Obama Gets It Right On Education – Really

Jeff Bryant

Last week, President Obama gave us a clear perspective of what’s wrong with current education policies and a positive vision for where they should be going.

In a townhall meeting, he lamented that current education policies have “piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids” that are too often used to “punish” students and schools. He expressed his fears that schools are responding to this test mania by “teaching to the test” and not educating their students about “different cultures” and “science,” while instead emphasizing “how to fill out a little bubble on an exam.”

He stated that instead of burdening young people with more and more tests, it was more important for schools to recognize that students are more apt to “do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.” And he explained that a more sensible role for tests would be similar to what his daughters Malia and Sasha recently experienced, where “it wasn’t a high-stakes test” but “a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.”

These remarks would appear to be common sense to anyone at all familiar with children. Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or just an interested party, you probably get that kids are more apt to learn when they are engaged in critical thinking and problem solving rather than “how to fill out a little bubble.” You want schools to offer a broad range of subjects because you want students to be prepared for the range of challenges they will face when they grow up. You understand that because learning is strongly influenced by emotions, it’s not a good idea to make students fearful by using test results to “punish” them with round after round of remedial work, or leaving them back altogether. And although testing can serve a worthy diagnostic purpose, it’s disruptive to students to put them into a “panic.”

Seems sensible. Yet his remarks created a firestorm in the education community.

First to tee-off was teacher and edu-blogger Anthony Cody who questioned, “Is President Obama aware . . . that Race to the Top requires states to tie teacher pay and evaluations to student test scores? If ever there was a recipe for teaching to the test, this is it!”

Historian and education advocate John Thompson commented at Huffington Post that “the problem is that the Obama Administration has pressured districts to double or even triple bubble-in testing, thus encouraging more of the educational malpractice that he has criticized.”

Author and progressive educator Deborah Meier noted, “In reality, the government is paying people to invent more bubble tests for the untested subjects (art, science, physical education), and we’re giving these not just annually, but four, five, six, 10 times a year to see if teachers are keeping up the needed pace, not to mention to determine how some of those teacher will get paid!”

When officials from the Department of Education attempted to clarify Obama’s remarks, the discussion got pretty deep into the weeds, as illustrated by this online exchange between Cody and Arne Duncan’s Press Secretary Justin Hamilton.

Although you should read the above link, the short version is that the whole controversy boils down to just one word: “accountability.” The form of accountability being enforced on schools today – by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top – bears very little resemblance to what the President appears to want for his children. Rather than repeatedly sending his kids through cow chute after cow chute of required tests, the “accountability” that the President is apparently looking for is more apt to be based on other feedback, such as whether his children are engaged, whether they’re keeping up with daily assignments, what is the nature of the curriculum being taught, and how well the teacher appears to understand the needs of his children.

Because the President’s version of accountability bears very little resemblance to what’s currently being enforced on schools, it doesn’t mean he’s letting the school off the hook. Most parents, in general, actually approve of their local schools and believe that schools are giving their children a better education than they had. And parents generally have decidedly mixed feelings about NCLB and high-stakes tests. So does that mean they aren’t for “accountability?” Of course not.

But listen carefully to what officials from the Department of Education are saying and what you hear is that it doesn’t particularly matter what parents want their schools to be accountable for – even when that parent happens to be the most powerful person in the world. Instead, what matters is whether technocrats operating in some basement inside the Beltway can tell that schools in inner city Chicago are being accountable.

In other words, the argument isn’t about how to make schools that the Obamas send their kids to more “accountable.” It’s all about creating more accountable schools for “those kids” – you know, children who tend to perform poorly on standardized tests because they don’t understand English very well, they have learning problems they can’t help, or they have other difficulties, usually attributable to being raised in poverty.

As Richard Kahlenberg has observed, quoted most recently in Bob Herbert’s next to last column for the New York Times, “95% of education reform is about trying to make separate schools for rich and poor work.” And because there’s little doubt that many schools serving mostly poor and minority children are indeed in deep trouble, there’s broad agreement that the primary focus of education policy needs to be aimed at improving these schools.

So is the technocrats’ version of accountability actually doing that? Unfortunately, no. According to the diagnostic test that’s most widely relied upon, academic progress has in fact slowed since the law was implemented, and there’s widespread evidence that states responded to tougher test impacts simply by lowering the bar for passing.

The Civil Rights Project has conducted studies of the effects of the accountability movement in six states and has found that “it does not make much sense either as a managerial or an educational strategy. It has very good intentions but often sanctions those institutions where progress is most difficult and most urgently needed rather than offer the kind of help that could really make a difference.”

The problem, as they see it, is that enforcing accountability assumes that “children are falling behind very largely because educators don‘t care enough and that deadlines and strong sanctions imposed by the federal government can cure the problem.” But what tends to happen is that the accountability mandate “often punishes schools that are making a positive difference for students, discouraging the staff and undermining future prospects for the school,” and it “produces a strong focus on tactics that create a semblance rather than reality of success.” Their recommendation is that new policies should be designed “around real educational experience” that use “what research has shown about the sources of educational inequality.”

Not only is there evidence that the technocrat’s version of accountability is bad for education, it also appears to be detrimental to society at large. According to another report, high-stakes testing and the systems of rewards and punishments embedded in current education policies lead to “practices that push K-12 students out of schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, with especially alarming effects on students of color and youth with disabilities.”

Clearly, calls for more tests aren’t going to solve the problem. And those who whine “but tests are all we have” are severely mistaken. For years, educators have been begging political leaders to support them in using more authentic and sensible alternatives to high-stakes standardized tests. But accountability mandates have swept that aside.

So what would it take for policy wonks in the Education Department and DC-area thinktanks to change their minds? After all, former standardization proponent Diane Ravitch changed her mind after weighing all the evidence. So do you think we can make that happen if we all just get behind President Obama and help him push his education department toward policies that are more in tune with what he believes in?

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