Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My Senator Died: What Ted Kennedy Meant to an Educator

My senator died. I think that a lot of educators can say that today. Only a small fraction of us ever voted for him, or have ever lived in Massachusetts, but Ted Kennedy stood for what we stand for.

Sen. Kennedy served for so long -- 47 years -- that from the time I first got a clue about what the senate really was and what senators really were until today, he has been my senator. When I really became politically aware as a teenager, the President did not reflect my views or values. It was important to me to have a national voice that represented me, and Senator Kennedy was that national voice. I only had the chance to vote for him once, but he has always been my senator.


Looking at the education landscape today, it is easy to conclude the NCLB has a stronger impact on schools than any other federal legislation. It is easy to say that Sen. Kennedy got rolled when it came to NLCB. He thought that the money it authorized would actually be budgeted and spent, but the Bush administration's budgets only called for a fraction of it.

Obviously, there are lots of aspect of NCLB to hold against President Bush, and also against Senator Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative George Miller (D-CA). Without their credibility and their cover, this bill would not have passed.

But we should keep in mind the positive aspects of NCLB, too. Senator Kennedy did not like the whole bill, but he thought that the attention it would bring to urban education was worth its costs. In hindsight, I think he was right.

NCLB has required subgroup reporting of test scores. Though statistical rigor seems to run afoul of moral considerations, this has been a revolutionary change in the way we examine schools. And it is federally mandated!! Every school must examine how its minority students perform, and report it publicly. Every school must report how its low income students perform, and report it publicly. No longer can schools can schools hide poor performances of some groups with superior performances by others. Schools are now have real incentives to pay attention to all of these groups.

Does anyone think that this is going away?

Senator Kennedy was right, I think. We are paying more attention to the performance of minority and low income students than ever before. That is no small thing. The federal spending on education is at an all time high, and its hard to imagine that being possible with NCLB. That's no small thing.

Furthermore, for all the problems with NLCB's "highly qualified teacher" provision, the fact that we are even having a debate about it is enormous progress.

There is a lot of stuff to dislike about NCLB. But it has prompted some revolutionary shifts in how we, as a nation, talk about students in schools. And that has been wonderful.


However, Senator Kennedy was not my senator because of NLCB. He was my senator long before NCLB, and I spent years thinking quite a bit less of him for NCLB. He was my senator because he stood for things that I believed in. Most fundamentally, he stood for fighting for those unlike himself, less fortunate than himself, and doing so simply because it was the right thing to do.

I think that all educators understand devoting our lives to helping others. In fact, educators understand working to help those with less power and privilege than we do. Children inherently have less power than adults, and helping them does not help us to get ahead. None of us expect the favors to be repaid, even if the love and compassion is. We do it because it feels like the right thing to do, because it means more to us than maximizing our own power and position.

Senator Kennedy did not have to be the senator he was. He stood forward to fight for what he believed in, making himself a target for criticism and mockery -- when he knew that he had major personal failings to be mocked. He took unpopular stands because they were right, not because they would help him or his career. Most teachers know about fighting to do the right thing for their students, even when it makes their lives harder.


Last, I want to address Senator Kennedy's longevity.

He was in it for the long fight. There were some tremendous victories along the way, but they came after a lot of work. He was not looking for silver bullets or miracles, and he knew that that each legislative victory was but a single step in a very long road.

NCLB was an important step, but just a step. If we had him in Senate for the rest of his term, we would see him address its strengths and and its weaknesses.

We need to remember this. The big problems that Senator Kennedy worked his whole career to address -- education, poverty, the rights of the disempowered -- are not solved easily, or perhaps even ever. Rather, they are addressed as best we can today, so that we can address them even better tomorrow.

Perhaps this is an easier lesson for those of us who work in education than outside of it. We know that the our students' educational journeys last much longer than our own time with them. I hope that those who do not work in schools can learn this, too. Especially when trying to address education.


  1. This is what worries me the most about education, and healthcare reform. I can see the trajectory on healthcare, we got COBRA, HIPA, and other great things in the 1990s that have made a big difference in my life. Even if we just get elimination of pre-existing conditions for all health insurance, and rate limits, etc. this go round we'd be on a good path, but Kennedy, and Miller in the reauthorization, and even lately haven't seemed to move in a productive direction. All we have is Race to the Top which is more of the same garbage.

  2. That last comment from me really doesn't have current info.
    I'm Alice Mercer
    I blog at

    I would be nice if you had a Name/URL option for identifying myself as a commenter.