Listening to the presidential candidates on education last night was like listening to two friends talk about how they intended to fix up their house. President Obama intends to throw new shingles on the roof with 100,000 new math and science teachers. Governor Romney wants to replace the plumbing and let federal funding “follow the child.” And they both agree that the new wood floors installed by their Race to the Top contractors look better than the old ones.
Except the house isn’t just in need of a fix-up. The house is on fire.
It’s not that their ideas are bad, it’s that they are inadequate for the crisis we face. When you’ve got smoke and flames engulfing the entire system, you don’t talk about moderate improvements – you call 911 and shout for help while the entire neighborhood gathers in the street outside.
Consider how far the U.S. is falling behind other developed countries in the OECD International Education Ranking.
And that the achievement gap in this country has economic ramifications that amount to our country being in a permanent recession:
I’m sure there are reasons why both Romney and Obama avoid talking about the massive failures and injustices of our education system. It’s easier to repeat feel good phrases about the need for quality education so more students and families can enter the middle class than be blunt about the magnitude of the problem and what it will take to fix it.
But good politics isn’t the same as good leadership.
An essential part of strong leadership is speaking and reflecting truth – whether it’s a teacher in the classroom grading the papers of their students with truly high expectations, or the president of the country laying out the stakes – both in the facts and figures of policy and in the human terms that should be nothing less than moral outrage.
That didn’t happen from either candidate last night. And in the coming days, while the pundits are talking circles about the President’s slouch, or the Governor’s smirk, or how the numbers of various tax plans do and don’t add up, we should all be demanding a discourse that acknowledges the true extent of how our education system is failing to meet the promise of the American dream.
We can’t put out the fire until we recognize there is one.