"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Critical Analysis: EPIC's William Mathis on Obama Education Initiatives

From William Mathis, recently named as managing director of Education in the Public Interest Center:

Unfulfilled Promises: Obama's Education Initiatives

Educators endured the Bush administration's harsh criticism of public schools and fervently prayed that the new administration would develop a reform agenda that moved away from condemnation, criticism and privatization. Giddy hopes were raised with Obama’s pre-election promises that "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) would be less test-based, less federally dictated and properly funded.

Eclipsed by health care, the economy, and two wars, education policy has received little national attention. Meanwhile, NCLB remains the law of the land even though deeply unpopular across the political spectrum. House education chairman and NCLB architect George Miller (D-CA), pronounced the law the most hated brand in the nation. Consequently, it has become "the law that shall not be named." Unfortunately, rather than fulfilling campaign promises, Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan, have piled on more federal impositions. Historian Diane Ravitch, an education official in the first Bush administration, said Obama has given George W. Bush a third term on education.

Mike Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute labeled the Obama initiatives, "NCLB2: The Carrot that Feels Like a Stick." To receive funds, the administration has asked for "assurances" that the stimulus money will be used to advance its agenda. "Assurances" means more mandates on schools. What prompted Petrilli's comment was the requirement that states wanting discretionary money must adopt policies facilitating the of use test scores in teacher evaluations.

The Bush parallel is perhaps most discouraging due to the unfulfilled campaign promise to adequately fund NCLB. Once the temporary bump of stimulus money is gone, funds for economically deprived children are actually reduced. Historically underfunded special education is stagnant. When the money runs out, Vermont and other states that raided the stimulus money to balance the books will face fiscal crises far greater than today’s troubles.

In language startlingly similar to Bush's former secretary, Rod Paige, the administration says they have put "unprecedented funds" behind their initiatives. In their "Race to the Top," they have set aside $4 billion in discretionary spending, which sounds like a lot of money. As a percentage of total education spending, however, it is less than one percent. With over 70 different state-level studies showing that addressing the needs of our neediest children would cost 40% to 60% more per student, that's a very small tail wagging a very big dog.

What are the innovations being hawked by Obama and Duncan? Oddly, they are mostly carry-overs from Republican administrations. A center-piece is to ask states to lift caps on minimally regulated, free-market charter schools. Less regulation caused serious damage to the economy and the research consensus fails to support its growth in the education sector. The federal government's own studies do not show charters as promising reform avenues. Some major studies actually show charter schools producing lower test scores. For example, a 14 state study out of a Stanford research center reported that 17% of charters did better than public schools, while 37% did worse. The reason that charters do no better, and frequently do worse, than public schools is that they do not provide the promised innovations, have higher turnover and less qualified staff. Also clearly emerging from the findings is that charter schools segregate by wealth and race. It is troublesome that our leaders who promised to be "evidence-based" have not based their initiatives on the evidence.

Another administration idea is to eliminate local school boards in favor of mayoral control of schools. The idea is that a strong leader, given sufficient power, will turn schools around. But since there is little positive evidence supporting this idea, and since it has the disadvantage of eliminating democratically elected governance, it is immensely controversial. In Chicago, where education secretary Arne Duncan was the mayoral appointed "CEO" (rather than superintendent), the Commercial Club's study concluded that any improvements registered were due to changes in the state test and even these gains dissipated by high school.

Parents, citizens and educators get it. They look at their local school and know that basic skills are being taught, children learn to work with each other, and that education is a far broader and richer thing than test scores. They know, too, that meaningful reform requires dedication and investment, not quick-fix, bumper-sticker solutions. Unfortunately the new administration seems to have learned little from the past, buying into the educational equivalent of get-rich-quick schemes whose primary support comes from pseudo-research propagated by ideological think tanks. That is not what candidate Obama promised.

William J. Mathis is managing director of the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He resides in Goshen, VT.
But people are organizing against and voicing questions about the various reform proposals. Keep your eye on Mathis and his colleagues at EPIC, Gerald Bracey, Substance News, Susan Ohanian and Susan's StopNationalStandards campaign.

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