Archive for May, 2010

Obama and Education – Or, How I Knew he was a Centrist

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

It’s hard to know where to begin when I get started talking about the failures of the Obama administration. I often begin, for instance, when posting to Facebook, with the phrase, I told you so.

One of my worst arguments with my friend Tim, in fact, revolved around Obama’s educational philosophy. This of course is a major issue as a founder of a charter school and a teacher. For Tim, who is an academic, it might have some relevance, but I understand that he wouldn’t have the laser-focus I have on this particular shadowy corner of policy. When Obama was just about to overtake Clinton in terms of national favor, we had a debate that covered many things, but my primary argument was that people, when looking – actually looking – at Obama’s policies, would see him for what he is – a middling, almost cowardly centrist who would get little done and had no truly progressive ideas. Education policy, for example, showed Obama to be almost in-line with Bush, and certainly with most Republicans. Tim’s response had been, Oh come on – no one looks at educational policy, but – whatever, Clinton voted for the war.

Which has truth to it, but educational policy is a big deal to me, and when I read Obama’s plans and learned about his history it became strikingly clear that he was not on my side. This was not the deal-breaker – rather, it was the synecdoche for the deal-breaker. Obama’s school philosophy was one that could not come from a liberal, one that disregarded certain obvious truths, and one that harbored within it some pro-business and some privatization ideas that simply cannot be ignored.

Primarily. Obama is an NCLB supporter, even as he campaigned on the idea of repealing certain parts of it. What this means is that he, and primarily the person he chose (and notably, even the other people he looked at) for running the US Department of Education believe in:

  • Privatizing Schools though Charter Schools
  • Frequent Standardized High-Stakes Testing
  • Vouchers
  • Arbitrary Definitions of Quality

Now, before I explain why this demonstrates Obama’s centrist views and a mindset that would never have given us real universal healthcare, slowed down the military industrial complex, or moved us closer to truly addressing our environmental crisis, I’d like to mention this article about the failure of a privately sponsored school to perform. (edit: I screwed up!  Didn’t attribute my faves over at C&L – link)  The school, a Microsoft school, was pushing the state’s (Georgia) newly super-powered math standards. The idea, pushed by many neocons, George Bush and the Obama administration, sounds okay on its surface. If you raise the bar very high, the kids will rise to the occasion and everyone will achieve at a higher level. The reality, which has been repeated in study after study, is that if you raise the bar too high, too quickly, and without regard for the foundations that are required for that kind of understanding to happen, you simply burn the students out. Or, in the case of this school, end up failing a vast majority of your students, and calling it accountability. At the Microsoft school, 48 of 120 were even qualified to graduate.

Now, the Neocon answer to that is, well, that’s 72 kids who aren’t ready for college who will be ready by the time we let them out. This is a painfully facile and cynical answer if you think about its practical ramifications. First, many of those kids will simply, having no chance of passing, just leave. They can simply take their GED, if not simply just drop out of the system altogether as many have before them. Even the conservatives who love these systems would agree that that’s an inevitable consequence. In a meritocracy, some people just don’t have merit. A far less obvious consequence, however, is that many of these kids will have been convinced that they simply are not academically capable anyway, and so will disengage from other subjects and the school as a whole, when really, they’re being held to unreasonably high standards in one subject, and would have survived if not prospered in another school system. A final ramification of this failing is that if the bar is so high that only a minority of students can reach it, what is life going to be like for those students? If is exactly this failure of the majority that forces many minority sub-cultures to demonize, render effeminate or pathetic, or simply detest high achievers.

I believe this to be exceptionally cynical. Referring to a Philosopher whose name I can’t recall right now, Cynicism is the flawed logic of a person who has chosen to neglect their role as a force for change in this world. To believe that 72 kids should be held back because of standards that are not only artificially high, but also based on no solid, scientific research – to believe that failing these kids is okay is so backwards and cruel, I can’t even express it.

And this leads to Obama. You could argue a Hegelian dialectic here – that the commercial/standards-obsessed educators – the Microsoft Schools – are one side and the progressive educators are on equidistant sides then what’s left in the middle is a proper position – that would be reasonable if it weren’t for the failure of the conservative argument to satisfactorily deal with any of these problems. Testing our students, breaking up their schools and raising the standards beyond their reasonable ability hasn’t and doesn’t work – so why would anyone support the middle that is distant from it. It’s not the middle. But Obama is a blind centrist. He isn’t passionate about schools in the same way he’s not passionate about gay rights or protecting the environment. DADT is still a signature away from him just suspending, oil drilling had been approved on the Gulf Coast. Just like his views on education, Obama’s view on governing the whole country is that there are two equally valid points and he has to find a place in between to make everyone happy. Further, as we’ve seen in educational policy, Obama is “practical.” Is it practical to make 7-year-olds take a standardized test? No – but it sounds good. And sure, a few business will make some money in general.

