Guest Column: Obama on Education -- A-Plus Values, F-Minus Policies

Roughly once a year or so, I turn this column space over to a guest author. This usually happens when a point of view is presented to me either in public comments or private emails which has impressed me. I haven't always completely agreed with these points of view, but have thought that they deserved a wider audience because the writing was so thoughtful and the reasoning so impressive. Other times, I do heartily agree with the guest author. But sometimes the author writes on subjects which I don't feel qualified myself to tackle. Today, I am once again turning my column over to a group of three authors who have a point to make -- a point that lies mostly outside my experience, which is why I don't comment on it very often: the state of education in America, and how politics relates to it.

The first of the authors of the following piece is well-known to us here, as he was one of the first guest authors to ever appear in this column. Joshua Eisenstein, Ph.D., took me to task during the 2008 Democratic primary season for writing an article suggesting "How Obama Could Wrap It Up". Eisenstein challenged me to write a companion article about Hillary Clinton, but his comments and suggestions as to how to write such an article impressed me so much that I invited him to write his own column, "How Hillary Could Win Fair (And Lock Up The General Election Too!)" -- which is still worth reading for his excellent point of view.

Campaign season aside, though, Eisenstein recently challenged me once again to write about President Obama and his "Race To The Top" education policy, after the release of the movie Waiting For Superman. Eisenstein is not only a doctor of educational psychology but also a civics teacher in a large public school district, so he had a much more experienced take on the subject than I could have managed. He is joined in writing this article by educational expert Miriam Ebsworth, Ph.D., and research librarian Vedana Vaidhyanathan, M.S.L.S.

-- Chris Weigant


Obama on Education -- A-Plus Values, F-Minus Policies

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many of the nation's 7.2 million teachers sighed in relief, convinced that the Bush-era education policies were over. After all, Obama was a smart man who seemed to really "get" what education was about. Educators thought he understood the need for wiser funding, as well as the futility of constant high-stakes standardized testing. The soon-to-be president said, "We could have made a real commitment to a world-class education for our kids, but instead we passed 'No Child Left Behind', a law that ... left the money behind and alienated teachers and principals instead of inspiring them."

As a candidate, Obama did inspire. He planned to hold all individuals equally accountable for their part in the process, to base his decisions on sound research and scientific data. He said he wanted to add successful charter schools as a companion to public schools, as well as provide public school teachers with better conditions and resources. He inspired educators to want to innovate and once again become a means to achieve social justice for the poor. In short, Obama instilled teachers with hope. Unfortunately, the administration's policies since then have had just the opposite effect.


Obsessed With The Test

First, President Obama not only kept but expanded the use of high-stakes standardized achievement testing. Such tests are not inherently bad, but they have been stretched far beyond their intended use. As an occasional diagnostic or screening measure, norm-referenced achievement tests can be useful to identify high- or low-performing students. But "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) under President Bush used tests to measure short-term (annual) student learning, to decide whether or not to pass the student to the next grade, and to judge the overall quality of a school. For these uses the tests are not valid. A teacher can make a crucial difference in a child's life, but this influence may not show up on a test after just a few months. Researchers frequently emphasize that multiple measures of different types are needed to measure student progress.

But despite initial words to the contrary, the policies of the current administration persist in spreading the fallacy of standardized test results as the sum total of a child's short-term learning gains. Instead of eliminating the unreliable, invalid uses of such tests, they have added more. The latest addition is the "Value-Added" formula, supposedly used to measure the contributions of individual teachers.

Even most researchers involved with the Value-Added approach admit (as education policy researcher Gerald Bracey wrote), "that it cannot permit causal inferences about individual teachers." In 2008, Obama himself referred to this kind of approach to teacher evaluation as "a big mistake." But the actual Obama policy, as implemented, does exactly what Obama the candidate warned against, and the results can be dire. On the sole basis of a standardized test taken by students, the president's policy punishes schools and teachers whose students do not perform with a lower pay scale, and in some states, termination.


Where's The Evidence?

