A person’s culture and upbringing has a profound effect on how they see the world and how they process information. This fact was discussed by Richard Nisbett in his work, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently…and why Nisbett worked with psychologists in Japan and China and determined that the holistic way of viewing the world typical of many students from those countries differed from that of their American counterparts, who tended to view the world in parts or distinct classes of objects that could each be defined by a set of rules.
In other words, the Asian children see the world in terms of the relationship between things, whereas the American children see the world in terms of the objects as distinct entities. This information is helpful when we consider how cultural background might influence approach to learning and school performance. There are a number of theories that seek to explain differences in school performance among different racial and ethnic groups. Three theories stand out: the cultural deficit theory, the expectation theory, and the cultural difference theory.
The cultural deficit theory states that some students do poorly in school because the linguistic, social, and cultural nature of the home environment does not prepare them for the work they will be required to do in school. As an example, some students may not have as many books read to them as are read to children in other homes. Not being able to read has a negative influence on their vocabulary development. Vocabulary development may also be stifled by the amount and nature of verbal interaction in the home. As a result, some children arrive at school lacking the level of vocabulary development expected. The cultural deficit theory proposes that deficiencies in the home environment result in shortcomings in skills, knowledge, and behaviors that contribute to poor school performance.
Expectation theory focuses on how teachers treat students. Teachers often expect less from students of certain racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. When teachers expect students to perform poorly, they approach teaching in ways that align with their low levels of expectations. In these instances, students tend to perform at the low levels expected of them by teachers.
Rosenthal and Jacobson tested this theory in their Pygmalion Effect study. A group of teachers were told that their students were due for an intellectual growth spurt during the school year. Even though the students were average in terms of academic performance, the teachers interacted with them based on this expectation. All students in the experimental group improved both academically and socially by the end of the year. Based on the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, students who experience high expectations seek to reach the level of expected behaviors. Correspondingly, students who experience low expectations act to meet the level of behavior expected of them.
The cultural difference theory is based on the idea that students who are raised in different cultural settings may approach education and learn in different ways. It is important for teachers to be aware of the difference between the school atmosphere and the home environment. People from different cultural traditions may have an approach to education that differs from the mainstream approach used in American schools. For instance, differences can be noted in the Polynesian concept of learning, whereby younger children are generally taught by older children rather than by adults. This is a very different approach to learning and one that may need to be considered in an American school that is attended by Polynesian students.
Teachers need to ensure that they incorporate methods of teaching in their classrooms that accommodate various beliefs and cultural notions students bring to school. This requires each teacher to develop an understanding of their student’s culture, but also to know who their students are as individuals. It is also important for teachers to ensure that they treat all students the same and to have high expectations for each one, so that they will all strive to reach their full potential.
When it comes to resource allocation, there are two components to understanding what controls district and school resources. The first component traces every one of the dollars spent in order to determine who controls what is purchased. The second step unravels the barriers to schools changing the ways in which they use the resources they appear to “control.” District leaders often are surprised to find they do not share the same views of how much control schools have. District leaders also learn how their departments unwittingly limit school options.
School leaders are frequently shocked to find out that district leaders believe they have more control over resources than they actually do. Although districts may think that schools have budget control, the actual flexibility schools experience is often defined so narrowly that that really have few options. Even in districts that have implemented versions of “school-based budgeting,” schools will often have a very limited ability to make changes in staffing.
Districts might give schools “control” over their substitute teacher funds, instructional supplies, and equipment. Worse, the purported “control” frequently comes with specified governance structures or various approval processes that drain valuable group time and sap energy by debating marginal changes having little to do with instruction. This is why so many reformers argue that districts need to move to more complete solutions. Student-based budgeting is often cited as one such solution.
As schools begin to change the way they use staff to support their unique designs, districts will find they need to move toward giving schools dollars based on the number of students in their school instead of allocating funds based on specific staff positions. This change is important for management and equity reasons. Logistically, as more schools want to change the way they use staff, it becomes confusing to keep track of all the trading in and converting of staff. Trying to free up only certain funds for flexible solutions can create further complication and raises troubling equity issues.
Giving schools more autonomy does not guarantee improved achievement automatically. Without incentives to improve school performance and an understanding of alternative possibilities for organizing resources, increasing school-level control over resources usually results in limited change. Worse, the first changes that schools tend to make in the use of resources can have very little to do with improving the achievements of students, and more to do with the needs of adults.
As districts move to create flexibility in the use of resources, they will need to ensure that schools meet legal and funding requirements. The district may, for example, encourage schools to combine staffing resources from special programs, including bilingual, special education, and Title I, in order to create a more integrated, individualized education for every student.
In order to support more comprehensive programs and still be able to ensure that schools are meeting the specific needs of special education students, the district will need to set up a dedicated system for accountability integration. Schools will need proactive district action and guidance to make many of the more significant changes in resources and organization. In some cases, dramatic improvement in achievement will require schools to make difficult or large-scale personnel changes.
