All My Presidents: LOL's 2016 Election Special

This election comes at a significant time in my teaching career.

Namely, I'm getting to old for this.

Not teaching, mind you. There are still things to learn, ways to hone my skill, kids I can't wait to teach.

It's elections I'm too old for. With that said, my grand age (of 45 years as of this writing) gives me a pretty broad perspective on presidents and education, and I'm hoping this perspective helps me cut through the sex, lies and videotape of the 2016 race at this point.

Having watched two debates so far and followed the campaigns pretty closely (six or seven on a scale of ten). It's safe to say that education hasn't been a major issue so far in the campaign, nor will it be in the final four weeks that began with Trump's Access Hollywood tape and continued through the open contempt of the second debate. It's sad to say, too, that for the first time since 1984, America won't have a candidate who has education at the top of her or his agenda.

This endorsement will run in two parts. I want to begin by looking back at my career--I began student teaching in 1993--and how presidents shaped my job for better and for worse.

George H.W. Bush

I turned 18 almost four months after the 1988 Election which brought George H.W. Bush into office. I followed this election closely--I was a Bush supporter, a pretty typical Southern conservative of the day: Christian, pro life, anti-welfare and terrified of gays.

Everyone remembers his campaign for the slogan, "Read my lips," but there was a time in the campaigns final six weeks where he went around with pretty basic slogans claiming he would be "the [insert issue here] President." The "Environmental President" is still remembered. But I also remember him promising to become "the Education President."

Considering the fact that I entered college during his term and chose to major in education, I'd say public education became something I would want to be known for, too.

I didn't start teaching until 1994. But it's interesting to look back at Bush's record, primarily because he was the first in a line of four presidents who would impact my career--and the first in that line to place public education at the forefront.

Compared to later presidents, Bush lacked focus to go along with his intentions. During the campaign he assured voters that "under God" should remain in the Pledge of Allegiance, and he voiced support for prayer in schools. Twenty-eight years later, "under God" is still there, but it hasn't been shown to make our schools better.

Bush's big initiative was called America 2000. "Our America 2000 strategy for education lays out a series of bold challenges to create better and more accountable schools that parents can choose, to reinvent the American school by developing a new generation of American schools, to turn our land into a nation of students and, in the process, me into a computer genius."

The idea was that American kids would rank #1 in the world in reading and math by 2000. We made it to #18. But you read here themes that other administrations and candidates would pick up on. Translating the verbiage 28 years later, we know that "accountable schools" would lead to testing, standards and achievement school districts; "that parents can choose" would become a Conservative catch-all (like Health Savings Accounts) that would check the education box without actually educating anyone; and "a new generation of American schools" would lead to public and privately funded charter schools, which would become a focus of his son's administration, as well as that of Barack Obama.

Very little funding followed Bush's ideas. If anything, his Thousand Points of Light ideas for charities and volunteers to fill in the gaps was the most "significant" contribution. But looking back at these days, other than a spirit of service (which I caught as a college student), I don't remember seeing much, if any, federal impact on education.

Bush lasted just one term. He is remembered mostly for the first Iraq War. Policy-wise, he governed in the afterglow of the Reagan Era, and education issues--school choice, prayer, keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance--continued from Reagan's time.

Bill Clinton

My first presidential vote came in 1992, my senior year of college. By this time I had spent a year overseas, which gave me a far different perspective on my country than what I had grown up with in rural Ohio and Tennessee. It was the most idealistic time of my life, and I supported Clinton.

I began teaching in the fall of 1994 at Superior High School in Superior, Arizona. It was a small, rural school of 190 students. Desperate to get my foot in the door of teaching, I taught English 9 and 10, putting my BA in English to good use. I was also asked to teach Pre-algebra, Algebra I and Chemistry, which I did for one school year. Was I qualified? No. My only qualification was a desire to begin my teaching career in a rural area of Arizona that didn't have many other options.

My classroom at SHS is the second-floor room at the upper left.
It didn't have air conditioning at the time I taught. The school
was later closed after a new junior-senior high school was built.
I taught at SHS from 1994 to 98. During that time I remember AmeriCorps workers coming through our corner of Arizona. Some working on hiking paths, another worked with the art class at our school to paint a downtown mural. In my four-year stint as a teacher, I remember very little in the way of professional development (which may say more about the tiny, poor district I taught in than about state or federal policy). There was a big win in school funding during my time there, but it was in a lawsuit against the state, which was forced to pitch in and help small districts with school construction and upgrades.

