Sunday, August 03, 2008

Questions for Senators Obama and McCain

So, both the calendar and my jam-packed and very messy office tell me it’s August. In addition to the usual "It’s the beginning of the year how am I ever going to get all the stuff done that I need to get done before the students arrive?" panic attack, I had an additional panic attack. What if I bump into Senator Obama and I don’t have a good question ready?

Seriously, I’m worried about this. I live and work just south of Denver and, as you hopefully know, Denver is hosting this little thing called the Democratic National Convention coming up here at the end of August. While I know that conventions are pretty much completely scripted, Senator Obama doesn’t strike me as a man – or a candidate – who would spend the entire four days in his hotel/the Pepsi Center/Invesco Field at Mile High. So what if I’m at the grocery store and run into him, or what if he decides to visit my school? Hey, it could happen. George Bush (#41, not the current President) spoke at my school when he was Vice-President (before my time, but there are pictures to prove it – and we didn’t own Photoshop then), so I think it would be somewhat symbolic if Senator Obama stopped by.

I’m not very good at the "elevator pitch" - once a conversation gets going I think I get warmed up and can contribute, but put me on the spot for a serious and thoughtful question – not so much. So I’ve started trying to think of the one question I’d ask him if I did bump into him by the blueberries (or walking across our cafeteria).

I mean, there’s the obvious:
When are you going to name Chris Lehmann as your Secretary of Education designate?
Yes, I realize I already volunteered for this position, but sometimes you have to take one for the team.

Or there’s the standard:
Most educators think that NCLB has some serious flaws, and you seem to agree. What would you replace it with?
But then I’d just get the talking points.

Or I could reuse the question I didn’t get to ask Governor Richardson:
You have a statement in your plan about rigor, relevance and relationships. Too often in education I feel like rigor is defined as simply "harder" or "more homework." It seems like folks are saying that what we’ve been doing isn’t working, so let’s just require more of it. Instead, I think often what we should be asking is, "Are we doing the right things in the first place?" Can you talk a little bit more about how you define rigor and what are the key skills, abilities and habits of mind that our students need to be successful in the 21st century?
But I didn’t particularly like that question and it was directed specifically at a statement Governor Richardson had in his own plan.

You see, I’ve read the highlights of both Senator Obama and Senator McCain’s education stances, and looked more deeply at their web sites (Obama's Education Page, McCain's Education Page). And I’ve even listened to these three short NPR pieces on their personal tech literacy and how they would address technology in their administrations. (Apparently it’s a necessity to have a former FCC chair – from your own political party, of course - as a technology adviser. Hmm, if not Secretary of Education, perhaps I could be Senator Obama’s Technology Czar. I’ve never been a Czar.)

But I’d really like to ask that deep, meaningful, thoughtful question that gets to the heart of it all and allows us to really see his baseline, fundamental beliefs about education and what needs to change in order to meet the needs of our students. To help us understand if he thinks education is at a tipping point, and that it’s a different world out there, and schools need to adapt and change to meet it? Or if he believes that, while changes and improvements are always necessary, things are basically good as they are. And a question that gets beyond the usual talking points and helps explore all the ideas we’ve been talking about in our blogs for the last few years.

Now, I don’t mean to be partisan about this, I’d want to ask the same question of Senator McCain, but I just figure that’s it’s more likely I’ll run into Senator Obama here during the Democratic Convention than Senator McCain. (Although Arizona is just a long day’s drive southwest of here, perhaps he could come up for the day.) So, I said to myself, "Myself, you have a blog. Why don’t you ask for some help?" If you’re so inclined, please leave a thoughtful question in the comments for Senator Obama, Senator McCain, or both of them.

This is not a political blog, and I don’t want your "question" to really be a statement of political beliefs. So, if you comment, please honor this post in the spirit in which it's intended. I really want to know the one question you would ask either of these gentlemen that might help us better understand their beliefs on education. A question that hopefully gets away from the talking points and gives us a glimpse of the vision they have – or don’t have. This would help me out if I happen to run into either of them and, frankly, would help me out in case I find myself in an elevator with other important folks. (I’ve been having more of these "opportunities" than usual in the last few months, and have a few more coming up, it’s kind of weird - and I don't think "Hi, how are you?" is quite cutting it.)

