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The Real Obama Revolution

"Let there be no doubt, the future belongs to the nation that best educates its children." Speaking this morning before the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the president has put into one clear sentence the fatal choice we will be making if we fail to pursue those paths that can radically improve our schools and the learning of our kids.

There are no secrets about which paths those are, and Obama touched on nearly all of them. Except, to be sure, the voucher system which allows poorer children to attend private schools.  I know the potholes in that path very well: cooky communities that will teach out of and against the mainstream of our society, for one.

David Stout and Jeff Zeleny have published a dispatch, "Obama Calls for Overhaul of Educational System," in the New York Times online today, reporting on the president's talk. He did not hide behind any of the excuses mobilized against charter schools; he actually called for increasing the number of these institutions. And he also used the word "competitive" as a goal within the education system and among students. This is altogether refreshing and, frankly, a blow to the cult of progressivism that has for so long dominated public and ed school reform ideologies. If Obama thinks he is getting flack from the old school capitalists, just wait for when he hears from the old school educationalists.

As Stout and Zeleny point out, the president referred to charter schools as "laboratories of innovation." But there are other kinds of  laboratories: merit pay for teachers (and, as important, for principals, too), longer and more comprehensive school days, experiments with academic calendars appropriate to the work habits of parents and other social mores, different curricula for children who are, say, terrific at math and slow with foreign languages. None of these is alien to Obama's views, and he mentioned some of them in his speech.

I attended New York City public schools and then the Bronx High School of Science from the mid-forties to the mid-fifties. I didn't notice until I went to college that, both in my elementary and secondary educations, I had had teachers with Ph.D.s, exceptional teachers, actually all of them (I even had a math teacher, Dr. Julius Hlavaty, who one day appeared before the McCarthy committee and did not appear again in the classroom. I think he was a communist. But he was also a truly terrific math teacher. Long after his dismissal, he received his back-pay and, I believe, damages.) Of the rest: Dr. Falkenstein, Dr. Cohen, Dr. Bloom, Dr. Mantell, Dr., Dr., Dr... and on and on.

These inspired men and women, physicists and historians, literature people and musicologists, couldn't get a job in colleges and universities. One, because of anti-Semitism. Two, because of the depression. Three, I suppose, because of the war which shrunk demand for Ph.D.s in the academy.

Academic anti-semitism is long since gone (except in a particularly ugly anti-Zionist guise). Our military engagements are too small to affect the academy's hiring patterns. But several factors have combined to leave a glut of unemployed people with Ph.D.s on the market. The first is that colleges and universities are forbidden by law (the nutsy Claude Pepper law) to retire faculty at any age. Some stay deep into their dotage and many long after they have stopped reading in their fields... or even the New York Times. The second is that, given the recession (let's call it that this last time), institutions of higher learning are simply not hiring, and they have been hiring less and less even before the tanking of the financial system. Moreover, much of the hiring has been off-line and without benefits, even health-care and offices.  Yes, as much as 50 percent of our college teachers are "adjuncts." In any case, there is now an enormous cohort of unemployed and under-employed Ph.D.s. They should be brought into our public school and high school systems. Many tests of teacher competence in their assigned fields tell us that an absurd percentage is not at all competent.

We know what has to be done. And Obama has done the opening skirmish. The fight has only begun.