Obama & School Reform

David Brooks:

The question of the week is: Which camp is Barack Obama in?
His advisers run the gamut, and the answer depends in part on what month it is. Back in October 2005, Obama gave a phenomenal education speech in which he seemed to ally with the reformers. Then, as the campaign heated up, he shifted over to pure union orthodoxy, ripping into accountability and testing in a speech in New Hampshire in a way that essentially gutted the reformist case. Then, on May 28 in Colorado, he delivered another major education speech in which he shifted back in a more ambiguous direction.
In that Colorado speech, he opened with a compelling indictment of America’s school systems. Then he argued that the single most important factor in shaping student achievement is the quality of the teachers. This seemed to direct him in the reformist camp’s direction, which has made them happy.
But when you look at the actual proposals Obama offers, he’s doesn’t really address the core issues. He’s for the vast panoply of pre-K and after-school programs that most of us are for. But the crucial issues are: What do you do with teachers and administrators who are failing? How rigorously do you enforce accountability? Obama doesn’t engage the thorny, substantive matters that separate the two camps.
He proposes dozens of programs to build on top of the current system, but it’s not clear that he would challenge it. He’s all carrot, no stick. He’s politically astute — giving everybody the impression he’s on their side — but substantively vague. Change just isn’t that easy.
Obama endorses many good ideas and is more specific than the McCain campaign, which hasn’t even reported for duty on education. But his education remarks give the impression of a candidate who wants to be for big change without actually incurring the political costs inherent in that enterprise.

Letters in response to Brooks’ column.