Gradual changes in staff due to attrition may not help a school implement new strategies quickly enough for them to notice desired changes in outcomes and improvements. It may prove necessary for a school to alter the teaching staff mixture and hire more academic teachers and fewer non-academic teachers and support staff. Or the school may decide to eliminate instructional aides and invest the dollars in professional development or certified reading instructors instead.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I were discussing President Obama's performance in the area of education; more specifically P-20 education, which begins in preschool and ends with graduate school. As is usually the case when we debate matters of education politics, the debate became quite contentious and in the end we had to agree to disagree. In response to that debate, I decided to write an opinion piece, assessing Obama's education record. Towards the end of the article, I will issue a letter grade (A-F) denoting my assessment of the president’s level of performance in education policy.
Let me begin by saying that throughout Obama's political career, he has continually preached the need for America to invest in education. To put it in his own words, "Countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow." The core of his plans for education has been to provide all students with the same opportunity to reach high levels of proficiency. In the past, disadvantaged students were not provided the same educational pathways as other students. They were not held to the same high standards as their classmates; their lower achievement outcomes were readily accepted.
The president has continually invested in and supported early childhood education. Why? Because he knows that it lays the foundation for future academic success. In a 2007 speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, Obama said, “For every $1 we invest in these programs, we get $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health care costs, and less crime.” When he became president, he put his money where his mouth was; figuratively speaking.
The American Recovery Act allocated $5 billion for early childhood programs, and $77 billion for reforms to support elementary and secondary education. On top of this, his administration provided $500 million for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. It is unprecedented for a president to show such passion and commitment towards early childhood education, while simultaneously articulating such a profound understanding of its importance.
In 2010, President Obama established Promise Neighborhood Grants to support plans that implement cradle-to-career services that are intended to improve the educational attainment and healthy development of children. The program endeavors to provide youth in Promise Neighborhoods with effective schools and well-built networks of parental and community support that will prepare them to receive an exceptional education and effectively transition to college and a career. Patterned after Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, Promise Neighborhoods are a "promising" reinvention of an existing educational innovation.
Obama's education reform magnum opus, The Race to the Top competition sustains successful teachers and principals in school districts across the nation, and has led to the adoption of common K-12 teaching standards. In this competition, states receive points for fulfilling certain criteria, such as performance-based standards for teachers and principals, showing fidelity to nationwide standards, encouraging charter schools, etc. Critics argue that high-stakes testing is untrustworthy, and I am inclined to agree. If there was a component that required contestants to create alternative assessments or value added systems to replace high stakes testing, "Race to the Top" would be as advertised.
In terms of outreach to the Hispanic community, the president's actions have been unprecedented. President Obama did an excellent job of ensuring that the Hispanic community was included in attempts to advance educational opportunities for the entire nation. In addition, he restructured the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics to advance educational opportunities at the P-20 level. Also, President Obama is dedicated to giving student's who aren’t yet American citizens an opportunity to gain their citizenship.
In terms of college access and loans, President Obama has made higher education more affordable by doubling financial support for Pell Grants, growing the number of recipients from 6 million to 9 million since 2008. How did he do it? Obama accomplished this mostly by cutting out the intermediary from the college-loan program, which in turn freed billions of taxpayer dollars.
Beginning in 2014, first-time borrowers will only have to pay 10 percent or less of their disposable income towards loan repayments. The law also stipulates that after 20 years, any remaining loans will be forgiven. If they make their payments on time, public servants (teachers, police officers, servicemen, etc.) will have their student loans forgiven after 10 years. Also, the president increased funding for land-grant colleges. The aforementioned measures constituted the largest reform of student aid in 40 years.
Solely on his P-20 record, I will have to give President Obama an B+. The Obama administration’s education agenda began in the midst of one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. Since his inauguration, President and Arne Duncan aggressively tackled education reform in P-20 education. What President Obama and Arne Duncan have been able to accomplish in less than four years is nothing short of amazing.
There is room for improvement, especially when students are still tested using antiquated assessment measures. More importantly than this, NCLB still exists in its original state and has not been amended. However, I decided to stick with my B+, because these issues cannot be laid at the president's doorstep. Throughout his first-term, President Obama has entreated Congress to amend NCLB, and he has been met with opposition and hostility.
Under Obama's watch, the U. S. education system is experiencing something that it hasn't experienced in ages; genuine progress. Although we have many more miles to go, we have to remember that Rome was not built in a day. The issues that continuously plague our public education system took decades to get that way and will probably take several more decades to fix. If President Obama is to engender true school reform in America, he has to bear in mind that school reform is a unicorn of sorts; an imaginary, magical creature conjured up by our subconscious desire to make sense of things. The truth of the matter is that school reform as most people envision it, does not exist.
President Obama knows that you do not need to wait for something to be broken in order to fix it. That's why our president always looks for opportunities to improve upon current processes, making things incrementally better as time passes. He has brilliantly applied the process of continuous improvement to our educational system; constantly striving to make things better, reevaluating how he does things, looking at the results he achieves, and taking steps to improve things incrementally. He has earned his B+.
