Schoolhouse Rock


My month as Slate ‘s resident Schoolhouse Rocker comes to an end today, and so with this post I hang up my blogger’s keyboard. (Not entirely, actually; for the last few weeks I’ve been maintaining a bare-bones book blog for news about Whatever It Takes , and I’ll keep that one going indefinitely.)

I’m grateful to my editors at Slate for giving me this opportunity, and I’m grateful to all the readers who wrote me with tips, suggestions, and stories about life in the classroom.

John McCain and Barack Obama aren’t talking too much about education on the campaign trail these days—it probably has something to do with the whole two-wars-plus-collapse-of-capitalism thing. But nonetheless, the next president will take office at a moment of crisis and change in the public education system, and whichever candidate wins, he’ll have a chance to push the conversation, and the system itself, in some new directions.

The local developments I’ve been writing about here—teacher-contract negotiations in Denver and D.C. ; experimental schools in Los Angeles and San Francisco and the Bronx and New Haven —are crucial laboratories and test cases for national policy, and the next president will have the opportunity to expand, refine, and build on those experiments. There are some other useful steps he could take right away. He could make school financing more equitable (a Berkeley law professor named Goodwin Liu has some good ideas on how to do that). He could fund more education R&D. (You could fill volumes with what we don’t know about which educational practices actually work.) And he could construct accountability models that are more precise and humane than those found in No Child Left Behind.

Both candidates have some good ideas in their education platforms and some smart advisers. And though neither candidate has moved too far away from his party’s traditional approach to education, Obama seems more willing to look for new and innovative solutions, ideas that might stir up the stagnant politics of education.

To me, one of the most significant planks in Obama’s education platform isn’t in his education platform at all-it’s in his poverty platform : his pledge to replicate Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in 20 cities across the United States, as public/private partnerships, with the federal government’s share of the bill coming to as much as a few billion dollars. Each city’s version of the program would be unique, but presumably each would include a charter school as well as intensive preschool programs, after-school tutoring, and family counseling. And I would hope that each replication would include a program, like the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Baby College , that would encourage parents to adopt better child-rearing strategies. (I had a piece on This American Life this weekend about Baby College and the complicated process of trying to sway Harlem’s parents toward different methods.)

There are a lot of potential obstacles to Obama’s pledge becoming a reality (including the fact that he will have to be elected president before he can do much about it). As I wrote earlier this month in the New York Times Magazine ,

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.

There aren’t yet airtight data to prove that Canada’s model works—though as I wrote earlier this month , the numbers coming out of his elementary schools are very promising. And so rather than simply cloning the Zone and airdropping it into communities around the country, Obama’s replication project will work best if each city is encouraged to adapt and innovate, to compete with every other city for the best results. (As Obama said in his speech announcing the plan, “every step these cities take will be evaluated, and if certain plans or programs aren’t working, we will stop them and try something else.”)

Obama’s “Promise Neighborhoods” could challenge the traditional division between education policy and poverty policy—between improving schools and improving the lives of poor families. Geoffrey Canada’s argument is that it no longer makes sense to think of each one separately. If we try to fix the schools in a low-income neighborhood without addressing the other needs of students there, it’s not a real solution to the neighborhood’s problems. And it isn’t enough to provide social services to poor children if their neighborhood schools are still giving them a lousy education. A true solution to the problem of underachievement in inner-city public schools is going to require more nurturing families and safer neighborhoods as well as better teachers and more accountable schools. That’s the real point of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and, I think, it’s going to be the next chapter in the debate over schools.