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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Obama Shows Spunk Pushing Brave Education Plan

Aug.12 (Bloomberg) — Although President Barack Obama is on the ropes, with even some Democratic allies describing him as weak and passive, this week he showed boldness and imagination in one vital area: education.

Obama backed Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s announcement that he will grant waivers to states that want to be excused from the punitive provisions of No Child Left Behind , Washington’s much-maligned 2002 overhaul of elementary and secondary education policy.

Republican lawmakers complain that the White House waivers run roughshod over the legislative branch — and they’re right. But gridlock demands more robust use of presidential authority and, at least in this case, we’re getting it. Unless Duncan’s action is challenged and reversed on constitutional grounds, No Child Left Behind will be left behind for good.

Under Obama, education was supposed to be fertile ground for bipartisan compromise. That’s because Obama has executed a “Nixon to China” maneuver; only a Democratic president can successfully take on the teachers unions, and the president has done so in a shrewd way that avoids teacher bashing and keeps the lines of communication with the unions (big backers of Democrats) open.

Republican lawmakers broadly endorse Obama’s policies, but they’re philosophically committed to less federal involvement in education and politically committed to opposing the president whenever possible. So they’ve dragged their feet on reauthorizing NCLB, as have Senate Democrats who can’t agree on how to move a bill.

Duncan’s waivers, which are good for four years, actually enhance local control while ensuring greater accountability. But it’s a different kind of local control and a different vision of accountability than we’ve seen before.

Obama and Duncan are selling something ambitious –a new relationship between Washington and the states. The idea is to set high education standards, then let states figure out how to meet them. “We want to give them a lot more flexibility, get out of their way and let them hit that higher bar,” Duncan said last week.

Some Republican governors, such as Mitch Daniels of Indiana, joined Democratic governors in praising the plan. They and just about everyone else connected to American education are frustrated that so many schools are deemed “failing” under NCLB, even when they aren’t.

There’s a racial subtext to all this. The most common reason schools receive a failing grade is that minority students don’t perform well, dragging down a school’s scores. Duncan’s waivers will require continued focus on the achievement gap between whites and minorities, yet introduce more sophisticated accountability standards that set realistic goals for improvement.

While it deserves credit for bringing accountability into American education, NCLB inadvertently provided incentives to states to dumb down standards so that fewer schools would fail. Tennessee, for instance, was “lying to children, lying to parents,” as Duncan put it, in 2008 when state tests showed 91 percent of its children proficient in math. When Tennessee, under pressure from Washington, replaced those tests with legitimate ones the following year, only 34 percent of students proved proficient.

To underscore the urgent need for action, Duncan warned this spring that with NCLB’s standards, 80 percent of the nation’s 100,000 schools could soon be deemed failures under the law’s crude pass-fail system, which goes by the most dreaded acronym in American education: AYP — Adequate Yearly Progress.

A more accurate assessment of schools suggests that about 40 percent are headed for a failing grade, but the point remains: NCLB isn’t working. It penalizes schools for circumstances beyond their control — like the poor preparation of incoming students — and sets standards that tens of thousands of schools cannot meet. Expecting all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, as the law dictates, is a fantasy.

Duncan and Obama rightly believe that there is middle ground between what President George W. Bush memorably called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and pie-in-the-sky demands for proficiency. They favor replacing AYP with more sensible evaluations of classroom teachers, who will be judged partly on whether their students have shown improvement — even from a low baseline — over the course of a school year.

Instead of being based entirely on student tests, new teacher evaluations will also require classroom observation, student ratings and other means of assessment. Colorado, Indiana and Florida are leading the pack in developing the sophisticated accountability standards necessary for better performance.

We won’t know until September exactly what Duncan will demand of states in exchange for granting them waivers, but the price is likely to resemble the requirements imposed by Race to the Top, the competition launched by the Department of Education in 2009 that has inspired a flowering of reform across the country.

This time, states won’t compete with each other for federal money. But they will probably have to meet many of the same accountability standards demanded by Race to the Top, including closing genuinely failed schools, incorporating student performance in teacher evaluations, and applying new “common core” academic standards that are more rigorous than those adopted in the past.

Steven Brill’s forthcoming book, “Class Warfare,” offers a compelling account of Race to the Top, which, for all of its success, has also been marred by the failure of some states to meet their commitments to more rigorous teacher evaluation.

For years, teachers unions have wanted their members to be considered professionals without being held accountable for performance like other professionals. The Obama policy goes a long way toward changing that. Not surprisingly, Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, told me this week that she opposes Duncan’s waivers because they shift too much accountability to teachers.

Duncan will need to use the power of the executive branch to enforce both the requirements of Race to the Top and whatever broad reforms he demands in exchange for state waivers. If that requires withholding federal funds from recalcitrant states — good. If it means overriding a dilatory and dysfunctional Congress — even better.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

5 Responses to Obama Shows Spunk Pushing Brave Education Plan

  1. Mr. Alter;

    The effect of Federal involvement in education has been a worsening of learning by students. The best thing the government can do would be to leave the educating of children, with its financing to the states.

