Commentary | Education

Obama education policies: a lot like Bush policies

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This piece originally appeared March 12 in eSchool News.

When it comes to education policy, President Obama is repeating the most grievous errors of his predecessor, charge a trio of venerable education policy analysts, including one — Diane Ravitch — best known for her past support of conservative positions on testing, accountability, and choice.

As Congress begins to rewrite No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Obama administration has offered its own vision for how the revised law should look, including a focus on tougher academic standards and more flexibility for schools. But a growing chorus of critics contends that too many of the administration’s policies follow the same punitive cycle of high-stakes testing and accountability ushered in under the presidency of George W. Bush—and that these policies are actually hurting students.

Both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have acknowledged the need for better standards and assessments to ensure that students graduate from high school ready for college or 21st century careers. But critics of their approach toward education reform say it continues to rely on a flawed system of high-stakes exams and accountability measures that has narrowed the curriculum, fails to take into account the various social and economic factors that influence a child’s learning, and does a disservice to those students it purports to help most.

Rather than tinkering around the edges of NCLB, they say, policy makers should rethink the very assumptions that underlie the nation’s education law.

Such concerns over high-stakes testing and accountability aren’t new; they’ve existed since NCLB became law in 2002. But what is new is that the chorus of critics now includes some unlikely characters—including education historian Diane Ravitch, who worked in the Education Department under President George H. W. Bush and was a staunch supporter of the younger Bush’s policies as well.

Ravitch has a new book out called The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Its thesis marks a radical departure from her earlier views on education—and in an interview with eSchool News, she explained what transpired to change her mind.

“This represents a big change for me, because for many years I have been associated with things like testing, accountability, charter schools, merit pay, et cetera,” Ravitch said. “But as I saw the evidence accumulating, I began to think … that I was wrong.”

She added: “The Obama administration, although it promised change when it came to office, in effect has picked up precisely the same themes as the George W. Bush administration, which are testing and choice—and I think we’re on the wrong track.”

Watch interview with Diane Ravitch

Ravitch was one of several education experts who spoke out last month during the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on  Education against the Obama administration’s continued reliance on high-stakes testing and accountability to drive school reform. Other critics of the president’s policies included Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and former education columnist for the New York Times, and David C. Berliner, Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University.

Under the nation’s current accountability system, Ravitch said, “we’re only measuring what we can, and not what matters most.” As a result, she said, we’ve narrowed the curriculum to the exclusion of other important subjects by focusing primarily on making adequate yearly progress in reading and math.

“If you look at what is working in other successful nations, “it tends to be a far more holistic approach to schooling than what we are doing now” in the United States, she declared.

Testing can be effective when used for diagnostic purposes, “but when testing becomes the focus of high stakes for kids and for teachers and for administrators, it has very harmful consequences,” she said. “To judge a teacher or a student based on a test score is like judging a baseball player on one at-bat; Babe Ruth struck out a lot more than he homered.”

Ravitch, who is a research professor at New York University, said she has looked at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores of both charter and public schools since 2003 and has concluded that charter schools don’t outperform public schools on average.

Charter schools are “skimming off the best kids in the poorest communities, and that’s why they get better results,” she said. “They’re not taking a proportional amount of English language learners, special-ed kids, homeless kids. … Sure, if you cherry-pick the kids, you get better results.”

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that school choice isn’t going to improve education, she concluded—and, given that struggling schools lose the funding that accompanies students who opt out for other institutions, “it might actually be very harmful to public education.”

The ‘wrong policies’?

Speaking to school superintendents during the AASA conference, Duncan identified three principles that he said would guide the current administration’s approach toward rewriting NCLB: (1) higher standards, (2) rewarding excellence, and (3) a “smarter, tighter federal role” in ensuring that all students succeed.

He also sounded like someone who understood many of the law’s failings.