Looking back, though, Clinton set in motion changes that would impact schools much later. George HW Bush had called for American students to be tested in grades 4 and 8, and when I started teaching in Arizona, there was a statewide test, administered yearly but with little accountability. Clinton would work with the National Governors Association (of which he was a past chair) and other groups to begin research into national standards that would lead to Common Core State Standards twenty years later.


I left Arizona in 1998 to pursue other opportunities outside of education. I had taught for four years in a challenging school, and I was burnt out--a young father, eager to try new things. Between graduation 1998 and the fall of 2004, I would teach part-time for four semesters off and on. When the Columbine Massacre happened--the most significant school event of those years--I was running a feeding program for Kosovo refugees in Albania. When No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed in 2001, I was starting graduate school in public administration.

George W Bush

I returned to the classroom in 2004 in a new state, Tennessee, and a relatively new school--Station Camp High School in suburban Sumner County, just outside of Nashville, which had been built just two years earlier. Bush's first term was nearly over, but the impact of NCLB was already evident.

People talk about testing and NCLB, but one of the first things I saw on my return to the classroom was principals struggling to put "highly qualified" teachers in classrooms. The principals cared, because now it mattered. They were held accountable if more than a certain percentage of unqualified teachers were in classrooms.

For example, a 6th-grade ELA teacher I knew was moving to 7th grade because her certification only ran from 7th-12th grades. I thought back to my first year of teaching. Chemistry. Algebra. Pre-algebra. I thought of what Louis, one of my chemistry students wrote in my yearbook, "Mr. Dittes: I think I learned as much about chemistry this year as you did." As grateful as I was for the chance I got to start my teaching career, NCLB made it harder for principals to put English majors in science and math classrooms, and that was a good thing for students everywhere.

Testing was changing in Tennessee under NCLB, too. In my first two years teaching in Tennessee, we administered the Gateway Exam to 10th-graders--a version of which had begun when I was in high school in the late-80s. This was a baseline test--reported to be at the 6th-grade level--that all 10th-graders needed to pass as a graduation requirement.

New tests were known as TCAPs, and they were given at grades five, eight, and eleven. They were more rigorous than the Gateway, although Tennessee would later be accused of dumbing these tests down, too. At least they were closer to grade level than 6th grade is to 10th! Testing also induced a lot of stress because every year I got a value-added score, which evaluated my performance based on how my students had done on their literacy tests.

Barack Obama

President Obama swept into power with a huge mandate for change, and he will leave office having overseen more changes in public education than any president in history.

The most urgent need he faced when he took office was the deepening economic crisis. Governments across the country were slashing budgets. Obama and Congress quickly passed a $787 billion stimulus package that saved as many as 325,000 jobs in education nationwide.

The long-term effects of the stimulus, though, were hiding in a $1 billion program known as Race to the Top. In reality the federal government has very little impact on state education laws because under the federal system, local states approve key policies like funding, standards, and teacher qualifications.

What Race to the Top did was to offer a huge pot of money for states that wanted to improve public education, along with certain criteria that the Obama Administration wanted states to address. Over 40 states changed laws to compete for moneys--raising standards (by implementing Common Core), expanding charters, and making teachers more accountable, among other changes. Only 17 states actually got a cut of the $1 billion. My state, Tennessee, got the biggest share. Not coincidentally, I saw huge improvements to education during this time.

I was able to sign on with TNCore, the organization that trained teachers on the new standards and brought modern teaching methods to every corner of the state. I spent three summers traveling around, working on literacy and writing methods with my peers. I also got a front-row seat to the Great Testing Debacle as wishy-washy state legislators desperately moved goalposts in response to a backlash against Common Core.

There is much more to say about education in Tennessee in the Obama Era, both good and bad. But I fear that this blog is already too long. I have an endorsement to make for 2016!

Looking Ahead

This personal blog began with the first Bush Administration, while I was still in college, choosing to pursue a career in public education. I fully expect that my career could end with the next president, especially if she/he is re-elected in 2020.

My daughter will graduate college during the next presidential term. My eldest son will graduate high school (2019) and begin college, and my youngest son will enter high school next year. My reason for teaching is my own three kids--and wanting every Sumner County child to have the great education I want them to have. Moreover, 2024 will mark the 30th year since I entered the classroom, and while I will not have spent all 30 of those years teaching, I think that I will have learned and taught my fill by that point.

That's why this election is more about my kids for me than it is about my career, my school, or my district. I will go into my expectations, though, in my next blog, which will feature my education endorsement.