Broader Bolder Obama?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 8th, 2008

The Democratic party is split into two camps on education, with each wondering whose side Barack Obama is on, writes Paul Tough in the New York Times Magazine.  One the one hand, are members of the teachers’ unions; on the other are “the party’s self-defined ‘education reformers.’” Each camp, notes Tough, has tried to claim him as its own.  What is most interesting and novel about Obama’s education plans, Tough writes, is how much they involve institutions other than schools.

The American social contract has always identified public schools as the one place where the state can and should play a role in the process of child-rearing. But a new and growing movement of researchers and advocates has begun to argue that the longstanding and sharp conceptual divide between school and not-school is out of date. It ignores, they say, overwhelming evidence of the impact of family and community environments on children’s achievement….If we truly want to counter the effects of poverty on the achievement of children, these advocates argue, we need to start a whole lot earlier and do a whole lot more.

The three people who have done the most to propel this nascent movement, says Tough, are James J. Heckman, Susan B. Neuman and Geoffrey Canada, the subject of Tough’s new book, Whatever It Takes.  Obama has pledged to replicate Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in 20 cities as private/public partnerships, with the federal government providing half the funds and the rest being raised by local governments and private philanthropies and businesses, Tough writes.  And then there’s the politics

A lot of conservatives would oppose a new multibillion-dollar federal program as a Great Society-style giveaway to the poor. And many liberals are wary of any program that tries to change the behavior of inner-city parents; to them, teaching poor parents to behave more like middle-class parents can feel paternalistic. Union leaders will find it hard to support an effort that has nonunion charter schools at its heart. Education reformers often support Canada’s work, but his premise — that schools alone are not enough to make a difference in poor children’s lives — makes many of them anxious.