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Some Educational Action Items for Obama

Posted on May 14, 2009
high school hallway
Flickr / dave_mcmt

A view down the corridor to the band room and facilities room in the basement of the 1921 Custer County High School building in Miles City, Mont.

By Paul Cummins

So, with the economy in the proverbial toilet and the D word (depression) hovering on the periphery, what is the Obama administration supposed to do about education? What can it do? Will additional and new funding be necessary to address his main concerns?

To his credit, President Obama has consistently placed education high on his priority list; the economy, health, and education are his three top domestic concerns. And I believe this trio is not only critical but entirely interrelated and interdependent—and cannot be helped by quick fixes. Problems decades in the making are not reversed overnight. As President John F. Kennedy said, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

But begin we must. So what to do and how to fund? In this area, I offer several suggestions on how we might provide excellence in public education to all children beyond the needed added emphasis placed on overall literacy. First, we should do as President Obama said in various campaign speeches and create 20 Harlem Children’s Zones in major cities. But to do this, I would add, we should fund (perhaps with matching challenge grants) another 20-60 smaller zones based on this model of changing school cultures by changing the culture of surrounding neighborhoods. This can only be achieved by focusing on health care, pre- and post-natal programs, neighborhood security, after-school programs, employment, parent training and other reform measures.

Next, I suggest we restore to curricula across the country what I call “The Five Other Solids”: the arts; community service/action programs; human development programs (drug education, sex education, etc.); physical education (not just team sports, but yoga, fitness, nutrition, etc.); and environmental outdoor education – for how are we to save the planet by graduating generations of youth who have no relationship to the Earth?

All of these are important, but I would start with restoring the arts to the school day curriculum, not just in the form of token after-school gestures. There is just too much evidence supporting the many benefits of the arts to continue our obsession with testing to the exclusion of all else. Students will express themselves, as the arts allow for positive expression. Deny this fundamental need and it will explode elsewhere.


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The other four of these “other solids” are each critical—building a sense of community, caring for others, caring for our planet, caring for our own health and others, and learning how to communicate with others. Most students and human beings do not flunk out of life intellectually; they flunk out emotionally. Schools can help prevent such.

These “Five Other Solids” have several things in common: They are hands-on, experiential, and embrace project-based activities. They enrich the curriculum and bring humanity into the classroom and, most importantly, they engage students, thus preventing drop-outs. Every drop-out averted is a huge national gain—in funds saved, in citizen productivity and in equal opportunity.

So for the moment, let’s stop at improving neighborhoods and expanding curricula.

How to fund these ideas? Obviously not by cutting revenue, as in tax cuts—so yes, by increasing revenue. While this is a hugely complicated issue, I believe it is ultimately a matter of priorities. President Obama certainly believes this as well, and finally we have a president who seems aware that there is widespread suffering in the country as well as a disgraceful inner-city educational system.

Funding education is achievable, but only when the gargantuan defense budget is restored to sanity and the tax structure is dramatically overhauled. Since Ronald Reagan, we have had 30 years of (upward) wealth redistribution.  Perhaps we might now consider re-leveling the playing field through making a long-term investment in education. 

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By dcampbell, May 18, 2009 at 6:16 pm Link to this comment

Well, lets start with NCLB.
A New Study by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project:
NCLB Ignores What We Know about School Change and
Is Motivated by Politics

A new report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, a non-partisan research center which has been systematically studying the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) since its inception, finds that some of the basic assumptions of the law are not working and may well be mistaken. In
this study, Why High Stakes Accountability Sounds Good but Doesn’t Work—And Why
We Keep on Doing It Anyway, commissioned by the Civil Rights Project,
Researchers Gail Sunderman and Heinrich Mintrop evaluate whether the

The report finds that NCLB is failing on three fronts. First, there is
little evidence that high stakes accountability under NCLB works. It has not improved student achievement and the sanctions have had limited effects in producing real improvement. The law also results in high numbers of schools being mislabeled as “failing” and far outstrips the ability of states to intervene effectively in the schools it sanctions.

The most important finding is the damage the NCLB is doing to our
educational system. Under NCLB, the system “works” when education systems operate within only a basic skills framework and with low test rigor. The cost toour nation is revealed in an educational system stuck in low-level intellectual work.

Civil Rights Project Co-Director, Gary Orfield, concludes, “The new
administration has a unique opportunity to address the serious structural problems of NCLB and to forge a more constructive and effective federal role. To persist in sound-bite educational politics that sound tough but have failed for a generation would be a tragic mistake. To claim that it would further the civil rights of children increasingly segregated in schools that have been
officially branded and sanctioned as failures—but not provided help that makes a real difference—would be a blunder.”
There is much to discuss in NCLB and so far neither Arne Duncan nor Barack Obama is listening.