Obama's policies assume that norm-referenced testing after short periods of time gives meaningful results about student achievement. His "data-driven" policy, taken straight from the Bush agenda, is not scientific at all. Education is a long term, non-linear process that includes the child, parents, context, community, and available resources, as well as schools and teachers. Scientific research looks at all these factors contributing to the learning process. While good teachers are indeed important, their presence is rarely enough to overcome poverty, an unsafe and unhealthy home environment, little experience with reading, poor nutrition, and destructive peer groups.

Candidate Obama's idea of "innovation districts," where 20 selected school systems would re-organize to foster higher student achievement, was a good one. Also he suggested using federal money for smaller class sizes and pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) education, strategies with proven long-term results. But did any of the billions of Obama's "Race to the Top" dollars go toward shrinking class size or installing better Pre-K? No. Instead, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan actually urged "targeted increases in class size," and Obama's new policy ignores high-quality pre-kindergarten, which expert Marci Young calls, "The most rigorously evaluated and effective education reform of the last half-century."

This raises the question: If Obama does not want to spend money on well-researched, well-documented methods of achieving positive educational results, what does he want to spend it on? Based on the evidence, the answer is even more standardized testing, and for-profit charter schools.


Superman and Other "Miracles"

This fall brought us Waiting for Superman, a much-hyped documentary, which tells us the main problem in education is "bad teachers." The solution proposed is to have more privately-run, non-union charter schools. The film suggests that poor public schools should be taken over by private charters, which would be free of the constraints put on public schools by labor regulations and union contracts.

Other public services have been privatized and deregulated, and the results have rarely met with approval outside of a corporate boardroom. Yet, the public is presently lapping up the very same narrative about education. This may be because it is a bipartisan effort. Perhaps it is also due to charismatic "reformers," like former Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, Michelle Rhee. She is celebrated by the media but rarely reviewed for accuracy or scrutinized to see whether or not her proposals really serve the best interests of schoolchildren.

When Secretary Duncan was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, his techniques mirrored the thesis of Waiting for Superman. He closed public schools, fired veteran faculty, and opened a host of new, publicly-funded charter schools. Because some students' test scores seemed to go up, this was dubbed the "Chicago Miracle." But these supposedly miraculous data -- much like data on standardized testing -- had not been scientifically investigated. This, just like George Bush's similarly named "Texas Miracle," is now turning out to be largely an illusion.

For starters, charter schools tend to have certain unfair advantages over public schools. Poorly-behaved students can be kicked out. Students who progress slowly can be encouraged to leave. Students whose parents are not actively engaged in their education never bother to apply. Yet, even with all these advantages, 83% of charters don't do any better than neighboring public schools, and 37% do worse! What of the 17% that perform better? They tend to share certain qualities: they have highly-effective principals, apparatus to connect with the students' families and communities, and large, privately-funded budgets. These advantages, when shared by public schools, would yield the same or better results.

So, did Secretary Duncan conduct a nationwide search to recruit the best and most knowledgeable principals? Did he fund community-building for existing schools? "Innovation" seems to mean giant hand-outs to districts that privatize and deregulate. President Obama's 20 test cases became billions of dollars in federal incentives, and doing the research first to evaluate what works seems to have gone out the window -- along with briefcases full of cash.


Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

In August, 2010, Congress rolled out a $26 billion emergency package, ostensibly to "save the jobs" of public employees, including teachers. There were two problems with this. One, it did not fix the system. Without addressing wide-spread, massive waste at the top of the pay scale, it was nothing but a gigantic pork barrel for test companies and charter organizations. Two, it was funded partly by cutting food stamps.

Increasing the consequences of poverty is never a benefit to education. The culture of poverty in the U.S. is an impediment to learning that reaches into the classroom. Based on the 2009 results for the Program for International Student Assessment, an international evaluation of basic skills in different countries, the U.S. seemed to perform about average. But researcher Stephen Krashen reports that areas in the U.S. with 25% or fewer students on free or reduced-price lunch programs performed comparably with the top 3 countries, while areas with 75% or more on free or reduced-price lunch programs performed poorly. Poverty has long been recognized as the single greatest hindrance to student performance in the U.S.

