The XX Factor

Let’s Hear It for Wonks

It’s been hard for me to support the Obama administration in the past few months because of what I perceive as an epic failure on the health care front. Even Obama’s thumping of House Republicans seems like too little, too late, as though he just realized that they fully intend to block any national progress and then run against Obama as a failure-a strategy bloggers and pundits have been telling him was the Republican strategy from roughly day one. But then I read articles like this one on the reworking of No Child Left Behind , and I am reminded that there are good aspects to having such a wonky president, even if he occasionally falls behind on his political battles.

The reason this wonky nonsense gives me confidence is that it manages to do what Obama always claims he wants to do, which is take good ideas-wherever they come from-and use them and refine them to be better ideas. And I can’t say I completely object to the selling point of No Child Left Behind, which is that the federal government should have educational standards and accountability. My problem with it was that it always seemed a bit dangerous to suggest that a highly punitive approach is appropriate for education, since punitive approaches on the administrative level end up trickling down to students, and most evidence shows reward-based learning is a lot better than punishment-based learning. And, sure enough, schools seem to prefer weeding out the students who are a drag on their scores over actually getting them up to speed.

The “one high standard” promise of NCLB is also straight-up unfair. For students who live in districts where they’re far more likely to have adequate nutrition, rest, and family involvement, getting kids to pass a standardized test isn’t that big of a deal. Kids whose parents are crippled by poverty, however, don’t have those advantages, and it encourages more of the dreaded “teaching the test,” instead of educating the students. Focusing strictly on standardized testing is highly criticized for missing the point of education as well. Though I have to point out that “teaching the test” neatly aligns to conservative demands that education be nothing more than accounting and literacy skills and stays the hell away from teaching critical thinking that would probably do some serious damage to long-term Republican prospects.

The administration wants to get away from teaching the test, and instead return to framing education as preparation for life, with a standard for graduating students “college or career ready.” Money is also being shifted in a way that emphasizes rewarding schools for taking action, instead of punishing them for failing to achieve test scores. It’s going to be more complicated, but there is more potential for effective improvements. And the wonky Obama administration is just the crew to handle such a complex task.