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The Obama Legacy in Public Education: WAY Too Little… WAY Too Late

December 13, 2016

Nation education writer Dana Goldstein wrote a comprehensive and, to my way of thinking, mostly accurate synopsis of public education trends during the Obama presidency. She opened her article with a description of how Mr. Obama began his term of office aligning with the so-called “bi-partisan” reform group but conclude his term of office with a better understanding: he saw that public education’s problems could not be separated from the problem of childhood poverty:

Only since 2014 has there been a détente in what many, myself included, termed the “teacher wars.”Grassroots activism from the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as from tens of thousands of parents who opted their children out of standardized testing, helped shift the terms of the debate. We now talk almost as much about school discipline, unequal school funding, and school segregation as we do about low test scores and teacher tenure. It’s a profound change in rhetoric.

Ms. Goldstein speculated that this change in rhetoric would have continued had Ms. Clinton been elected, but is very pessimistic bout the chances that Mr. Trump will pick up on this line of thinking.

The article then detailed Mr. Obama’s horrific decision to institute Race to the Top, which is described in objective and deservedly critical terms:

Race to the Top told states and school districts that if they wanted a share of the $4 billion in discretionary federal dollars, they would need to evaluate teachers using “evidence of student learning” (generally, test scores). They would also need to weaken tenure protections to remove underperforming teachers; lift caps on the number of independently operated charter schools allowed to open; and “turn around” failing schools, sometimes by removing veteran teachers and principals or handing the schools over to charter operators. There were no new federal incentives for desegregating schools, or for equalizing funding between those that served rich and poor children.

“Given [that Obama] took office at the height of the recession,” says Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University, “the most surprising thing was that he didn’t acknowledge the poverty that schools were dealing with. [His administration] never said schools are overwhelmed by kids who are hungry, whose parents lost their homes, lost their jobs…. Instead, they kind of kept on the same path that Bush had been on, emphasizing standards and accountability and accelerating it by calling for more school closures, replacing teachers and principals. They seized on very simplistic solutions to complex problems.”

Test, punish, repeat. This was the algorithm recommended by the reformers, a group Ms. Goldstein mischaracterizes as “bi-partisan”. From my perspective this group was not partisan in any sense of the word. Instead, they were seeking some means of privatizing public education, creating an “open marketplace” to replace the “monopoly” because “everyone knows” that markets will reward the best and drive out the worst.

Ms. Goldstein then recapped the unintended consequences of Race to the Top, noting that by the time 2014 came around everyone associated with public education was dismayed by the emphasis on test scores (no surprise given that teacher’s employment often depended on test results), and both the right and the left opposed the Common Core that was the basis for the tests. The left hated it because it invariably led to narrow and dumbed-down tests, the right because it was an example of federal intrusion on local schools.

Ms. Goldstein’s biggest errors in reporting appear near the end of the article where she presents ESSA as legislation that will put an end to testing. She writes:

Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind. ESSA continues to require annual testing in reading and math, but removes pressure for all teachers to be evaluated using student test scores. The law asks states to judge school quality in new ways, by considering student-discipline policies and whether all kids have access to advanced courses.

With new research showing that poor children who attend schools with higher per-pupil funding outperform those whose schools have less cash, Obama has also sought to influence how states and municipalities fund schools. This year, he proposed a regulation that would withhold ESSA money from states and school districts that send more local dollars to schools serving affluent children than poor ones. Congressional Republicans and many local education officials from both parties are resisting the regulation, known as “supplement, not supplant.” It is simply impossible to imagine President-elect Trump, who campaigned on the premise of local control of education, continuing Obama’s fight on this front.

As readers of this blog know, I believe ESSA is grossly oversold as a means of eliminating and over-emphasizing testing. It removes pressure for all teachers to be evaluated using test scores based on a Federal mandate, but does not in any way discourage the use of tests to evaluate teachers and, given the preponderance of Republican Governors it is foolish to believe that there will be a wholesale abandonment of Value Added Measure. And without the supplement-vs-supplant” regulations there will be nothing to limit the use of federal funds to displace State and local funds.

I completely agree with Ms. Goldstein’s description of what went wrong with the Obama administration when it came to public education, but I don’t believe Mr. Obama EVER gave full-throated support to the notion that more money was needed to help children raised in poverty… nor did he ever give public educators, administrators, and Board members the credit they richly deserve for their hard work in the face of fiscal and psychological adversity. Mr. Obama offered way to little way too late….


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