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.

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