are going to lose money because they don’t meet some test score? That’s foolish.” The Bush administration, of course, did not see it this way. Teaching to the test is not just a crime against the kids living in difficult circumstances; it in no way teaches children to learn, which should be the goal of education. Mathematics and science at the base level can be a tested enterprise – there is general agreement that 1 + 1 = 2 – but history and language are fluid enterprises. No student should be told that because white people founded the system the only authors worth reading are Shakespeare or Milton. While Shakespeare has appeal that exists beyond barriers, it may be more difficult for students who immigrate or who already feel disconnected from the educational system to identify. It’s not that they wouldn’t, but the teacher who is teaching a different group of forty students every hour, five or six hours a day, doesn’t have the time to innovate and really, that expectation is unfair. The first $1 billion of this plan seems doomed. Instead of correcting a broken system, it should be abandoned in favor of one that works. While we are on the topic of the most desperate schools, does the Administration (or even do you) believe that the most successful innovations will come from the schools most in need? How will that be accomplished exactly?

Some American children attend schools in well-maintained, modern, clean and healthy buildings; others attend schools that, at best, would be called dilapidated. If you were a teacher in a building with no heat or a leaky roof or just teaching in overcrowded classrooms every day, would you find it very possible to develop a new way of reaching students? This is not just about urban or rural poor schools and their daily hardships; this is about reasonable expectations. Students who have more access under the current system will benefit. Of course the possibility exists that someone from outside a community can come in with new ideas and win a grant. Then the issue becomes, how does one get a community and group of teachers to follow a person they do not know and who does not know the daily hardship of their jobs? I love a long shot, and I love the idea that one person, one teacher can change things for the better, but in terms of long term success or even the more remote possibility of replicating it in different communities, color me completely pessimistic. Of the $4 billion of new education money, we’ve now spent $2.35 billion – how much change can we expect?

For you or me (unless the reader happens to be one of the wealthier citizens of the world), $1.65 billion is a lot of money, which could be used to do a lot of good. Consider this: in the year 2000, there were roughly 60 million students in publicly funded schools in America. There are more now, but using those numbers that means that you have $27.50 to spend per student. That would barely (and in most cases fail to) cover the cost of one new textbook per student. So where exactly are these students and teachers supposed to reap the benefits along the educational pipeline? I love that finally an administration is talking about serious money to help revitalize a system which has fallen into disrepair, but if you want to change something, the money we need to talk about should be greater than .11% of the national budget. On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama talked a lot of about getting out and speaking to those who have bad or nonexistent relationships with the United States: Cuba, Iran, etc. While it’s a good idea to do so, students who cannot find nations on a map are unlikely to support understanding among nations. Nations without understanding have little chance of living peacefully. The economic disasters which have plagued the world’s economies for the past years will have no chance of real recovery. (Yes, I know Goldman Sachs is doing well and the UK has declared their recession over, but recovery for every day people is how we should judge this – not by the fortunes of billion dollar enterprises or a government that props up its economy as the largest mortgage holding enterprise.) If America wants to find a brighter future with an educated population, then we must be willing to spend more on education and less on other things. Humans left the trees some 150,000 years ago – isn’t it time we put our brains before the fist (or, perhaps, the smart weapon)?

Christopher O’Connor