Obama’s words and actions add up to a very clear style of educational policy. That style, a blind centrism is something that is coloring the way he governs, and certainly not in a progressive way. I told you so.

Edit: I’m such a jerk!  I confused some readers with a reference which I forgot to attribute!  See for most of the references in this note.

An Oft-Debated Map

Friday, May 21st, 2010

The map below has been refuted and re-legitimized by many sources. A very decent round-up of the debate is here:, but I’m showing this map because in the end, it’s pretty close – even after all the debate. Of course, there are population density considerations, as well as the clear and obvious point of correlation versus causation – that is, it is more likely that the same factors that cause lower income levels cause lower IQ, which might or might not be the same factors that cause people to vote or believe in certain patterns.

What I’m interested in, though, is religion – how does that tie into the IQ numbers? More on its way!

On Religion

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

My understanding of religion might go back to my first memory of being in a church. I was very young and it was Halloween. We were at All Saints Episcopal for a Haunted House. This wasn’t my first time being in a church – in fact, I was probably baptized for before that and might have made it into the church for other reasons as well. But the first memory I have is of one of our priests dressed as a witch at the entrance to the rectory, and the other priest talking and maybe taking tickets. They were a male and female pair- one of them was married I think – hippies who played guitar while they talked and maybe supported the gay organist so much that they would later be replaced.

In my memory and in my heart, church was warm and inviting and you dressed up and sang songs, and even though I am now an ardent atheist, (and webmaster of, I still have an undeniable place in my heart for my church, and certainly for the youth groups and all the way up to the Edge, which I loved up at Dartmouth. And my church has evolved with the support of gay bishops and has always fought for the rights of others and eschewed the more evangelical and colonial stripes of other religions (except for in the South and around Africa, but – that’s just not my church.

I even remember at various times being told about God and the Bible as a symbol. So it wasn’t hard to question and translate the teachings of the Bible into lessons, mortal, human lessons that had their value, but weren’t locked in stone. Now, that’s not the real orthodoxy, even in wealthy liberal Massachusetts Episcopal churches, but there is something to that mentality. If it’s all a metaphor, all an idea that we can translate into our time and place, then there is no room for hatred and fear. You can’t hate if there is no abomination. A bee can sting you, can sting your friends, but no one would claim it was a curse against God. My read on religion is part of what made me what I am today – things are good. There is no specific plan, but we should do good and be good. These are things that my parents did not necessarily teach me, though I now understand that they could have had they had the language. Church and religion are not necessarily evil or wrong.

But the Catholic Church is. This is a story I’d heard a long time ago, but a This American Life reference to it has me re-enraged.

The reference I heard, to paraphrase, was ‘They excommunicated the mother and doctor of a girl who’d had an abortion.  They did not, however, excommunicate the man who had repeatedly raped her since she was six.’  It should also be noted that the doctor had indicated, besides the aspect of rape, that the health risks to the girl were grave, especially as the children were twins.  She was nine.

Abortion is an abomination – but the rape just happened.  It’s their story and their sticking to it.

I’m sure even my church has stories like this.  In a system that large, there are going to be awful people who put dogma, put an idea over rational and human response. But the Catholic Church doesn’t just have a few outliers, like the Cardinal in Brazil – they live the policies.  Woman priests are intolerable, molesting boys is just a speed bump.  Condoms in Africa – well, they spread AIDS (Jesus hates contraception).  Helping gay people who have AIDS?  Hell no.  (Jesus hates gays.)

I know a lot of people who have argued there’s no room for relativism in religion.  What’s the point?  Our Hitler Youth Pope certainly is no fan.  And, I have no leg to stand on, given that I can’t morally accept religion as anything other than a ludicrous vestige of a very silly, if necessary groupthink.  But maybe it’s not even religion that’s the problem.  Certainly, Tea Partiers and much of Congress have the same failing.  Maybe it’s not the solution, either.  Maybe it’s time I picked up my guitar.