Education may have been mostly left out of this year's heated presidential election, but that hasn't stopped the current, outgoing president from shining a spotlight on his education record.
"We've made a lot of progress" on education, President Obama recently announced and pointed to record high school graduation rates of 83 percent as proof. Left-leaning operatives inside the Beltway were quick to capitalize on this announcement in order to start the campaign hailing Obama's education legacy.
Is this a narrative Democrats should hang their hats on as they approach the post-election period, which, with every passing day, looks like will usher in another Democratic party administration?
Every politician wants to be able to point to statistical proof of how effective their policies have been – how many jobs were created, money saved, crimes reduced, etc. Obama is no different in this regard.
But how good really are his education "numbers," and are Democrats talking about the education numbers that matter most?
What Do Education Numbers Mean?
As NPR reports, the president's first big number he pointed to in his recent address was this: "When I took office almost eight years ago, we knew that our education system was falling short … I said, by 2020 I want us to be No. 1."
What does it mean to be "number one" in education?
When people talk about who is number one in education, they most often point to Finland, which is the country that usually does best on international assessments.
So do we want to be like Finland, which has an economy one-eighteenth the size of ours, and where children don't even go to school until they're seven years old? I can't imagine we'll every see a candidate running for major office in the U.S. base a campaign on "the Finnish platform."
Nevertheless, Obama used the record high graduation rates to "tout his education initiatives," according to the NPR reporter.
Certainly it would seem that having more students graduate high school than seeing those percentages slipping is altogether a good thing. But it's not that simple.
As a reporter for Education Week explains, "Many states award a variety of different diplomas, some of which connote strong preparation for jobs and college, and some of which, um, don't. How much should we rejoice in more teenagers graduating from high school, when some of them have most certainly completed a watered-down course of study?"
That link the reporter includes leads to a study published earlier this year that found "47 percent, or almost half, of American high school graduates complete neither a college- nor career-ready course of study." The reporter also pointed evidence of school districts using "credit recovery programs" that shove potential high school dropouts into online learning sweatshops that provide a pathway to graduation that in no way resembles rigorous high school coursework.
And last year, when NPR dug into graduation numbers, the reporters found so many examples of "quick fixes" and efforts to game the system they concluded the final calculation, "isn't worth the paper it's printed on."
The implication here is that when you emphasize a numeric outcome, like graduation rates, and then provide incentives to raise those numbers, you're bound to produce more efforts to game the system and actually lower the quality of education.
Some Bad Numbers Too
This is not to say that we don't want to see more students graduating high school.
But if we're going to base education policy just on the numbers, we should look at some of the not so good numbers too.
For instance, according to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called "the nation's report card," academic achievement generally is declining under Obama's watch.
As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, for the first time since the federal government began administering the exams in 1990, math scores for fourth-graders and eighth-graders declined. Reading scores weren’t much better: Eighth-grade scores dropped while fourth-grade performance was stagnant compared with 2013, the last time the test was administered. Achievement gaps between white and minority students remain large.
But the education numbers that have worsened the most are those associated with what's being invested into the system rather than what's coming out of it.
Drawing from a new report on government spending on children, Bruce Lesley president of First Focus finds, "Federal support for education has dropped from a high of $74 billion in 2010 to $41 billion in 2015, a decline of more than 40 percent in the last five years … Federal education spending remains 9 percent lower than in pre-recession 2008.”
Beyond the support for education at the federal level, the picture is arguably even worse.
In its most recent report on spending on education, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds, "Thirty-five states provided less overall state funding per student in the 2014 school year (the most recent year available) than in the 2008 school year." Even in the states where local funding rose, the "increases rarely made up for cuts."
Local funding for schools, another significant share of education support, generally fell during the same time period. "In 36 states, total state and local funding combined fell between the 2008 and 2014 school years," the CBPP finds.
This steep decline in education funding is arguably the most significant threat to our children's education, and thus, the country's future.
According to a recent review of the research on the systemic correlation between education spending and school quality and student achievement, William Mathis and Kevin Welner, of the National Education Policy Center, find, "While specific results vary from place to place, in general, money does matter and it matters most for economically deprived children. Gains from investing in education are found in test scores, later earnings, and graduation rates."
In another review of research studies on the importance of adequate and equitable school funding, Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker writes, "To be blunt, money does matter. Schools and districts with more money clearly have greater ability to provide higher quality, broader, and deeper educational opportunities to the children they serve. Furthermore, in the absence of money, or in the aftermath of deep cuts to existing funding, schools are unable to do many of the things they need to do in order to maintain quality educational opportunities."
What Obama Never Got About Education
Emphasizing education output, while generally leaving input unaddressed, has been a feature, not a bug, of the Obama administration's education policy all along.
This was the administration whose signature programs, Race to the Top and the waivers to No child Left Behind, demanded states rate schools and teachers based on a "learning output," which most states took to mean student scores on standardized tests. The president's Education Department and Secretary Arne Duncan incentivized states to lift any restrictions on the number of charter schools in the system and provided significant grant money to expand their numbers. States were encouraged to spend vast sums of money on new systems to track output data and use them to sort and rank schools, evaluate teachers, label students, and force schools into turnaround efforts that would result in being subjected to even more scrupulous data tracking.
But while the Obama administration obsessed over output numbers, its attention to the inputs in the system was ad hoc and haphazard at best.
At the outset of his presidency, in response to the recession, Obama proposed $100 billion for education and got $787 from Congress. But most of that funding was used to shore up state cuts rather than keep pace with student growth and increasing needs. By 2010, federal outlays per student were already in decline and mostly never recovered.
Another big push from the Obama administration came in 2014 when he proposed $1 billion for early childhood education, but that ambitious plan was scaled back to a highly selective grant program instead.
One can argue that there are limits to what the federal government can do about states that inadequately fund education and that a Republican Congress would have blocked any attempt by the Obama administration to create more adequate and equitable education funding.
But the honest truth is Obama and his Education Secretary never made adequate and equitable funding a signature education policy imperative. It wasn't in the incentives and punishments written into RTTT. It wasn't in any of the demands for being granted a waiver to NCLB.
By 2010, many of the best minds in education policy – education historian Diane Ravitch, economist Richard Rothstein, and education researcher David Berliner – could already see that the Obama administration was on the wrong on education. In an overview of their remarks at the website of the Economic Policy Institute, the three experts describe Obama's education policies as "a lot like Bush policies."
“We've stopped worrying about inputs,” Berliner is quoted, “yet, what’s coming out of schools is still a function of those inputs.”
By 2016, in his final State of the Union, Obama spoke of only "five major concerns," as The Hechinger Report recounts. K-12 funding wasn't one of them
The legacy of the Obama administration on education will be mostly that he generally didn't get it.
Indeed the very place he, or his handlers, chose to tout his work on graduation rates was indicative of how little his administration understands the issue.
As education journalist Valerie Strauss observes on her blog for the Washington Post, Obama spoke at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, DC, a school that has a 100 percent graduation rate. Sounds impressive, until you consider how the school controls the conditions that lead to the such a stellar graduation rate.
As Strauss explains, "Banneker is a magnet school where students must apply to get in – but the only entry grades are ninth and tenth. And they must maintain a B- average to stay. Kids who can’t cut it leave, but that attrition isn’t counted against the school’s graduation rate."
That's not a vision of universal education we want passed down to the next administration.