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NCLB Outrages

Bad Grades for Obama on Education

Ed Manifesto Comment: I wholeheartedly agree that President Obama’s education policies have lacked vision, initiative, and courage. We must engage in a discussion about reinventing our educational system, not just reforming it. Thank you for going against popular opinion and standing up against standardized tests.

by Don Rose

Bad grades were predictable when President Obama appointed Chicago school superintendent Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. More affable and less toxic than another contender, New York’s Joel Klein, Duncan still signaled a continuation of the technocratic "reform" approach to education crystallized in Bush’s widely discredited No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation.

In Chicago, Duncan was open to innovative ideas to a limited extent, but his reputation for success—challenged by many progressive educators—boils down to his hard-line reliance on standardized test results as the be-all and end-all of a school’s survival. (We’re talking here of big standardized tests, not diagnostic tests or a teacher’s exams and quizzes on various classroom subjects.)

Now that Obama and Duncan have issued their first major policy statements—Obama in a speech and Duncan in a clichÊ-riddled, hour-long interview with Charlie Rose—it’s clear we’re going to get more and more of the same reliance on high-stakes testing and phony “national standards” suffered in the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Let’s be clear: standardized “grade level” tests in reading and math are seriously flawed from the start—not only culturally biased, but largely arbitrary. The only “grade level” or passing mark that exists is a number agreed upon in the jurisdiction, usually in collaboration with the publishers of the tests themselves. Even Duncan acknowledges this when he notes that “standards” vary wildly from place to place.

His solution is to have a single national standard or test grade, but he fails to recognize that whatever number they choose is also arbitrary.

Worse yet is the reinforcement of the notion that testing well in one or two subjects is any real measurement of genuine education—important as reading and math may be. There is far more to educating kids to be good citizens—issues of reasoning, critical thinking, creativity, human relationships and so forth.

Making everything dependent on test scores in two subjects simply builds in larger failures. Ultimately it causes teachers, schools and entire systems to narrow educational goals and teach to the tests—or cheat like hell, which we’ve seen here in Chicago.

Among its many flaws, NCLB puts entire school systems at risk by making their existence dependent on test scores. Both Obama and Duncan earlier referred to “fixing” NCLB, but neither mentioned it in their recent statements.

As Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder demonstrate in their recent book “Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right,” NCLB is beyond fixing—it should be abolished. They offer broader, more logical systems of accountability. The best we hear from Duncan is renaming NCLB without changing the deadly dependence on testing.

The president and the secretary both talk about rewarding “successful” teachers with merit pay increases. However, the determinant of teachers’ success once again is how well their students perform on the tests. That simply gives teachers a cash incentive to teach to the test—or, again, cheat.

Both the president and the secretary also keep talking about charter schools as if they are models of education, but they ignore the fact that as a group charter schools perform no better and often worse than public schools.

Yes, there are many excellent charter schools, but all around the country, from New York’s East Harlem westward, are outstanding public schools operating in poor and minority communities. Small schools work and should be proliferated within the system. Charter schools too often are valued mainly for circumventing unions.

Another fact completely omitted by Obama and Duncan, is that poverty is the fundamental issue that makes the major difference between the way schools perform. Poor education is an economic issue; failure to acknowledge that is the single most egregious omission in their statements.

Regardless of what the “bell curve” advocates tell you, or the way Duncan talks about education as a “civil rights” issue, it isn’t race, but class.

So do Obama and Duncan fail totally on education?

Not quite.

They both properly put an increased emphasis on parent involvement and early childhood education. Early education works—though it would work even better with a serious antipoverty thrust.

Also on the plus side is the significant amount of funding for education included in Obama’s stimulus and budgetary planning. He correctly advocates for smaller classrooms.

So we’re not going to flunk him—but like those schools on the brink of closing, he’s on a watch list when it comes to education.

Don Rose is a regular contributor to the Chicago Daily Observer

— Don Rose
Chicago Daily Observer


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