Obama Leaning to the Left?

After avoiding blame for the government shutdown and focusing the country on bumbling Republicans and their failure to offer any substantive policy proposals that would address the lagging economy, President Obama has begun to outline his domestic policy agenda in recent days.

In a speech at Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) on Friday, the President highlighted the need to invest in domestic priorities like public education and workforce development, two cornerstones of the school. This was Obama’s first official visit to Brooklyn, and he struck a surprisingly partisan tone in speaking to an audience fairly split between public school students and teachers on one side, and bigwig politicians, bureaucrats and aides, crowding the tiny gym at Paul Robeson High School, where P-TECH is co-located.

The emphasis was on laying out a budget, getting back to work and doing right by the people, points made in the roughly 30-minute speech. The audience of high school students gave the President a chance to simplify complex topics, like budgeting, for example. He introduced students to the idea of budgeting and made a strong case for investing greater resources in public education and other domestic policies that have been threatened with or suffered from budget cuts in recent years. These cuts, he said “have not helped our economy grow. They have held us back.”

Could this rhetoric and the visit itself suggest a shift towards a more progressive domestic agenda? I was in the audience for the speech, and it felt more like a campaign than a presidential address…here’s hoping that the Democrats push aggressively for promoting education, poverty reduction and greater investment in the American people in general.

The speech will be remembered for a one-liner that could be the slogan for a major campaign to increase education spending:

“If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs.”

 

State of the Union Shout-out

As I sat down to watch the State of the Union on Tuesday evening, carrying the usual skepticism that is owed to political oratory, I was hoping for new ideas that would guide the country towards progressive change in a second term. Although I work in a school, I listened for talk of education as well as climate change, gun control and foreign policy, among the myriad of topics covered in such a massive speech.

In his first term, Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered the Race to the Top competition. Much criticism has been levied at this initiative, mostly attacking the goals of the program–more charter schools, teacher evaluations and the removal of tenure protections, and the turnaround models that have been the subject of controversy in NYC. In addition, Obama and Duncan have been lambasted for designing a program that is based on competition rather than need. Civil rights groups have been especially vocal critics.

 

I find most of these critiques compelling. Race to the Top, while an effective federal program in terms of persuading states to adopt favored policies, does little to improve the in-school experience of our most vulnerable young people. Other aspects of Obama’s educational agenda are less controversial and more popular among progressives: expanding early childhood education and enhancing career and technical education for workforce readiness. These ideas received the bulk of attention in Obama’s speech, including a reference to the apprenticeship model employed in Germany, which combines high school and college to prepare students for meaningful career opportunities.
“Now at schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this.” (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/02/12/us/politics/obama-state-of-the-union-2013.html?hp)

P-TECH, or Pathways in Technology Early College High School, is a new school in its second year of operation in Crown Heights, in the Paul Robeson High School building. The idea, as the President explained, grew out of a collaboration between IBM, the NYC Department of Education and the City University of New York. Students begin in 9th grade and have the opportunity not only to earn an associate in applied sciences degree, but also to gain meaningful work experience through internships and a sequence of work-based learning activities developed jointly between the partners, including the school’s staff. Having worked on the school’s design dating back to an internship at the DOE’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness, I later transitioned to a role as a community coordinator at the school. I now teach social studies and coach the campus’ soccer team…only 3 years after my own graduation from college. I left college in May 2010 with a BA, entering an uncertain and challenging job market. Through some luck, I met a DOE official who hired me, one thing led to another and I have been working on P-TECH ever since. I feel deeply caught up in the school’s development–it is my main, really only, professional achievement, and I could not be prouder.

The school is special because it is not based on the competition inherent in other parts of the President’s education agenda. We are an open enrollment school, with students who cover the whole range of NYC public school students. With our legacy class of students in their second semester of what would be 10th grade, over 60% of students are enrolled in college courses, including computer science, speech and engineering technology. A white man from Connecticut, I led the school’s recruitment efforts for the first two classes of students, meaning I met nearly all of our 227 students before they arrived at the school for their first day.

None of our students look like me–in fact, most of my kids think I look like every other white man, from Kevin Love to Steve Burns, best known as Steve from Blue’s Clues.  Working in a community where I am an outsider is invigorating, and it gives me a chance to relieve some of the burden of white, male, suburban privilege that I carry by virtue of the accident of my birth. As a representative of the dominant culture, often one of the few my students have come to know on a personal level, I have become sensitive to the subtle discrimination that for centuries has denied those who look like my students all manner of equal opportunity. The basic unfairness, not just of the past but also of the present, is a big part of what motivates me.

 

The model that is employed at P-TECH is powerful because it does more than provide opportunity, it presents students with the real possibility of a middle class career at a company like IBM. All students are matched with a mentor from IBM, which along with site visits, opens up the world of the corporation to young people who, with rare exception, had not previously envisioned themselves in this kind of future. Watching my students begin to see themselves in brighter futures, with a true pathway to get there, is the greatest inspiration. The work is hard, and it has to happen again every day, but this is a structure that encourages the investment on the part of staff and students, because the future holds such promise, both real and imagined.