Finally, if either Senator’s campaign staff stops by, I’d also like to formally offer to host a conversation between the two Senators regarding education. (Come on, staffers, Colorado may be the swing state, it's the perfect place to do this.) And I chose the word "conversation" very deliberately. I don’t really want to host a debate, at least not what passes for political debate these days – where each candidate takes whatever the question is and morphs it into the same old sound bites. I really would like to see both of these men have a thoughtful conversation about education. A conversation where, yes, we would indeed see the differences between them. But also a conversation where we could see the similarities, the common ground where we are most likely to be able to move forward together. A conversation where they were genuinely looking for solutions, not just trying to score points off one another. And, while I know this is terribly naïve of me, a conversation that perhaps actually generates some new ideas of how we can move forward together. Wouldn’t that be something?

(As a mostly irrelevant side note, I happened to mistype a URL on Senator Obama’s site while testing a link in this post and got the image below, embedded within the frame of his site. I gotta say, it seemed consistent with his campaign and made me smile a little. For the record, Senator McCain’s site gave me the standard 404 Page Cannot Be Found page, without the frame of his site around it.)


  1. I'd probably ask something about the importance of school librarians (because I am one). Something like "Should schools have libraries?" or something equally un-profound. I thought I'd mention that you *could* run into McCain as well since he'll be in Aspen on August 12th. I only know that because I held up a sign at his arrival in Aspen to meet with the Dalai Lama in July, so now I'm on the mailing list. My sign said "Honesty Above All."

  2. I would like to suggest Ken Robinson for the education position. He should at least be on the team for reconstruction. It is from Sir Ken that I draw inspiration for my question: I would suggest that it has been inferred that in the very near future there will be so many individuals acquiring relevant degrees that the undergraduate degree, as we know it, will be rendered obsolete. With that in mind, individual creativity will become a key talking point at the majority of job interviews. What can be done, right now, to ensure that creativity in the classroom will not be lost? More and more it seems to be an endangered species.

  3. How about something along the lines of this: "What do you see as the role of classroom teachers is decision making on educational policy?"

  4. On a larger scale than education, I'd love to ask both candidates the following:

    It's pretty clear that we are not going to solve any of our major problems unless we make the decision to work on them collaboratively.

    Explain how you will persuade people, especially your colleagues in the Congress, to work towards long term solutions that will benefit all of society rather than dwell on the short sighted, somewhat selfish, goals that seem to dominate public discussions.

    With Virginia "in play" this election season, maybe I'll have the chance to ask that of one of them.

  5. Even though there are disagreements on a specific strategy, both candidates seam to agree that there needs to be investments in alterative energy. Right now we are preparing students for the emerging new energy economy. In addition to emphasizing math and science in schools, how do they plan on teaching comprehensive technology in schools (not just computer/internet skills)? How will they make sure students learn dynamic problem solving, and engineering skills. How will they help schools turn today’s students into the skilled workforce needed to design, manufacture, install, and repair of wind turbines, solar panels, geothermal systems, and other new energy technologies?

  6. I'd ask, "What was the last question you asked your children's teacher?"

  7. Do we all imagine being asked to be Secretary of Education, or some similar post? Isn't that like imagining we won the lottery?

    Seriously I like Mike's question.

    My question would be; Currently the majority of new teachers come from the bottom third of the students of their respective class. What do you believe is the best way to change that so the majority of new teachers comes from the top third of their respective classes?

  8. @Jude – Perhaps something more along the lines of, “Explain your views on why school libraries are important? What do you think school libraries should look like and why?”

    @Nate Barton – I like the creativity angle. I wonder if the other part of your comment might also spur an interesting question, something along the lines of: “Everyone is talking about making students ‘college ready,’ yet the undergraduate degree appears to be becoming more and more irrelevant. Do you believe the college degree, as currently conceived, is still relevant and, if so, explain why?

    @Dr. B.A. – I’m thinking you’d get talking points on that one.

    @FCPS – Nice. I, too, wonder how a system that is designed on 2, 4 and 6 year election cycles can address long-term solutions to complicated issues.

    @Ben Nuebel – Hey, how’s it going? Great questions, but I also think those would elicit the canned talking points on alternative energy.

    @Mike – Might be the best question yet.

    @Ian – Interesting and relevant, but I wonder about the implicit assumption that those from the top third of their classes would automatically be better teachers.

  9. Hey Karl, I saw something one the news about this the other night and thought of your post.

    It is not the same as running into Obama, but it is a way to at lease ask your question.Then you just have to hope the staffers that are reviewing these like it.

  10. Karl,

    It's not the assumption that every teacher in the top third would be better, but rather that more of the teachers who enter the profession would be better.

    For the record I was no where near the top third in my class, but I thought I made a decent teacher. Not as good as I would have liked but better than many I knew.

    Also thanks to the way blogspot works Ian is my son's name. (blog

    I am actually Brendan (blog

  11. @Brendan - sorry for the name mixup.