“I’ll always give credit to NCLB for exposing achievement gaps and advancing standards-based reform. But better than anyone, you know [the law’s] shortcomings,” Duncan told the assembled education leaders. “NCLB allows, even encourages, states to lower their standards. In too many classrooms, it encourages teachers to narrow the curriculum. It relies too much on bubble tests in a couple of subjects. It mislabels schools, even when they are showing progress on important measures.”

Although Duncan and Obama acknowledge NCLB’s problems, their approach does not go far enough in addressing these issues, critics argue.

“Both President Obama and Secretary Duncan talk about the narrowing of the curriculum,” Rothstein said in an interview with eSchool News. “But the policies they’re implementing … are all about improving the quality of math and reading tests. Now, there’s nothing wrong with improving the quality of math and reading tests—but if [that’s] all we do …, [then] we [will] continue, and even exacerbate, this distorted emphasis on only one part of the curriculum.”

Like Ravitch, Rothstein sees huge flaws in the administration’s approach to education reform. He’s part of a group of policy experts called “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education”, which advocates a different kind of accountability system for the nation’s schools—one that doesn’t rely on test scores as the primary indicator of student achievement and doesn’t create incentives to narrow the curriculum.

The group is hoping to press
ure Congress and the administration “to abandon the failed, test-driven policies of the last decade,” he said.

Watch interview with Richard Rothstein

Federal education policy in the United States today “is driven by a climate of opinion that assumes our schools have been failing,” Rothstein said—and one that assumes teachers are inadequate and have low expectations for their students. Policy makers have come to this conclusion, he explained, by looking at the achievement gap between black and white students, which “hasn’t really budged very much.”

But what they fail to acknowledge is that there has been “phenomenal improvement in both black and white student achievement over the last generation,” he said. “Black student achievement has risen so much in the last 20 years that it’s now higher than what white student achievement was 20 years ago.”

That kind of phenomenal improvement is “not consistent with the story of teachers sitting on their rear ends, having low expectations of disadvantaged children,” he said—and schools could have closed the achievement gap long ago if white students hadn’t made their own vast improvements at the same time.

When we develop policies based on a flawed analysis of the data, “we necessarily develop the wrong policies,” Rothstein asserted, “and that’s what’s going on in Washington today.”

Besides narrowing the curriculum, the climate of high-stakes testing and accountability is detrimental to schools because “it takes no account of the fact that one of the primary drivers of student achievement is the social and economic conditions that children come to school with,” Rothstein said. “Again, both Obama and Duncan acknowledge this; they talk about it frequently—yet their current policy takes no account of this.”

The administration’s plan to stem the dropout rate, for example, seeks to identify the bottom 5 percent of high schools in the country to intervene and turn them around. Yet, given the social and economic conditions that most students from these schools face, “many of these schools are not low-performing at all,” Rothstein said. “They [actually] add great value to the performance of these children.”

Outputs vs. inputs

Arizona State’s Berliner agrees with Rothstein’s assertion that the federal testing and accountability policies that continue under President Obama fail to acknowledge the enormous influence of socio-economic factors on student achievement.

“We have people who say teachers are terrible, or teachers are great, and they’re taking nothing into account about the context those people are working in,” he said. “Out-of-school matters matter.”

Watch interview with David Berliner

Berliner said the U.S. has shifted from a focus on providing equality in the “inputs” of education—family environment, community conditions, and so on—during the Johnson administration to a focus on providing equality in the “outputs” of education (the achievement gap) under the Bush administration, and this approach continues under Obama.

“We stopped worrying about inputs,” he said—and yet, “what’s coming out of schools is still a function of those inputs.”

A key problem with the high-stakes testing approach to education, Berliner added, is that when people’s jobs are on the line, the people get corrupted—and so do the indicators. That’s why we’re seeing schools supply test answers to students, and states lower their standards, and so on.

“If I’m going to lose my job, and I can change a score—I have a family to support, I’m going to change the score,” he said. “If you put people into that position, you’ve messed up one of the goals we have for an American educator, which is to provide a moral compass for our youth—and you’ve set them up to do things that are not good.”


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