America’s focus is on the 2012 presidential race. Will Barack Obama be elected to a 2nd term or will a new challenger knock him off his throne? I think it’s safe to say that at least half of the country still supports President Obama, even though they may not agree with all of his policies. When Obama assumed the presidency, he was charged with resolving the nastiest set of problems and issues of any incoming commander-in-chief since Franklin D. Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933. Obama immediately served up a range of big-ticket solutions that included the unprecedented stimulus package, the auto bailouts, and a health care bill.
Since then, Obama ended the war in Iraq, assassinated Osama Bin Laden, and implemented regulations to improve the environment. In addition, he implemented Race to the Top, began the drawdown of U. S. forces from Afghanistan, appointed two women to the Supreme Court, and ended "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." I could go on and on, but in the interest of time, I think I'll stop there. In spite of all of these accomplishments, for many Americans, Obama's first-term as president has left much to be desired.
Obama's hecklers come not just from the right, but from other progressives and from well-known African Americans. A lot of people seem to think that Barack Obama works for them, and when they don’t get the reaction they want from pulling his strings they call him a puppet to somebody else. The president has a whole lot of work to do and a great many needs to tend to, but the impression across the board is that people believe the president should work for them and them alone.
Although the president's ability to directly influence policy is usually exaggerated, he still wields a considerable amount of power and influence. For instance, executive orders allow him to operate proactively in areas where congress has failed to act. However, they are contentious because they permit the President to make key decisions, without the approval of Congress.
As he nears the end of his first term, many laymen and politicos alike are pondering this question; how will the first African-American president’s initial term be remembered?
Presidential historians will not have the advantage of hindsight for a decade or two, but when it comes to grading Obama’s Presidency, ask yourself the following questions. Did he make good on his campaign promises? If he didn’t, were there extenuating circumstances that stood in his way? Are the criticisms that he has received, warranted? What grade should his presidency receive?
Since the president's first term is not quite complete, the best that I can do is offer an interim assessment. Any definitive assessment will have to wait until after the 2012 election. I will assess Obama’s presidency by asking myself the same questions that I posed to you.
Did he make good on his campaign promises?
Politifact.com, the Pulitzer Prize winning site published by the Tampa Bay Times, contains a special feature called the Obamameter. One of the lists that it publishes is "The Obama Scorecard," which assesses 508 campaign promises made by Obama with the following ratings: promise kept, promise broken, compromise, in the works and stalled. I used this unbiased tool to determine whether or not Obama kept or is progressing towards fulfilling his campaign promises. According to "The Obama Scorecard," he performed as follows: promises kept- 34%, promises broken- 12%, compromises- 11%, in the works- 29% and (promises) stalled- 13%. Also, it is important to point out that 0.4% (2) of his campaign promises have not been rated yet.
On 74% of his promises, Obama kept, comprised or is in the process of fulfilling them. Also, 13% of Obama's attempts to fulfill his campaign promises stalled not because of him, but because of partisanship. Out of 508 campaign promises, Obama has only broken 12% of them; which is mind boggling when you consider the current political landscape. According to these results, the president did a good job of keeping his campaign promises; however, you can be your own judge.
If he didn’t, were there extenuating circumstances that stood in his way?
In some situations, it seems as though Obama can't catch a break. Regardless of what he does, for some people, it will never be good enough. In some instances, President Obama proposed legislation to congress that either did not make it to the House or Senate floor or simply failed to garner the necessary votes for passage. Also there were times when in order to avoid giving the president what he wanted, the opposition simply voted down legislation that was good for America.
To be clear, Obama's obstacles have come not just from the right, but also from Obama’s own party and prominent African Americans. In response to some of these occurrences, Obama used executive orders to act in areas where congress failed to act. What else can he do? In spite of extenuating circumstances, President Obama continues to keep a smile on his face, and he sticks to his message. So as you can clearly see, in some situations, there were extenuating circumstances that stood in his way.
Are the criticisms that he has received, warranted?
A large majority of the criticisms are uncouth, disrespectful and engineered to discredit Obama’s patriotism, religious beliefs and competence. The toxic venom that has been hurled at Obama is unprecedented in modern politics. When in modern times have people openly called for the assassination of a U. S. president? Never.
When I hear scholars such as Cornell West lambasting President Obama for giving oligarchs and corporate America a free pass and for failing to make the "war on poverty" a top priority, I cringe. Not because I believe that Professor West's criticisms have no merit, I cringe because I know that that Obama's detractors will try to use it as rhetoric to further discredit him. At the end of the day, he gives his heart and soul to his presidency and he should be afforded the respect that his position demands. At the end of the day, there may be a small percentage of the criticisms that may be warranted, but nobody’s perfect.
What grade should his presidency receive?
As I stated earlier in this piece, when Obama assumed the presidency, he was charged with resolving a nasty set of problems and issues. In response to this, his administration rose to the challenge and fostered positive change and progress in America. Because of this, I think the president deserves an B+, which reflects his solid record as Commander-in-Chief.
At the end of the day, we are all entitled to our own opinion, and I am sure that many on the right and left will disagree with my assessment. So remember, my opinions are just that, my opinions. I am looking forward to reading your comments and I encourage you to use this article as a springboard for discussion.