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Obama's 'Corporate Education Reform': Leaving Teachers, Schools, and Students Behind

'Race to the Top' just another dead end for a meaningful public education strategy

Common Dreams staff

Though Obama's remarks on education (video) during Tuesday night's State of the Union address may have received applause from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, much of Congress, and plenty of 'corporate education reformers' watching on television, opponents of the market- and test-driven reforms found themselves once again shaking their heads.

After nearly a decade, the Bush administration's failed 'No Child Left Behind' initiative has given way to Obama's 'Race to the Top' program. Both, argue critics, though cloaked in friendly language and built on promises of renewed commitment to the nation's students, fall into the same trap of false solutions guided by short-sighted and selective critiques of public education.

Michelle Chen, at In These Times, writes:

The conversation about school reform in Washington is replete with big ideas--glossy proposals for “accountability,” putting the “students first,” fixing “broken” schools, all in hopes of making America “competitive” again.

Yet our schools are poorer than ever, and in many communities, the child poverty has deepened while test scores have stagnated. The experts leading the education reform debate have failed to draw a simple equation: a system with adequate resources does better than one without.

The gap in the logic has widened as state governments press school districts to conform to new standards--or else. States are gunning for a competitive grant fund known as “Race to the Top,” which the White House dangles as an incentive to restructure school systems. This hyped-up free-market reform rhetoric seeped into President Obama’s suggestion to “offer schools a deal” in his State of the Union address.

The No Child Left Behind corporate-style reform template emphasizes tests and evaluations, purging bad teachers, and shuttering failing schools.

The Nation's Dana Goldstein was "underwhelmed" by Obama's rhetoric. Though she appreciated his "effort to support accountability for teachers while dialing down the sometimes nasty rhetoric about the profession," ultimately concluded that his talk on teachers was most notable for what he left unsaid about the policies that guide his 'Race to the Top' initiative.

What Obama didn’t say is that he supports using student test scores to judge which teachers are effective. His administration has tied significant financial incentives to that priority, so states and districts are scrambling to create many more standardized tests to evaluate each and every teacher, including teachers of nontraditional subjects such as art, music and physical education, as well as teachers in the early grades, right down to kindergarten.

Many teachers’ unions have agreed in principle to these reforms, but the devil is in the details. Does President Obama believe multiple choice tests are the best kind of assessments, or will his Department of Education finally publish detailed guidelines that help states develop more sophisticated assessments? It can be difficult to balance test-based accountability with the sort of “creative, passionate” teaching the president says he supports, especially if teachers are so worried about raising test scores that they teach-to-the-test or—as we’ve unfortunately seen around the country—cheat, or are pressured by administrators to do so. In fact, in an acknowledgment of this problem, the Department of Education announced last week that it will host a symposium on best practices to root out adult cheating in public schools.

James Horn, at Schools Matter, was incredulous that Obama chose to include deceptive statistics about how teacher performance would improve future earnings of students:


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Using some of those Harvard econometrics from Raj Chetty, Obama [preceded] the ridiculous "escape from poverty" contention with this emerging statistic-meme:

We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000.

Even if this speculation could be practically demonstrated, which it can't, here's what it would mean.

So divide the $250,000 by 25 kids to a classroom (next year you can add 5 students to this number), then divide that by 45 years (next year add 5 years to that number), and you get a grand total of $222 per year per child. An "escape from poverty"? That won't even buy you an annual subway ride from the Bronx to Manhattan, much less an escape from poverty.

By the way, $222 is what Mitt Romney made every 5 minutes last year from his interest income of $22 million. So yes, Mr. President, do say more about income inequality and how teachers offer an escape from poverty. We're all listening.

The focus on teacher accountability has been the seminal force behind much of the 'corporate reform' movement.  It achieves the dual purpose of undermining teachers unions by fracturing teacher solidarity and further entrenching "standardized test-taking." These tests, once designed to evaluate student achievement, are now increasingly being used to 'evaluate' the performance of teachers. The problem? The tests have done little to improve the quality of education in schools, and say little about teacher performance.

What's worse? This focus on teachers allows the deeper problems in our education system to go unaddressed.

Michelle Chen's reporting helps make the point:

As for the underachieving teachers targeted by politicians, Stan Karp at Rethinking Schools points out that, compared to conventional evaluation systems, assessment programs that empower teachers go further to improve teaching quality. They key is “a school-wide sense of accountability and collective purpose”--in other words, treating teachers as democratic stakeholders, not preprogrammed robots.

But that’s not the kind of education system that corporate reformers envision, because it fosters values that challenge the free-market mentality they champion. Education activist Jim Horn told ITT:

The reason we have an achievement gap is because we have so many kids living in poverty. So raising standards is very cheap... You can raise standards and it won't cost you a nickel. To do something about poverty, however, is going to be a costly endeavor. But doing something about poverty is the only way to ever change the low performance by children in school.... Until that changes, the rest of it is going to be continuing to blame schools for something that schools are not responsible for and can never fix.

The real test facing public education today hinges on questions of social justice. But it’s easier and cheaper for politicians to ask the wrong questions, sell the wrong answers, and cheat the system they claim to fix.


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