Q) You know the history of education policy -- and the effects -- as well or better than anyone. What are the biggest mistakes the Obama administration is making right now?
A) The biggest mistake they have made is that they bought into the consensus around high-stakes testing, this NCLB belief that someone must be punished if scores don’t rise every year, especially "bad" teachers. They adopted Republican ideas about accountability and choice, and they have used Race to the Top to promote more privately managed schools and more high-stakes testing.
Living outside the Beltway, I am struck by the fact that the education think tanks in DC are like an echo chamber. Almost all share the "consensus," and because they agree with one another, they think they are right. The Obama administration bought into that consensus, and seems utterly tone-deaf to how their agenda is received outside the Beltway.
Teachers -- not just union leaders -- are unhappy, frustrated, and demoralized. So are parents, because they don’t like the high-stakes testing regime either. They don’t like that their children are losing time for the arts, science, history, geography, physical education, foreign languages, and everything that is not tested. They may not be well-informed, yet they know that their children are missing out on a good education.
Q) Have you met with any Obama administration officials? Members of Congress? What do you say? What did they say?
A) I was recently invited to meet with high-level administration officials in the White House. I told them my concerns. I told them what I have heard from teachers and parents. They told me I was misinformed. I think they should listen more to the grassroots, not just to the think tanks and the media. Over the past few weeks, I have met with many Democratic members of Congress. I have met some really impressive members who understand how destructive the current "reform" movement is. Many agree with me that the emphasis on evaluating teachers will simply produce more teaching to the test, more narrowing the curriculum, more gaming the system. They have heard from their constituents, and they don’t like what is going on.
But frankly, these same Congressmen and women tell me that they are probably helpless to stop the President’s agenda. The Democratic leadership will give the President and Secretary Duncan what they want, and they will have the support of Republicans. That leaves the Democrats in a quandary. They were not happy to see Secretary Duncan campaigning for his approach with Newt Gingrich. Maybe it will turn out to be a winning strategy for Secretary Duncan. He may get what he wants. It just won’t be good for American education or our kids.
Q) When the administration officials told you you were mistaken, what did they say you were mistaken about?
A) I asked why they are pushing states to increase the number of charter schools, when studies and NAEP show that charters don’t get better results on average than regular public schools; they said they are not pushing states to increase the number of charter schools. I was incredulous because many states lifted their charter caps in hopes of getting RTTT money. When I asked if they thought it was a good idea for state legislatures to set professional standards for evaluating teachers, they again disclaimed any connection with what states are doing to get RTTT money, even though the administration wrote the criteria and the states are responding to them.
Q) If you got a chance to talk to President Obama, what would you tell him?
A) I would urge him to change course before it is too late. I would tell him that charter schools in the aggregate don’t get better results than regular public schools. I would tell him that his push to have teachers evaluated by student test scores is wrong, and that standards for evaluation should be designed by professionals, not by politicians. I would urge him to stop using language of failing, punishing, closing, and firing and speak instead of improving, building, supporting, and encouraging.
I would urge him to think about ways of strengthening American public education because it is one of the foundational elements of our democracy. I would urge him to speak about the importance of a strong curriculum for all kids in every school, one that includes the arts, history, literature, foreign languages, civics, economics, physical education, science, and mathematics. I would urge him to recognize that high-stakes testing in basic skills steals time from everything else that should be taught and that it is thus undermining education. I would also implore him not to recommend testing every other subject, as there would soon be no time for instruction, only testing.
Q) Do you think there will be political consequences for the administration’s education policy?
A) The administration’s alienation of teachers is a really bad idea politically. There are four million teachers, and they vote. They have families. There are retired teachers, who care deeply about our public education system. The President is heading into a tough mid-term election. I don’t see the point of cultivating Republicans and endorsing their agenda of privatization and tough accountability, because they won’t vote for him anyway. And I don’t see the point of disrespecting public school teachers, who are one of his core constituencies.