Obama: On Education, Is The President Liberals’ Piñata?

While the rest of us offered thanks for family and friends on Thanksgiving, one D.C. teacher told a colleague, “I am thankful Obama won, now I can go back to hating him for what he’s doing to public education.” You mean like pumping almost $100 billion in new funds into federal education programs and another $60 billion into saving teacher jobs? My condolences. He forgot your unicorn.

It would be easy enough to dismiss this barb, but an entire cottage industry of potshotters has emerged on the left since President Obama came into office. For the most part, these are well-meaning, committed, pro-public education advocates who just can’t pass up any opportunity to unload on the Obama administration.

While both sides in the education wars can be churlish, as I’ve blogged about before, as a liberal myself, there’s something unique about the way that lefties go after each other. They treat President Obama like a piñata, seeming to derive the utmost satisfaction from taking ego-gratifying swings at the guy. The latest grievance: Obama sends his daughters to a $30,000 per year private school while banishing millions of poor children to public schools that don’t resemble $30,000 per year private schools. Or something.

A magazine piece ran last week chiding the President to educate all public school children like Sasha and Malia, followed by a blog post expanding on the Obama is a hypocrite theme. Apparently, this is not a new complaint.

So, dear readers, as Iyanla Vanzant says, “Let’s call a THING a THING!”

It’s not unprecedented for presidents (even Democratic ones) to send their children to private schools. It’s also a pipedream to believe that small class sizes, art teachers and standardized testing is all that separates Sidwell Friends from any neighborhood public school, in D.C. or Dubuque.

Sidwell is a highly-selective private school with elitism baked into its DNA. Take one part highly-motivated students, mix in highly-motivated parents, accept a fraction of applicants, add a five-figure price-tag and the enriched learning environment it brings, and you have a school that exceeds even the most high-performing public schools. That’s not a diss on public education. It’s reality. And there’s not a darn thing the President can do to change that.

Now we’ve dispatched with that red herring, let’s get to the crux of the matter: liberals’ “disappointment” in Obama on education policy. What makes this so insipid is that it’s just not true. It was clear from the start that his education proposals were going to be grounded in opportunity and responsibility. To no surprise, he’s dished up a heaping serving of both.

Obama made investments in education one of the key prongs of his economic plan and refocused national attention on education at a time of enormous challenges: a frightening economy, two protracted wars and reforming the health care system, just to name a few. The fact that this President refused to put education on the back burner says a lot about his value system.

Recognizing the intractable quagmire that comes with education reform, who can blame him for trying to find common ground between opposing camps as he formulated policy initiatives: pouring more money into schools [liberals cheer] with more reliance on data for results [conservatives nod].

We live in schizophrenic times when liberals deify a data-cruncher like Nate Silver and use data to guide decisions from buying a car to choosing a college, even as we disdain the notion that student achievement and teacher performance is quantifiable. Obama never said test scores should be the end-all and be-all, nor can he put the genie back in the bottle. The world has changed – everywhere but K-12 education.

He gets community organizing, so if liberal intellectuals joined together and clearly articulated better alternatives, I bet he’d notice. This begs for classroom teachers, parents and education leaders to lay out smart and realistic strategies with strong accountability: using data including test scores to make wise, not punitive, decisions; and acknowledging that there are some teachers who are weak, and if they are not directed and helped to improve, students suffer.

It also calls for liberals to stop using “poverty” as the ace in the deck. Poverty is real – high-need schools don’t get the money, talent and resources their students need. If we want accountability to drive change, deal with the obstacles in the way of these kids. But it’s not all or nothing. The other side: “No excuses.” Too many on our side: “Solve poverty, then get back to us.” Both sides drawing ridiculous lines in the sand.

Is Obama perfect? No. Has he made some missteps? Of course. But does he deserve the unrelenting potshots that have been leveled at him? Heck no.

An overwhelming majority of Americans (68 percent) believe the President can improve education in his second term. Liberals have a window to organize and play a role in showing him how. Or just continue striking an ostrich pose on test scores and throwing him shade. By the way, how’s that working?


  1. As the author of the piece you focus on to critique, I think I should respond. The research voluminously shows that poor kids most need the sort of quality education that the President’s children receive, including small classes and a well-rounded education. Class size reduction is one of the few proven ways we know helps students learn, narrows the achievement gap, and also instills the non-cognitive skills like persistence that helps them succeed in school and in life. Instead, they are crammed into increasing class sizes of 30 or more, and are fed a steady diet of test prep as the administration has ratcheted-up the emphasis on high-stakes testing. Their test scores are not being used according to a “smart use of data” as you claim. Instead, they are being used to devise unfair and unreliable teacher evaluation systems, extremely volatile and biased against teachers who choose to teach in high-needs schools. The data is also being used to close schools with high concentrations of at-risk students. All this creates yet more churn and disruption in their lives and leads to higher dropout and discharge rates. At the same time as Arne Duncan is funneling money to more charter schools, testing, TFA, online learning, and merit pay, none of which have any research backing, he openly denigrates the importance of class size & proposes cutting millions of dollars from the federal funds available for districts to use to keep class sizes from ballooning even more out of control. Yes, the schools are different that Obama sends his own children to, but should they be? You have yet to explain why poor kids must be relegated to an altogether different kind of education, one in which kids are crammed into large classes and put on computers, especially when there are different, proven strategies that would help them succeed. And yes, many of us are organizing to try to get this administration to pursue more progressive education policies, but are hampered because of the billions of dollars that are being spent by venture philanthropists, hedgefunders & other members of the 1% to support a radical agenda of privatization and corporate-style free market policies. We will continue to try to have our voices heard, but so far, we have been met with total silence with an administration that would prefer to ignore us altogether.