Waiting for Superman, however, tries to convince viewers that poverty is less harmful to students than poor teachers and the unions that protect them. This is untrue but alluring, since it gives people scapegoats to which they can all relate. After all, many people have never seen the consequences of poverty, while nearly all have at some time or another suffered through poor teaching. The film (and others like it) point at "tenure" as a cause of poor student performance, insinuating that it protects "bad teachers" from fair and just accountability. Firstly, competent principals do fire poor teachers, no matter how long they have been around. We know multiple principals who have; it just takes hard work and good documentation. Tenure only guarantees due process.

Secondly, countless competent teachers are falsely accused, improperly evaluated, given an unreasonable course load or assigned the most challenging students. Any or all of these may result in lower student test scores, through no fault of the teacher. Unfair treatment can be personal, political, based on prejudice, or to make room for a friend or political ally. It happens for standing up to malevolent students and parents, or supporting a student who has been treated unfairly by the school. As in the case of Patrick Williams, a highly decorated Miami-Dade teacher, sometimes it happens when you ask too many questions about how a principal spent the school's grant money.

Teachers' unions, although they may have flaws, mainly fight for good working conditions for teachers, which happen to be nearly-identical to good learning conditions for children. We do not believe it is a coincidence that the highest-achieving states also have the strongest unions. Yet, all evidence suggests that the president and his Secretary of Education both seem intent on making unions weaker.

If you doubt this, consider the case of Rhode Island's Central Falls High School. The school -- high in poverty and non-native English speakers -- wasn't getting high enough test scores, and was labeled "failing." This past April, the district insisted teachers there must work more without compensation. The union refused, and the district responded not only by closing the school, but by firing all 90 teachers and support staff who worked there. President Obama came out publicly in support of that decision as "accountability."

The president's response defended the district and spurned each individual teacher that was fired. Did he meet with each of the teachers or observe their classrooms? Even presuming the test data were valid (which most educators and scientists do not), indiscriminate mass-firing in a labor dispute is a tactic of intimidation. Imagine the AMA response if the president's words were directed toward doctors at an under-funded medical clinic who didn't cure enough of their poor patients, or the reaction of the ABA if a municipality fired attorneys who took on the poorest clients and didn't win enough! In December of 2010, the students of Central Falls staged a walkout to criticize the district for unfairly blaming teachers for the school's troubles. If the students themselves are supporting their teachers, why isn't the President of the United States?



The Obama administration has taken ideas from the 2008 campaign and transformed them into pro-corporate education policy. The senator who said education was a means to social justice became a president whose policies funnel billions of education dollars to charter schools and testing companies. Instead of eliminating administrative waste, this policy removes and sends to corporations the education money that pays for everything else, including teachers, classrooms, desks, photocopies and textbooks.

Candidate Obama said that we should use the data based on scientific research. President Obama seems to base policies on his own preferences and uses pseudo-science to justify them. His administration has ignored actual scientific research and the policies that the research supports, namely education based on:

  • High quality Pre-K
  • Highly-engaged, effective principals
  • Smaller class sizes
  • Family and community support
  • Rewarding teachers who are educated, experienced, and work with the neediest students, not firing them or cutting pay based on invalid, unscientific data
  • Assessment that is process-oriented and based on multiple measures and methods, not mainly a single standardized test.

Rather than implement any of the above, real teaching has continued to be replaced by test preparation. Meanwhile, teachers are frightened because their jobs are being increasingly cut, based on factors beyond their control and unrelated to the quality of their work. The president should be smart enough to realize that the above reforms have been proven by research, and would be more effective than the profit-driven privatization, deregulation and scapegoating that have characterized the Race To The Top policy.

President Barack Obama must somehow be made aware of the levels of panic and despair his policies have caused among educators. In spite of these policies, teachers around the country have done their best, and still look to him for leadership. As long as it is fair and in the best interests of the students, the president must know that teachers are willing to make a difficult change. However, as Obama's current policies continue to prove neither fair nor in the best interests of students, how willing to change is he?


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post