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The Bully Pulpit: The Master and His Apprentice

bully pulpit (a public office of sufficiently high rank that it provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter)


Last night President Obama took back the high ground in the health care debate after an ugly August. My impression is that he likely moved public opinion with his remarks.

Last Sunday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on the airwaves as well, as Bob Shieffer’s only guest on Face the Nation.

Another scheduled event which should have been welcomed by all Americans – the president’s address to America’s students – took an ugly turn as well, but once again the president turned the tide.

These are indeed puzzling times where even the most bizarre impressions and opinions are magnified by a 24/7 news cycle and a revolution in electronic communication.  Historically, I think we have always linked the Office of President with the power of the “bully pulpit”, but could it be that the information/communication revolution has broadened the distribution of the bully pulpit?  Or do I have too much time on my hands?

I listened and watched both of the events mentioned above, and I hope you did as well.  While Barak Obama has proven to be both eloquent and persuasive, Secretary Duncan lacks the polish of his boss, but what he lacks in rhetorical skills he more than makes up for in tenacity.  He can be very persuasive because when he says “jump”, many states have asked “how high?”  - particularly when he dangles $4.3 billion in front of them. It is “pay to play” in reverse.  Already eight states have made modifications in their state laws in order to meet the pre-conditions for playing in the Race to the Top  competition.

California is a case in point. In late August, Governor Schwarzenegger decided to call a Special Session of the legislature to deal with education reform.  Here is what he said:

Last week Secretary Duncan visited Sacramento and participated in a Race to the Top rally. He also met with key legislative leaders in the California Assembly to convince them to support the Governor’s proposal.  In an AP article, US Education Chief Urges Calif. to Enact Reforms, it was reported that, “The Republican governor said he needs the education measures on his desk by early October so we can be totally in sync with the Obama administration and with the vision of our secretary of education.” [emphasis added]

What we ought to be saying is “Who says?” to the secretary’s vision.

California already has 637 charter schools and they have had mixed success.  The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford released a study last June of charter school performance in 16 states (Connecticut was not one of them).  This chart illustrates the findings:

CREDO Charter Comparison to Traditional Public Schools

source: Center for Research on Education Outcomes

While the report recognized a robust national demand for more charter schools from parents and local communities, it found that 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46 percent of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference.

To download a copy of the full report and executive summary, visit: http://credo.stanford.edu

Now California, in fairness, is listed as a state with “mixed results”, but why would the governor promote the growth of this sector in his state while the traditional public schools are in such dire financial straits were it not for the huge sums of money dangled before him?

By the sheer repetition of the merits of charter schools by these two powerful voices we see public opinion shifting.  Even though, as Arne Duncan proclaims on State of the Nation, he is “not for charter schools, he is for good charter schools”, the net result of his support will be the further proliferation of these schools with little attention to quality.

The latest issue of Education Next examines this very issue of how the opinion of the public is influenced by voices of powerful figures, such as the president, in an article entitled “The Persuadable Public”.  Consider this analysis of their findings on the issue of “Merit Pay” and President Obama’s influence on opinion:

Merit Pay: When asked for an opinion straight out, a slight plurality of Americans sampled—43 percent—supported the idea of “basing a teacher’s salary, in part, on his or her students’ academic progress on state tests.” Twenty-seven percent opposed the idea, with the remaining 30 percent undecided. As noted above, that pattern of opinion has hardly budged since 2007.

Such stability over time, however, masks a propensity of some Americans to alter their views in light of an appeal by a popular political leader. Those informed of President Obama’s support for merit pay favored the idea by 13 percentage points more than those not so informed (see Figure 4). Obama’s backing had a particularly dramatic impact on African Americans, whose support jumped by 23 percentage points. Even many teachers were persuaded. Initially, only 12 percent of those not informed of Obama’s opinion thought merit pay a good idea, but that number jumped to 31 percent among those told of the president’s position. Obama’s endorsement caused support among Democrats to rise from 41 to 56 percent. Among Republicans, too, backing for the idea rose, albeit by a lesser amount (from 48 to 59 percent).

Thus the power of the bully pulpit.

If you missed the Duncan interview you can watch a very important segment here. The secretary discusses No Child  Left Behind, Charter Schools, and Merit Pay in this section.

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