Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Sputnik Moment

In his State of the Union address, President Obama harkened back to the Cold War era when the world's two biggest military superpowers faced off in proxy wars and brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Ah, the good old days.

The Russians grabbed an early lead in the superpower space race when they launched Sputnik 1, the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite, in 1957. Cold warriors raised the chilling specter of Soviet missiles raining down on American cities from outer space and blamed "failing" public schools for our lag in the race to the top into space.

One of the leading cold warriors was James B. Conant, Harvard president and head of the Atomic Energy Commission. In 1959 he authored the book, The American High School Today, which ushered in the era of the big comprehensive high school, standardized testing, tracking and channeling federal education dollars and competitive grants exclusively towards math/science and away from the liberal arts. The progressive movement in U.S. public education suffered a blow from which it has never recovered.

In last night's speech, Obama followed in Conant's wake, once again calling this, "our generation's Sputnik moment" an oblique response to U.S. students supposedly lagging behind new economic superpower China and other countries on the PISA tests. Once again the cold-war (and hot war) drums are beating, this time to the tune of permanent war. Schools and "bad teachers" are again being blamed for our faltering position in the economic and military race to the top. Once again the shift is towards even more testing, tracking and sorting with resources and curricular focus on that which is tested. 
"Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning... And Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids."
Aside from the dubious moral purpose behind the new Sputnik reforms lies the question of who will pay for them? Can we as a nation really afford permanent war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with the next version of No Child Left Behind? Or will be be facing even greater budget cuts in education, larger class sizes with fewer teachers (without collective bargaining rights) and more reliance on privatization and teacher-classrooms? And despite all the new civility and "let's sit together" talk, the prospects for NCLB re-authorization are still dim. The GOP and T-Party responses made that pretty clear.

So in a way, the president was blowing smoke while laying out the parameters for the domestic battle for the very soul of public education.

Genuine reform must be about: adequate funding for public education; raising the living standards of students and their families; engaging entire communities in the struggle for educational transformation; supporting teachers with needed resources and training (reform WITH teachers--not TO them); as well as rethinking the design and function of schools. That is what Obama's Sputnik moment should have been about.

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