Saturday, May 26, 2012

If the tsar only knew!

Updated 5/30/2012

While we're on the education subject, TPM invites us to note that President Obama has been making a campaign theme of the idea that Willard Mitt Romney wants to expand public school class sizes without apparently realizing that his own education secretary, Arne Duncan, takes a position that's hardly different from Romney's.

It isn't the first time he is attacking his own education policy, either. Remember what he had to say about high-stakes testing a little over a year ago at a Univision-sponsored town hall: [jump]

Too often what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we've said is let's find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let's apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let's figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let's make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well....
one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you're not learning about the world; you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math. All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that's not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they're interested in. They're not going to do as well if it's boring.
Sounds pretty sincere, doesn't it? I certainly couldn't put it any better. And yet "No Child Left Behind" with its absolute reliance on test scores remains in effect, and the "Race to the Top" doubles down on it. Yo, Duncan, why aren't you telling the president the truth about your evil plans?

No, I don't think Obama is the mythical little-father tsar who would be running out to protect us if he knew what is being done to our kids in his name. I'd really expect him to have a very clear idea of what his own educational policy is. But in that case doesn't the whole thing start to seem a little downright spooky?

Do you suppose it's another case of evolution—of a gap between the intentions of Citizen Barack and the abilities of Chairman Obama, being narrowed by tugboat Obama out there as he maneuvers the enormous ship of state around the harbor?

Actually I prefer an earlier favored metaphor, not so much of Obama as of us watching him, in the pseudo-Heisenbergian picture of how our observation can affect what he does. That is, we can observe his position at any precise point in spacetime, but this precludes observing in what direction and at what velocity he is moving; or we can observe the direction and velocity, but this prevents us from knowing his position. As before, the upshot is that the choice we make as observers—position or trajectory, snapshot or movie—has a direct bearing on the experimental outcome.

And it seems pretty generally to be the same effect every time. If we focus on position—where does he stand, right now?—it is always a disappointment: he doesn't believe the same things as we believe, or he says he believes them but his behavior falls short. But if we stretch out the observation frame as wide as we can, so that we have only the most approximate idea of where he is at a given moment but a precise sense of what points he's between and how long it will take him to cover the distance—it turns out to have been worth the wait: here's your Affordable Care Act, not exactly what you ordered but pretty nifty in its own way, and alterable should you see the need; here's the end to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, not very pretty but what did you expect; and so on.

I'm going to keep betting on Obama on this account; in particular, I'm betting that his views on education are going to influence his education policy in the end, however remote it may seem at the moment.
Schrödinger's cat is alive, and contemplating vengeance. From Lega Nerd.
Update 5/30
Yes, indeed. It's not a huge thing, but New York State just got its waiver from the most brutally punitive provision of NCLB, the one that requires every student to be "proficient" in math and English (as measured by the usual testing) in 2014, along with seven other states in this batch, bringing the total waived states to 19 so far this year.
The waivers, like the Race to the Top competition for federal money, have allowed the Obama administration to enact parts of its education agenda without sweeping legislation, prompting some conservatives to complain that it is overstepping its authority.
In a conference call with journalists, Mr. Duncan insisted that he would much rather Congress amended the law.
It's not just conservatives that are complaining about the Obama administration's increasing fascination with what the executive can do on its own; Digby, for instance, has had a good deal to say about it. But let's face it: congress just isn't there, and life goes on. What's a poor president to do?


  1. So the upshot is that Pearson's going to get lots more money stuffed in its coffers. Race to the Top makes NCLB look positively benign.

  2. Thanks for that. Note to readers: Pearson Education is New York State's publisher of choice for tests and test prep materials as well as grading them now that teachers have been seen as unfit to do that, and the source of many training materials and textbooks. And many other states as well, of course. The role of publishers in contributing to the corruption of the educational system deserves a lot of study.