McCain Plans for Education. . .

Mike—a regular Radical reader—recently sparked a political conversation about the presidential candidates in the comment section of an entry that I wrote on bias in the media.

He wrote:

This is, after all, your blog. I’m not trying to turn it toward any particular issue, but merely inviting you to take up another issue in the continuing educational debate. I know you’ve taken of late to focus much more on tech issues, I merely suggest that it might be interesting, for you and those who enjoy the blog, to explore the educational leanings of Senators Obama and McCain.

Feeling like playing the DJ today—-and knowing that having an understanding of each candidate’s educational platforms is critical for making an educated decision in the upcoming election—I figured I’d do a bit of poking around John McCain’s website this morning.

The negativity directed towards public schools that I found there left me a bit shocked!  While McCain starts strong—-making statements about the important role that education plays in the success of our nation—-his writing is riddled with emotionally loaded words that cheapen almost everything about today’s schools.

Consider these quotes:

  • The deplorable status of preparation for our children, particularly in comparison with the rest of the industrialized world, does not allow us the luxury of eliminating options in our educational repertoire.
  • He finds it beyond hypocritical that many of those who would refuse to allow public school parents to choose their child’s school would never agree to force their own children into a school that did not work or was unsafe.
  • In this age of honest reporting, we finally see what is happening to students who were previously invisible. While that is progress all its own, it compels us to seek and find solutions to the dismal facts before us.

In the interest of “honest reporting,” it’s important to realize that the facts aren’t as dismal as Senator McCain would lead you to believe.  In fact, public schools in the United States have always done a remarkable job adapting to the ever-changing demands placed upon them.

Consider that at the start of the 20th century, most high schools enrolled 100 students.  Heck, only 50% of all children between the ages of 5 and 19 were even enrolled in school!

Today’s schools are charged with serving 100% of the children between the age of 5 and 19—-and the average high school enrolls over 1,000 students.  What’s more, only 8% of students were graduating from high school and moving on to additional education and new careers in the early 1900s.  That number stands near 70% in the 21st Century.

The numbers become even more interesting when you look at the kinds of courses offered to students today compared to schools at the turn of the century.  US high schools offered nine courses in 1890.


Today, US high schools offer over 2,000 different courses.  Beginning in the 1970s, students were organized into tracks—vocational, college, general and commercial—each offering its own subset of classes, degrees and requirements.  (Christensen et al, 2008).

That’s undeniable progress in the face of new expectations and exponential change, don’t you think?

I think what bugs me the most about Senator McCain’s educational platform is that he seems to believe that schools struggle because of incompetence in the classroom.

Consider these quotes:

  • As president, John McCain will pursue reforms that address the underlying cultural problems in our education system – a system that still seeks to avoid genuine accountability and responsibility for producing well-educated children.
  • John McCain believes our schools can and should compete to be the most innovative, flexible and student-centered – not safe havens for the uninspired and unaccountable.

Drawing conclusions from school data from the past century in their 2008 title Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson disagree with McCain’s assertion that today’s schools are “safe havens for the uninspired and unaccountable.”

They write:

One reason we might believe it is not possible [for schools to change] centers on another common gripe about why schools struggle–their teachers and administrators aren’t sufficiently motivated to improve.  Yet…we hope the above analysis shows that school administrators and most individual teachers are strongly motivated to improve.

In the face of enormous hurdles and despite changing demands on schools, teachers and administrators have consistently improved public schools in the United States and have navigated the disruptions imposed on them.

The latter is something almost no manager in private industry has been able to do.

(Christensen et al, Kindle Location 1254-1260)

Now are there strengths in McCain’s proposed educational policies?

Sure.  They include a plan to provide bonuses to teachers who choose to work in under performing schools—-a long overdue change to our system of education that I’ve often argued for—an apparent commitment to pushing educational decisions out of the statehouse and into the schoolhouse, and a belief in the need to introduce choice and competition into education.

All of these efforts would earn my complete support.

But I’m going to find it difficult to get behind a candidate that refuses to recognize that schools have successfully adapted to any of the dozens of new expectations that communities have thrown at them in the past one hundred years.  Using words like “dismal” and “deplorable” to describe the honest efforts of an organization that is doing the best that it can to keep up with constantly changing outcomes is at best inaccurate—and at worst blatantly unfair.

And I’m going to find it even more difficult to get behind a candidate who openly argues that educators are uninspired and unaccountable.  As a guy who has given my entire career to working in America’s classrooms, that’s a slight I simply can’t ignore.

Christensen, C., M. Horn & C. Johnson (2008). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

10 thoughts on “McCain Plans for Education. . .

  1. Sam Rosaldo

    I would like Mike to post his evidence about Obama directing millions to radical organizations. Sounds like someone’s propaganda to me, and there’s been a lot floating around that needs to be challenged. I’m open to evidence, not accusations. I’m surprised that that went without comment.