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By dano1950, May 17, 2009 at 12:19 pm Link to this comment

I would legalize pot and cocaine, but tax them heavily as cigarettes and booze. We would have a surplus in our budget very soon. If you don’t approve—Screw You! Leave the U.S. and see how you do elsewhere..  The drugs are coming into our country anyway..Treat them as an import tax..
As to imports, I would raise the taxes on them by 30% across the board. The NAFTA act would be ’ toned down’ a bit and allow the textile industry to return to our economy. It was the auto and textile industry that helped us win two world wars..
As to our farmers – I would let them produce crops for our country on a tax free basis as long as they showed a profit. There would be no bail out money if you didn’t. Low interest loans would provide for expansion and buying new equipment..
    9.All open land not currently in use would be leased to new farmers to grow corn, wheat , soybeans, etc. There are millions of acres now unused that could produce food for this country as well as others. There is no reason for people to be hungry given our resources and technology.

Health care would be free for those who don’t have insurance on a state level, since all states would benefit from the previous idea’s on taxing drugs and imports. States could reserve the right to freeze wages,rent , and groceries until a balance was achieved. At the federal level, gas prices, senator and congressman salaries could be frozen for as long as deemed necessary.

  This being the 21st century, I would push programs to ‘catch up ’ with our expanding technology..Areas would include our school systems, our railways, and above all mass transit vehicles in every city, town, and community to help reduce our dependence on oil. These vehicles could all be electric powered. A monorail system could connect places our aging bus lines have used.

  As to our energy issues, I would first BURY all power and telephone lines and get rid of the poles. The birds can find other places to sit.
The labor for this enormous project would come from our prison systems. It would be free labor and give those people a purpose..It would also serve as a deterrent for going to prison. All coal-fired power plants would convert to natural gas or go nuclear.

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By Outraged, May 17, 2009 at 2:29 am Link to this comment

Although, this may appear the least of our problems at this crucial point… I mean education, of course.  In all seriousness, it isn’t.  More factually this is THE SOURCE of many of America’s problems, but even in this we certainly aren’t the only country in “arrears”, so to speak.

I agree and disagree that schools have a part in “building a sense of community, caring for others, caring for our planet, caring for our own health and others, and learning how to communicate with others. Most students and human beings do not flunk out of life intellectually; they flunk out emotionally. Schools can help prevent such.”

In some areas this is true, while in others the opposite is the case.  When broad-based (and I realize the conjecture, is just that) supposed “ideals” are offered regarding a summation of this type, it needs to be remembered or acknowledged at least, that this is interpreted by the hearer to hear only what they wish to hear.

I have seen several schools “interpret” this to mean MANY things, some ALARMINGLY disingenuous.  As an example, my education is for the most, self educated.  There’s a reason for that, though.  At one district, I was the “cream of the crop” at the next, I was somewhat of a “thorn” since I was well ahead of others in my group, at the next, I was viewed as “a trouble-maker” not because I caused trouble but because I refused to be kowtowed by erroneous “facts” which qualified a world view completely outside of KNOWN FACTS.  The “trouble” with me was simply that I “upset THEIR applecart”, unbeknown to me at the time (I was young), I ASSUMED…..EVERYONE knew “that”.  LOL….I guess not.

At this last school, if you could call it that.  MAINLY, but not always…. students were taught incongruities and the truth (at least as was known at the time) was NOT taught.

Therefore, when we say BROADLY, “community service/actions programs” these are then undermined, and the reality is: support your church or corrupt politician (“do the right thing”).

When “human development programs (drug education, sex education, etc.)”, the premise is sidetracked, and is more realistically “taught” as “people who do drugs or have sex are evil miscreants.

When we say, “physical education (not just team sports, but yoga, fitness, nutrition, etc.)” this is TRANSLATED as, canned food has apparently every bit the nutritional value as fresh foods (trust me, “they know this” (btw, “they” are the “CHOSEN ONES” to teach this) because they “heard it straight from the canning companies in the area”....yes, I heard this with me own ears).

Environmental outdoor education” becomes a weekend of camping and a trip to the “Point Beach Nuclear Power Plant” to engage the “wonders” and “positives” of nuclear power.

Yep.  That’d be the bottom line from this ol’ miscreant….lol.

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By Dennis Ridge, May 16, 2009 at 10:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Education should be the main thrust of the economic recovery.  It can be used for immediate results at very local levels AND will have a long range impact on our future.

WHY NOT?  Why not pour our “green revolution” into our school buildings?  Why not pour our “shovel ready” money into school buildings?  Our school buildings were once the center of our communities and a place our money was spent to make the hopes and dreams for our children and the country they would live in come true.

Make all public school buildings energy efficient.  Mount solar panels on those expansive rooftops to produce electricity.  Upgrade the interiors with modern lighting, plumbing, furniture, audio/video equipment and internet connections.

