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

Friday, July 30, 2010

Obama: Splitting the Difference Between "No Excuses" and "Yes You Can?"

Comments by Monty Neill:

Comments on Obama's talk to the Urban League, July 29, 2010
In this speech, Obama talks about having an "honest conversation." Too often, however, his talk is simply not honest. This was a disturbing and angering talk, even if it was rather as expected.
Here are some excerpts from the speech with my comments -- his excerpts are quoted. The speech is not paginated; his comments on education start ¼ - 1/3 way through.
Monty Neill, FairTest

"I remember going to a school back in my organizing days and seeing children -- young children, maybe five or six -- eyes were brimming with hope, had such big dreams for the future.  You'd ask them, what do you want to be when you grow up?  They'd want to be a doctor; they'd want to be a lawyer.  And then I remember the principal telling me that soon, all that would change.  The hope would start fading from their eyes as they started to realize that maybe their dreams wouldn't come to pass -- not because they weren't smart enough, not because they weren't talented enough, but because through a turn of fate they happened to be born in the wrong neighborhood.  They became victim of low expectations, a community that was not supporting educational excellence."

That last sentence is the sort of slipperiness that needs careful attention. It may be true as far as it goes, but that is not far. Check out inadequate housing (including lead paint) and homelessness; lousy jobs, lousy-paying jobs, and joblessness; structural continuing racism; inadequate health care; largely non-responsive government; corporations whose lust for profits leads to mass social destruction. Every one of these may well be more important that teacher low expectations -- never mind when put together.
And that sentence ignores the systematic under-resourcing of those schools by local, state and federal governments -- as if 'communities' -- some urban neighborhood facing poverty and its consequences -- are the problem in a lack of 'educational excellence.' This slipperiness leads to claims that civil rights can be attained virtually solely by a focus on schools, even while failing to fund them adequately.
Of course he defends RTTT even though its main tenets are not backed up by any evidence, as FEA, the civil rights groups and the community groups all point out. He simply asserts that because states are doing (were stampeded/bribed into doing) what Duncan wanted, they are automatically improving. Who needs evidence?

"I told you we're going to have an honest conversation... First, I know there's a concern that Race to the Top doesn't do enough for minority kids, because the argument is, well, if there's a competition, then somehow some states or some school districts will get more help than others.  Let me tell you, what's not working for black kids and Hispanic kids and Native American kids across this country is the status quo.  That's what's not working.  (Applause.)  What's not working is what we've been doing for decades now."

First this avoids the real issue raised by civil rights groups, the lack of necessary resources and the misuse of competitive grants. Next is an all-too-typical maneuver -- defending whatever you are doing by saying what is happening now is not working. In some ways quite obviously the current is not working well, though the diagnosis Obama offers is wrong and self-serving to his administration (first quote above). The obligation when things are not going well is to do things that have a plausible chance of working better and that won't make things worse. Much of RTTT fails on both counts.
It's true that RTTT applications require addressing low-scoring schools, mostly serving poor kids of color -- but that is the four models for turnarounds that are so bad that both parties in both houses of Congress are clearly rejecting them. So he is slipping from the rhetoric of "do something" into defending what cannot be defended with actual evidence.
He goes on with a litany of things he wants for teachers, whom he calls the central focus on reforms (like meritless pay for boosting test scores, I suppose). First, the focus on teachers has become both an excuse to ignore poverty, and second an excuse to attack teachers. Second, what he calls for cost -- and the money it would really take to do them is not going to be available, even more so now that Obama has said he agrees with Republicans and conservative Democrats the US cannot expand deficits with expanded programs -- even as he expands military spending. Note also his language is all about "I want," not what his administration will fight to do.

"But all I'm asking in return -- as a President, as a parent, and as a citizen -- is some measure of accountability." 

No, not 'some kind,' but high stakes test-based accountability of a sort that does NOT apply to the school to which he sends his daughters (so much for 'as a parent.')
"So, for anyone who wants to use Race to the Top to blame or punish teachers -- you're missing the point.  Our goal isn't to fire or admonish teachers; our goal is accountability." 

So blame states for doing what Duncan clearly signaled he wanted them to do? And does Obama think people forget both he and Duncan applauded firing more than half the teachers in Central Falls, RI? Or the refusal by Duncan to allow even one strongly evaluated, widely liked principal in VT to keep her job by offering even one waiver (as Mike Winerip recounted in the Times)? One size does fit all to these folks -- and it is about firing. Also, with the discussion of removing teachers, including test-score gain models (we should stop referring to this as "growth" as if it were a person), evidence continues to roll in, most recently from the federal government itself, that such models are not ready for prime time (see Valerie Strauss Answer Sheet and the links from it, especially to Baker's comments.
After vague, general comments about standards in other nations, he moves on to testing:

"And part of making sure our young people meet these high standards is designing tests that accurately measure whether they are learning.  Now, here, too, there's been some controversy.  When we talk about testing, parents worry that it means more teaching to the test.  Some worry that tests are culturally biased. Teachers worry that they'll be evaluated solely on the basis of a single standardized test.  Everybody thinks that's unfair.  It is unfair.

"But that's not what Race to the Top is about.  What Race to the Top says is, there's nothing wrong with testing --- we just need better tests applied in a way that helps teachers and students, instead of stifling what teachers and students do in the classroom.  Tests that don't dictate what's taught, but tell us what has been learned.  Tests that measure how well our children are mastering essential skills and answering complex questions.  And tests that track how well our students are growing academically, so we can catch when they're falling behind and help them before they just get passed along."

As rhetoric, some of this sounds good. In fact, RTTT uses existing tests that embody the flaws Obama points to. Even if the new tests to be produced by multi-state consortia are better, as they might be, that won't be till at least 2014-15. And based on my review of their proposals, they will only be marginally better. They won't really do what Obama says he wants them to be able to do. They may well both "stifle" and "dictate." It will take a lot more than a limited number of possibly somewhat better tests to overcome the destructive consequences of imposed high-stakes testing, and this speech makes clear that they want high-stakes standardized testing to continue.
Then he is back to defending the four turnaround models. He follows Duncan in calling for "good charters," even though the Department has no criteria to ensure good charters prevail and bad ones do not. Once again we get the single example (here in MA some of those examples are profoundly flawed, BTW.) And he avoids addressing the issues raised by the Civil Rights groups in their statement.

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