  2. S. Roping

    Mr Ferriter,
    You took the bait. Mike; your regular tempered reader said “this is, after all, your blog. I’m not trying to turn it toward any particular issue, but merely inviting you to take up another issue in the continuing educational debate…I merely suggest that it might be interesting, for you and those who enjoy the blog, to explore the educational leanings of Senators Obama and McCain”
    The beauty of an election year is that we can and should be doing our due diligence in researching out candidates before placing our vote. We can all make equal arguments and dissect a candidates words to favor one’s views (we just witnessed it in the previous comments). Personally, I am not making my decision for President by his direction for education because as we all have been taught in school it’s not really all about the president is it? Maybe a bit more attention paid to the local elections and how our representatives in the House and Senate are voting.
    I appreciated your willingness to “go to the front lines” on this one but you had to see these types of responses coming as soon as you pressed POST.
    FYI- My bumper sticker reads ” My kid wants to be President…I told him to aim higher”

  3. Paul Cancellieri

    Thanks for giving equal time to McCain’s positions. While I share your indignation at the comment that we educators are “uninspired and unaccountable”, I am reluctant to draw conclusions based on a single quote, especially in light of what K. Borden has added to the discussion. Here’s hoping that K. and Mike get a little more back and forth going. Controversy stirs the imagination.
    Any plans to skewer the third party platforms?

  4. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    Your selection of excerpts from the McCain website ignored a few positions I have observed you share with John McCain:
    Example 1: Classroom Leaders: “If America is to truly reform public education and make good on the promise of individual freedom and independence through knowledge, we must ensure that every child has the opportunity to be inspired and motivated to achieve their potential by a strong classroom leader.”
    Example 2: NCLB
    “There should be an emphasis on standards and accountability. However, our goal cannot be group averages. Instead, our focus should be to inspire every child to strive to reach his or her potential. While NCLB has been invaluable in providing a clear picture of which schools and students are struggling, it is only the beginning of education reform.”
    Example 3: Resources must accompany accountability
    “John McCain is committed to high standards and accountability, but he is also committed to providing the resources needed to succeed. He believes we should invest in people, parents and reward achievement. ”
    Example 4: Teacher professional development in technology
    “Where federal funds are involved, teacher development money should be used to enhance the ability of teachers to perform in today’s technology driven environment. We need to provide teachers with high quality professional development opportunities with a primary focus on instructional strategies that address the academic needs of their students.”
    As I read his positions on education and your writings I see a great deal of common ground and I see him echoing a great deal of what you have said is at issue.
    The bottom line for me is choice and simultaneously preserving the choice options I currently I have while working to expand those options to others who may not have them because they lack the financial means.

  5. Bob Heiny

    I share your cautious approach, Bill, to public politics. I think you gave thoughtful effort to balance.
    Kudos for working on a political campaign, Debbie! That’s your right, but keep it off public school campuses unless you give equal appearances to all competing campaigns, including minority parties. We all know that bumper stickers fit criteria for propoganda. Tip: Prepare for someone to challenge you about political bumper stickers during a personnel evaluation.
    You have good commenters, Bill.

  6. Mike

    What I’m finding interesting here is that McCain’s boilerplate on education is pretty much the kind of oft-repeated anti-educator stuff one finds coming from those who would love to dismantle public education, while still retaining all of its assets, physical and financial, for their own schemes. There is, too, the tendency to see education as just another business, a business that can be forced to profitability (accountability) through common business methods and terminology. And there is also the greatest grievance: federal intervention into local school districts in virtually every way. This is expected of liberals, for whom federal intervention in virtually every aspect of life is often seen as the ultimate good, but is absolutely abhorrent when one who claims to be conservative not only sees nothing wrong with it, but might wish to expand it.
    While I’m hardly an enthusiastic supporter of McCain, having followed him for years, I’m fairly comfortable that he has an education policy primarily because, as a presidential candidate, he must have an education policy. He has never, to my knowledge, had any particular interest in education issues, nor would he be likely to push such issues as president. Therefore, the worst we might expect, as educators, from a McCain administration is pretty much what we’ve become used to dealing with. This is not happy-making, but is certainly survivable.
    Obama, on the other hand, did have a foray of some four years as the head of an organization that handed out some 100 million to organizations, purportedly for the assistance of undereducated Chicago school kids. And where did that money go? To various radical individuals and organizations who saw kids not as precious individuals who needed to be educated, but at potential foot soldiers in the radical cause who lacked only proper indoctrination. This is hardly turning kids into reflective voters. This, about Obama and education, is a matter for concern among teachers, I suspect.

  7. Debbie

    Your comments made me stop and realize that I need to do more homework on the local candidates – not just presidential. As for Bob, I’m thinking about my work for the Obama campaign and my bumper stickers. I don’t plan to change that and I too am an educator. Isn’t that showing students (without saying a word) that some take seriously our civic duty to elect a leader who represents our ideals?

  8. Bill Ferriter

    Interesting comment, Bob.
    And I’m not sure what a minority opinion is—after all, I ripped Obama’s education policies last week!
    I’m always torn about whether teachers should take a public position in elections—primarily because I’m very sensitive about not sharing personal views in my classroom out of a desire to get kids to consider both sides of every issues.
    A part of me believes the kind of writing that I’ve done here—-and in my previous piece on Obama’s education policies—could be considered responsible role modeling for kids.
    Now don’t get me wrong—teachers who fail to present both sides of an issue to their students and who try to influence the thinking of their students in one direction or another should be ashamed of themselves.
    But maybe it’s time that we show students the kinds of thinking that people put into making personal decisions in elections. Heaven’s knows that our nation could use as many reflective voters—regardless of political affiliation—as we can get!
    Whaddya’ think?

  9. Bob Heiny

    I think you posted this for feedback. Respectfully, I know it’s PC for teacher union members to participate publically in public elections. I wouldn’t take that risk. I don’t want my grandchildren’s teachers offering personal political testimonials. How can I trustfully distinguish such comments from rumor mongering and propaganda? Did I just express an unpopular, minority political voice among teachers? 🙂

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