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Orating Our Way To Better Schools?

All this talk about Obama's impressive speaking ability -- his use of words, his lines (some borrowed), his oration -- makes me think about -- you guessed it -- school reform.   

ObamaspencerplattgettyAnd my initial thought, at least, is that we need more actions and less words.  There have been some powerful speakers in education, and some powerful words, but my sense is that action, strategy, and political muscle have played a larger role and are what we need now. 

It's the Clinton argument, you might call it, not the Obama one. 
But is that right?   Perhaps this is just my bias  -- why, as I told my mom the other day, "listening to Obama too much makes me itchy."  I'm moved, but like you I've heard a lot of empty talk about kids and education, so I'm deeply suspicious. 

Can words, no matter how brilliant, increase funding for education, or open the door to bringing in new ideas? Have they?  Or does it take more than that to make real changes?  Read on for more thoughts about oratory and action in the world of schools.  Or, skip all that and tell me what you think.

How powerful of a role has rhetoric played in school reform, and how much of a role does it have today?  Is it a constructive role, helping people out of their fears and prejudices, or is it empty and panderous (new word!?). 

Here are some examples I can think of where words might or might not have made a big difference:

  • Bush's line about "the soft bigotry of low expectations" was brilliant at neutralizing opponents but wasn't really what got NCLB enacted.  Bringing Kennedy and Miller on board did.
  • Wendy Kopp gives a great speech, it's true.  She rallies the troops and brings in the funder dollars.  But I'm not sure that's what made TFA blow up the way it did. 
  • Jonathan Kozol has spoken to generations of teachers, albeit mostly through his books and without, until recently, very much to show for it in terms of concrete action.
  • Former teacher and slam poet Taylor ("What Teachers Make") Mali has inspired hundreds of people to become teachers, according to his website.
  • The KIPP folks and others like them know that teaching is about values and culture, not just instruction and textbooks. 
  • Oratory had to have been a big part of Shanker's efforts to convince college-educated teachers that they should join a labor union -- along with their classroom aides. I skipped that chapter, alas.
  • There's the "rising tide of mediocrity" line from A Nation At Risk that's haunted us the past 25 years --did testing and accountability come of that?

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Energizing the masses is just as valuable for sweeping education reform. So, if Obama can do that, whether or not he is elected, it provides value. Politicians won't make change unless the people want it. Maybe, Obama's strength is that he creates the demand.

Energizing the masses is just as valuable for sweeping education reform. So, if Obama can do that, whether or not he is elected, it provides value. Politicians won't make change unless the people want it. Maybe, Obama's strength is that he creates the demand.

OK, I'm finally taking the bait. I'm for Obama regardless of what he says on education. The previous posts help explain why. Creating a dynamic and just society is the best way to create justice in schools. Hope or the absence of hope is far more important than NCLB. (and the shame imposed by NCLB is more important than the letter of the law.)

Finally, when Matt Miller proposed his "liberal" voucher compromise, I read everything I could find on vouchers. I reluctantly concluded that vouchers couldn't work. I'm supposed to penalize a candidate for doing what I did, exploring all sides of the issue?

No this is my final comment. My students are being damaged by NCLB. They are being disadvantaged in the challenge they face from globalism by all of the testing culture. More importantly, our schools can't be expected to overcome the legacy centuries of oppression. But more importantly still, the biggest damage being inflicted on my students can be directly traced back to Reagan's Supply Side economics. At the cost of billions, industries were given tax breaks to get rid of blue collar jobs in the central city which were disproportinately held by my students' parents. More tax breaks subsidized the movement of those jobs to the exurbs. And a third set of tax subsidies were used to create the infrastructure in the outer suburbs. Reaganism artificially accelerated the destruction of inner city neighborhoods and their funding bases. We're squabbling over the best way to invest a few pennies in schools (often borrowing from market theories) while the Great Communicator helped empower the most destructive market forces. The time has come for our great communicator.

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