    Dik Thurston
    Colorado Springs

  2. I submit that the federal role in primary and secondary education is justified by a broader reading of the constitution than is warranted. Federal aid is appealing because it seemingly costs states nothing and, hence, taxpayers nothing. It is addictive — no one wants to relinquish it; yet always comes with strings attached.

    If that aid is cut, it won’t be by much because the constituency — educators, educationists, and state taxing bodies at all levels — is large and powerful; furthermore, although no one wants a tax increase at any level,the present state of public primary and secondary education and their role in the well-being of the country will be used as an argument against a deep cut in the federal subsidy.

    Biting the bullet during a recession is not feasible, but just as soon as the economy improves, states (and other entities receiving federal aid for public schools) would be wise to reject such aid to rid themselves of federal meddling and creeping control.

    Mr Thurston is absolutely correct.

  3. To all:
    Thurston and orkney lady entirely forget (intentionally ?) long solid history pertinent here beginning with GI Bill and NDEA, the Nattional Defense Education Act.
    Both have depth and detail in every state and region reflecting success of participants whose foundation efforts owe much to what they learned via both these national programs.
    Have either of these two ever discussed value of degree earned via GI Bill with participant, or visited a single school, in any state, better equipped with learning media and technology via matching funds from every state for NDEA ?

  4. Sad to say, Jonathan Alter seems to have completely jumped the shark. Every post he makes on education is so blindly wrong, so clearly ignorant of what’s going on with the current education deform movement in which Mr. Duncan and, at least passively, Mr. Obama, are willing partners, that as an educator who has worked most of his career with students, parents, teachers, and administrators in districts, schools, and communities devastated by extreme poverty, I cannot help but be appalled.

    There is simply no way that Mr. Alter could be truly in touch with what’s going on in places like Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, or New York City, given how shallow and erroneous is his analysis of education and what Obama’s administration is up to. The recent waiver offer by Mr. Duncan is a classic case of figuring out long after everyone else has done so that a horrid piece of legislation like NCLB is about to crash and potentially bring loads of hard-working people down with it. This impending disaster was completely predictable for anyone who had a grasp of the nonsensical mathematics informing “annual yearly progress” and the absurd notion of 100% proficiency in math and literacy AT ANY POINT IN TIME. But I believe the authors of NCLB for the most part knew exactly what they were doing: creating a way to destroy public education and turn even the most outstanding public schools into “failing schools” through its impossible demands.

    When Obama put Duncan in charge, we saw another strategic move, cynically called “Race To The Top,” that was nothing more than openly bribing states to comply with anti-union, anti-teacher, anti-student, pro-testing, pro-charter, pro-privatization policies in exchange for the federal dollars, or otherwise be denied the funding to which ALL kids should have equal access, regardless of where they live. It doesn’t get any more undemocratic, any less fair, any more patently wrong.

    In light of NCLB and RttT, many people have correctly counseled states to refuse to take the waivers being “boldly” offered by Duncan/Obama. In fact, the absolutely sanest strategy for every state, district, administrator, school, teacher, parent, and student would be to say, “No!” to high-stakes testing abuse and insanity, to refuse to allow, administer, or participate in these heinous tests. Please look at the Bartleby Project (www.bartlebyproject.com) and join those of us who will not bend to the forces of billionaires and politicians who care nothing about learning, kids, education, or democracy, but only about lining their pockets and those of their friends, colleagues, and masters. The folks pulling Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan’s strings (and one merely need look at how they operated in Chicago with public schools there to know that what’s happened at the federal level since they took power was all too predictable) have to be rubbing their hands with glee at the “spunk” being shown in the US Dept. of Education. If this is the best Mr. Obama and his minions can come up with, we need a different nominee in 2012.

  5. Mr. Gold’s account of what is happening in city’s throughout the USA as a result of No Child Left Behind, (NCLB), is clearly a superficial analysis slanted to fit the writer’s preconceptions.

    Places like Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, or New York City had troubled school systems long before NCLB, and NCLb has not had any particular impact on any of them, if the empirical learning outcomes of the students is used as the measure of impact.

    Mr. Alter’s point is that education is a much too complicated issue for a statutory federal mandate to deal with. The President and Education Secretary Duncan are taking strong steps, under the color of law, to help states and local districts out of the regulatory straight jacket NCLB has slipped around them. This is what is known as leadership.

    In response to Mr. Thurston- your statement is factually wrong. States have a secondary role in educational funding. Most funding is provided at the district, i.e., the local level. State funding is used mainly to even out the vast disparities in funding availability that exists between local school districts. These conditions are variable, depending on the state, but exist in all the states.

    Again, Mr. Thurston, if empirical outcomes of student learning are your standard for educational performance, the US system of local financing and local standards has produced mediocre results in comparison to the centralized educational systems used in the rest of the developed countries.

    Kids only get one chance at a good education, it should not be squandered supporting parochial and inaccurate ideas like yours, Mr. Thurston.

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