Start with all public elementary schools and move up the grade levels to colleges and universities until all public education is covered.  By then the economy should have recovered and we should have a well-educated generation who has been educated in clean, renovated buildings with the latest technology with parents who have been employed in an economy that was jumpstarted by putting our money where our hearts and brains should be and that is with the children of this country

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By Kesey Seven, May 16, 2009 at 8:26 am Link to this comment

Ban tackle football in public schools. It’s a no- brainer.

Brain injuries are a common occurrence in football. Yet there are no stats on how many kids get them. In fact you have coaches whose very career depends on NOT recognizing when a concussion occurs.

OK. Not all coaches are bad guys. Some will bench kids they see walking around not knowing where they are.  But the reality is it takes weeks, months, years to recover from concussions and kids who get them should not ever play another down in high school. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love football.  I played it. I watch it.  But if the NFL wants adolescent training centers all across the country, it should be funding them and it should be bearing the financial liabilities, including keeping statistics, of giving kids brain damage. 

As it stands now, stats are not kept. Kids get whacked in the head, see stars, and the next day they’re back in history class wondering why everything seems so boring. 

“Got any painkillers, dude? My head is killing me.”

“Nope. But I got some blow.”

It’s a vicious cycle. Brain damage. Pain. Drug abuse. Violence.

Tackle football is a violent sport.  You want your kids to play, that’s fine.  But not in our schools. There should be no place for it.  Give ‘em a flag.

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By NYCartist, May 15, 2009 at 1:06 pm Link to this comment

Based on his choice of Arne Duncan, and his statements about teachers, and merit pay (that phony-baloney): I’d say he wants to privatize (charter schools), break the union (“merit pay”).  He ought to give folks with school loans a break: roll back Sallie Mae interest rate gouging.  According to David Cay Johnston on DemNow, when mentioning his son’s college loans payback, that Sallie Mae was earning 50% year profit.
NYC’s City University was FREE during the Great Depression, but few of color, few women could get in.
But it was FREE.  Greg Palast had some great writing
when and about Arne Duncan was one of the choices for Sec’y of Educ. Nothing good can be said of Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg either, and Palast didn’t.

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By Virginia777, May 15, 2009 at 12:58 pm Link to this comment

“I agree these programs will help and should be funded, but the programs will be worthless if the kids are not taught AT HOME the importance of education, civic responsibility, health and humility”

This assumption is THE most damaging to the community’s perception of public education, that somehow poor kids are not taught “as well” at home as their kids.


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By zuercheri, May 15, 2009 at 12:02 pm Link to this comment

If children of congress members had to attend public schools, the schools would be terrific and funding would not be an issue. As long as this is handled by people who are not impacted by the results of their work, don’t expect any quality.

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By rancone, May 15, 2009 at 7:46 am Link to this comment

I’ve not encountered the “Five Other Solids” terminology previously. But I do instantly recognize it as a significant missing element of our current curriculum.
Me, a pre sputnik K-12 student fortunately missed the obsession with reading and math. The pre sputnik classrooms had all that other stuff, stuff which many students other than the mathematically gifted survived in and sometimes excelled. But the curriculum was sufficiently broad to allow almost all students to find a collection of courses they could realistically pass, encouraging most to stay through graduation in large part because graduation was realistically obtainable. The focus on math and science unfortunately also created an opportunity to support the concept that mathematical and science special skills are culturally superior. This concept has been institutionalized and nationalized by No Child Left Behind testing. I strongly encourage the K-12 curriculum be returned to the reading, writing, arithmetic and the “Five Other Solids” all equally represented, all equally funded and all equally part of the graduation requirements. Please note arithmetic is not advanced math. I strongly encourage the concept that advanced math is a special talent just as artistry, musical skills, writing skills are viewed as special talents. Special talents I argue will emerge from the pool of well and broadly educated K-12 graduates. Course selection, as done in the pre sputnik era, in the 9 - 12 area from all areas, reading, writing arithmetic and the “Five Other Solids” will allow development of special talents across the board in preparation for whatever path of life the graduate chooses.

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By Skwid, May 14, 2009 at 6:07 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Funny. I did not see any mention of parental or personal responsibility for improving schools or education in general.

I agree these programs will help and should be funded, but the programs will be worthless if the kids are not taught AT HOME the importance of education, civic responsibility, health and humility.

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By SlimTim, May 14, 2009 at 4:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Case and Point:

My oldest brother had a social studies class that was held in the Home Economics room in a K-12 building. His teacher, one who frequently appeared inebriated, never noticed my brother cooking Tombstone pizzas in one of the ovens, because he was always asleep soon after stating the day’s reading assignment.

You can’t throw new a curriculum at a faculty containing a significant number of “educators” who lack the initiative to care. We’ve damaged our educational system far beyond “get intellegent quick” schemes.

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