Obama’s big second-term education problem

by Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, April 28, 2013

President Obama has a big problem in his second term in terms of education policy: his first term.

Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, pushed hard in their first term to have a major impact on changing public schools with a larger-than-ever federal role in school policy issues that affected every single classroom in the country. And they did, with rare bipartisan support.

They borrowed tactics from the corporate world, setting up the competitive Race to the Top initiative, in which states competed for federal funds by promising to implement specific reforms. Those included new accountability systems that linked teacher evaluation to student standardized test scores, new standards that became known as the Common Core initiative, and an expansion of charter schools. Only 11 states and the District of Columbia won in the $4.3 billion state Race competitions, but other states, in hopes of winning some of the cash, signed on to these reforms, too. The administration’s attempt at leveraging the money they had to get more bang for their buck worked.

In 2008, Obama campaigned on rewriting the 2002 No Child Left Behind law — which was supposed to be done in 2007 because even its authors knew it had to be improved due to its unrealistic requirement that nearly all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. But Obama couldn’t do it without Congress, which could never get its act together to rewrite the act, so Duncan issued waivers from the most onerous NCLB requirements to states that agreed to pursue his brand of school reform.

The administration gave many millions of dollars to other competitive grants too, and supported organizations such as Teach For America. There was money for an initiative called Promise Neighborhoods, intended to provide health, safety and support services in high-poverty neighborhoods, but these funds were competitive, too, and there was far less money for this than for Race to the Top.

And in an extraordinary bipartisan appearance in 2011, Obama shared the stage in Miami with former Florida Republican governor Jeb Bush and declared him a “champion” of public education. Obama did this at the very same time that Wisconsin teachers were fighting their Republican governor’s effort to strip them of most of their collective bargaining rights.

The agenda was ambitious, designed to shake up the status quo — and it did. But it has had major consequences for schools, students, teachers, principals and superintendents — some of them clearly unintended, and they threaten to consume Obama’s second-term education policy agenda.

Why? However fine the intentions were of the Obama administration officials, critics say that the reforms were not well thought out, not based in solid research and were rushed into implementation. They also say that the totality of the reforms have ignored the most basic problem in public education: equity in educational opportunity. Students from wealthy families continue to do far better than middle-class and lower-class families — and that gap keeps growing….

continue reading at Washington Post


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