Guest Blog (John Thompson): An Obamamaniac's critique of the President's educational policies

From time to time, we use the OK Policy blog to post contributions that offer interesting perspectives on important policy issues for the state. John Thompson is an Oklahoma City teacher with 18 years of urban high school experience and an education blogger at He has a doctorate from Rutgers University, and is the author of Closing the Frontier:  Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics. A follow-up post will explore Oklahoma’s new state law implementing education reforms.

Since President Obama endorsed the mass firings of teachers in Central Falls, Rhode Island, my wife (who originally supported Hillary) has taunted me about teachers ripping their Obama bumper stickers off their cars.   When I explain my contradictory feelings on the President’s policy on schools, my wife’s eyes glaze over, so I will leave it to readers to judge whether continued, cautious support for the Obama policy is prudent or wishful thinking.

There are two schools of educational thought in the Obama Administration, as there is in school policy in general. Traditional educators draw upon generations of social science and the new field of cognitive science, and seek to better educate the entire human being. Drawing upon the work of Nobel Prize Laureate James Heckman and scholars like Diana Ravitch, they see early education as the key, as well as getting all kids to read for comprehension by 3rd grade. Turning around the toughest high-poverty schools, and closing the huge Achievement Gap between Whites and children of color, requires a commitment to “the Heart,” as well as “the Head.” Improved educational outcomes for challenging populations require relationship-building, in addition to an engaging curriculum. Community schools that bring the diversity of the community into the school buildings, and bring poor students out into the community, are the most promising approaches.

A new generation of data-driven “reformers” have rejected the traditional approach and gambled that an unflinching focus on instruction can transform urban education. They dismiss any talk about socio-emotional factors or worries about problems outside of the four walls of the classroom as “Excuses.” “Reformers” assume that tiny programs like Teach For America and KIPP can be brought to scale as long as educators have “High Expectations.”   Their coalition, which includes entrepreneurs, hedge fund innovators, and other billionaires; Bush Administration true believers in No Child Left Behind; and young neoliberals and leftists,  is united by an undying faith in data. Fundamentally, they believe that a wave of “disruptive innovation” will transform education, and the Market will create a “Brave New World,” if “the status quo” is stripped away. By the status quo, these reformers mean unions, school boards,  social scientists, and anyone who doesn’t believe that “schools alone” can undo the effects of poverty. Data-driven “reformers” have the best public relations spin that billionaires can buy, and they dominate the editorial boards of great newspapers and middlebrow weeklies like Newsweek.

The civil rights community is split down the middle, often having a foot in both schools of thought. The Obama Administration is equally split; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan signed the manifestos of both camps.   Recent press coverage makes it seem like Obama has rejected his campaign statements, that condemned “bubble-in testing,” as he has pushed a tougher, meaner version of NCLB, but that is only half true.  Secretary Duncan has filled pivotal positions with directors of think tanks funded by Bill Gates, but despite the “reformers’” contempt for old school education reporters and university-based scholars, traditional education experts have not been completely excluded.

Before Obama, “reformers” ridiculed advocates of pre-natal health, early childhood education, school-based nutrition and social services, and pre-K, but now those efforts are recognized as essential. Despite “reformers’” dismissal of class size as an ingredient for improving schools, and their desire to use the budgetary crisis to get rid of high-salaried Baby Boomers (who typically hold more traditional educational values), $100 billion of stimulus spending saved hundreds of thousands of teachers’ jobs. The Duncan Administration is now pushing a $10 to $23 billion package to reduce education cuts, and he has rejected the data-driven “reformers’” demand that seniority rights be eliminated, and collective bargaining agreements abrogated, as a quid pro quo for saving jobs.

My own position on all this is that we did not elect Barack Obama as Chair of the School Board. He has placed his finger on the scales, creating incentives for untested policies, but it is unclear whether his administration will continue to micro-manage the process. The Administration seeks innovation, but it has not repudiated science, and if these “reforms” fail, I expect that his administration will tilt back to the side of veteran educators and give us a chance to lead the civil rights revolution of the 21st century.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily the opinions of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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