    • Thanks for your comment, Leonie. First a clarification, then a question for you. Clarification: The “smart use of data” is what I proposed liberals organize and advocate to the Obama administration. This was not my characterization of current use – they are using data – if they can use it more smartly, it’s incumbent on pro-public education advocates to help steer them. But question: how do you have your voices heard with so much time and energy spent tearing down and insulting those you wish to influence? You make some valid and good points, but they get lost in the overheated rhetoric. Do you genuinely believe that President Obama – the son of a single mother who, at times, depended on food stamps for subsistence – doesn’t care about at-risk children and doesn’t value the importance of educational opportunity? Endlessly criticizing him and disparaging his Secretary of Education isn’t a recipe for anything other than marginalization. I’m not alone in this opinion. You might be interested in Pedro Noguera’s recent blog, which gets at this point very well:

      I respect your passion for making public schools better. I don’t cotton much to your style of advocacy. It just doesn’t strike me as a way to get anything serious done, and it emboldens our opponents far more than it helps our cause.

      • It is certainly your right to differ on my style of advocacy or my tone. But I see you do not question the points that I have made about the damaging effects of the administration’s policies. You write “if liberal intellectuals joined together and clearly articulated better alternatives, I bet he’d notice.” We have done this, over and over again; and I don’t see that he has . See for example, the principles we laid out at PAA here: http://parentsacrossamerica.org/what-we-believe-2/ We and other parents, teachers and advocates do have a positive agenda for change and many of us were very hopeful and worked hard for his election in the first place. Sadly, I don’t see that administration has noticed our positive agenda, one way or another, or has taken it seriously in any substantive way. What have those others who have been “nicer” achieved? I’d seriously love to hear. Instead, Duncan continues merrily on his way, aided and abetted by the likes of Jeb Bush, Joel Klein etc, Obama looks the other way, and public school students all over the nation continue to suffer as their educations are systematically undermined.

        • Leonie: I thought I was being gracious by giving you credit for “valid and good points” but I see you have misconstrued that. So let me break down some of the points in the blog:

          You have drawn a line in the sand on the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. In staking out this position, you are cast by opponents as being on the side of “we hate data.” This is a no-win position. We live in an age when data drives decisions in all facets of our lives. Test scores are never going away. This is especially a no-win position considering you are trying to influence an administration that just ran the most data-driven campaign in history:

          This Shankerblog post (http://shankerblog.org/?p=7242) illustrates a very reasonable way of using test score data to possibly identify weak teachers – while still recognizing that certain models are prone to error.

          Advocates need to admit a willingness to do some things differently, present ways to use data well, and help shape evaluation plans. As well as show support when those on “our side” stick their necks out and do just that. Rather than roasting folks over an open pit for negotiating a contract that includes test scores, like in Newark.

          The President did a heck of a lot to stave off major cuts during his first term. Barack Obama saved some 400,000 education jobs with ARRA and the ed jobs bill. This was good for students, good for economy, and good for educators and their families. He increased the maximum Pell Grant award, providing additional resources to help low-income students access and complete college. He increased SCHIP, expanding health insurance coverage to about 4 million additional children, much in the same way ACA will improve the academic lives of poor kids.

          I believe it’s possible to see the positives, disagree with some policy implementation, and keep pushing to change what’s not working. But again, with all due respect, why would he be inclined to listen when advocates with a “positive agenda” too often resort to the tactics of kids on a playground?

          It’s like the old saying “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” Except in this advocacy manual, it’s “The beatings will continue until you do just what we say, exactly how we say it.” Just doesn’t seem like the most effective strategy to me.

  2. This comment on Leonie Haimson was posted in her hypocritical article. It still applies. Haimson and her hypocritical ilk think they know what’s best for everyone. We hope Obama and the USDOE continue to ignore her buzzing in their ears.
    “Haimson’s hypocrisy continues to amaze everyone. Bashing the Obama’s who worked hard all their lives because unlike the author, were not born with a silver spoon in their mouths, is outrageous. Where do Haimson’s kid(s) attend school? Are they in a public school? Did Haimson attend public schools? Answer is no. Don’t criticize the Obama’s when your kid(s) attend private schools too. Next time, practice full disclosure and state where your kid(s) attend private school before criticizing the President of the United States of America or any other parents that support a parents right to choose the best school that meets the needs of the child the same way you did. Haimson has no clue and doesn’t speak for parents. She’s never walked in the Obama’s or the majority of NYC parents’ shoes. And, also disclose you’re funded by the teacher’s union.”

    • Thanks for reading, Tabatha. There’s entirely too much sniping in education, as explained in my post. Can’t condone calling someone “ilk” for a policy disagreement. I value real talk, and have a very strong snarky streak myself, but I ask my readers to keep this courteous, respectful. My mantra: We can disagree without being disagreeable. Thanks.

  3. I have never criticized Obama for sending his kids to private school. This is a complete misinterpretation of my point. What’s wrong and I think hypocritical is selecting one kind of schooling for one’s own children, and yet promoting a completely different kind of education for everyone else’s kids. FYI, though I don’t think this is particularly relevant, I had children enrolled in NYC public schools for 17 years.

    As for being funded by the teachers union, this is also irrelevant and untrue. CSM did get a start-up grant from the NEA to launch Parents Across America two years ago; ironically, this is where the author of this blog also works.

    • Leonie, interesting that you would label a comment “irrelevant,” then proceed to refute the comment with another irrelevant fact regarding my employer. Where I work has nothing to do with the positions I take on this blog. NEA has its own blogs to carry their messages. This blog is a forum for *ME* to express *MY* thoughts, because if you can’t tell already, “I got me some opinions.” So just for the record – and to put this issue to rest – in this forum, I speak solely for me, myself and I. Cheers.


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