Guest Column: Obama on Education -- A-Plus Values, F-Minus Policies

[ Posted Wednesday, January 12th, 2011 – 19:22 UTC ]

Roughly once a year or so, I turn this column space over to a guest author. This usually happens when a point of view is presented to me either in public comments or private emails which has impressed me. I haven't always completely agreed with these points of view, but have thought that they deserved a wider audience because the writing was so thoughtful and the reasoning so impressive. Other times, I do heartily agree with the guest author. But sometimes the author writes on subjects which I don't feel qualified myself to tackle. Today, I am once again turning my column over to a group of three authors who have a point to make -- a point that lies mostly outside my experience, which is why I don't comment on it very often: the state of education in America, and how politics relates to it.

The first of the authors of the following piece is well-known to us here, as he was one of the first guest authors to ever appear in this column. Joshua Eisenstein, Ph.D., took me to task during the 2008 Democratic primary season for writing an article suggesting "How Obama Could Wrap It Up". Eisenstein challenged me to write a companion article about Hillary Clinton, but his comments and suggestions as to how to write such an article impressed me so much that I invited him to write his own column, "How Hillary Could Win Fair (And Lock Up The General Election Too!)" -- which is still worth reading for his excellent point of view.

Campaign season aside, though, Eisenstein recently challenged me once again to write about President Obama and his "Race To The Top" education policy, after the release of the movie Waiting For Superman. Eisenstein is not only a doctor of educational psychology but also a civics teacher in a large public school district, so he had a much more experienced take on the subject than I could have managed. He is joined in writing this article by educational expert Miriam Ebsworth, Ph.D., and research librarian Vedana Vaidhyanathan, M.S.L.S.

-- Chris Weigant


Obama on Education -- A-Plus Values, F-Minus Policies

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many of the nation's 7.2 million teachers sighed in relief, convinced that the Bush-era education policies were over. After all, Obama was a smart man who seemed to really "get" what education was about. Educators thought he understood the need for wiser funding, as well as the futility of constant high-stakes standardized testing. The soon-to-be president said, "We could have made a real commitment to a world-class education for our kids, but instead we passed 'No Child Left Behind', a law that ... left the money behind and alienated teachers and principals instead of inspiring them."

As a candidate, Obama did inspire. He planned to hold all individuals equally accountable for their part in the process, to base his decisions on sound research and scientific data. He said he wanted to add successful charter schools as a companion to public schools, as well as provide public school teachers with better conditions and resources. He inspired educators to want to innovate and once again become a means to achieve social justice for the poor. In short, Obama instilled teachers with hope. Unfortunately, the administration's policies since then have had just the opposite effect.


Obsessed With The Test

First, President Obama not only kept but expanded the use of high-stakes standardized achievement testing. Such tests are not inherently bad, but they have been stretched far beyond their intended use. As an occasional diagnostic or screening measure, norm-referenced achievement tests can be useful to identify high- or low-performing students. But "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) under President Bush used tests to measure short-term (annual) student learning, to decide whether or not to pass the student to the next grade, and to judge the overall quality of a school. For these uses the tests are not valid. A teacher can make a crucial difference in a child's life, but this influence may not show up on a test after just a few months. Researchers frequently emphasize that multiple measures of different types are needed to measure student progress.

But despite initial words to the contrary, the policies of the current administration persist in spreading the fallacy of standardized test results as the sum total of a child's short-term learning gains. Instead of eliminating the unreliable, invalid uses of such tests, they have added more. The latest addition is the "Value-Added" formula, supposedly used to measure the contributions of individual teachers.

Even most researchers involved with the Value-Added approach admit (as education policy researcher Gerald Bracey wrote), "that it cannot permit causal inferences about individual teachers." In 2008, Obama himself referred to this kind of approach to teacher evaluation as "a big mistake." But the actual Obama policy, as implemented, does exactly what Obama the candidate warned against, and the results can be dire. On the sole basis of a standardized test taken by students, the president's policy punishes schools and teachers whose students do not perform with a lower pay scale, and in some states, termination.


Where's The Evidence?

Obama's policies assume that norm-referenced testing after short periods of time gives meaningful results about student achievement. His "data-driven" policy, taken straight from the Bush agenda, is not scientific at all. Education is a long term, non-linear process that includes the child, parents, context, community, and available resources, as well as schools and teachers. Scientific research looks at all these factors contributing to the learning process. While good teachers are indeed important, their presence is rarely enough to overcome poverty, an unsafe and unhealthy home environment, little experience with reading, poor nutrition, and destructive peer groups.

Candidate Obama's idea of "innovation districts," where 20 selected school systems would re-organize to foster higher student achievement, was a good one. Also he suggested using federal money for smaller class sizes and pre-kindergarten (Pre-K) education, strategies with proven long-term results. But did any of the billions of Obama's "Race to the Top" dollars go toward shrinking class size or installing better Pre-K? No. Instead, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan actually urged "targeted increases in class size," and Obama's new policy ignores high-quality pre-kindergarten, which expert Marci Young calls, "The most rigorously evaluated and effective education reform of the last half-century."

This raises the question: If Obama does not want to spend money on well-researched, well-documented methods of achieving positive educational results, what does he want to spend it on? Based on the evidence, the answer is even more standardized testing, and for-profit charter schools.


Superman and Other "Miracles"

This fall brought us Waiting for Superman, a much-hyped documentary, which tells us the main problem in education is "bad teachers." The solution proposed is to have more privately-run, non-union charter schools. The film suggests that poor public schools should be taken over by private charters, which would be free of the constraints put on public schools by labor regulations and union contracts.

Other public services have been privatized and deregulated, and the results have rarely met with approval outside of a corporate boardroom. Yet, the public is presently lapping up the very same narrative about education. This may be because it is a bipartisan effort. Perhaps it is also due to charismatic "reformers," like former Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, Michelle Rhee. She is celebrated by the media but rarely reviewed for accuracy or scrutinized to see whether or not her proposals really serve the best interests of schoolchildren.

When Secretary Duncan was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, his techniques mirrored the thesis of Waiting for Superman. He closed public schools, fired veteran faculty, and opened a host of new, publicly-funded charter schools. Because some students' test scores seemed to go up, this was dubbed the "Chicago Miracle." But these supposedly miraculous data -- much like data on standardized testing -- had not been scientifically investigated. This, just like George Bush's similarly named "Texas Miracle," is now turning out to be largely an illusion.

For starters, charter schools tend to have certain unfair advantages over public schools. Poorly-behaved students can be kicked out. Students who progress slowly can be encouraged to leave. Students whose parents are not actively engaged in their education never bother to apply. Yet, even with all these advantages, 83% of charters don't do any better than neighboring public schools, and 37% do worse! What of the 17% that perform better? They tend to share certain qualities: they have highly-effective principals, apparatus to connect with the students' families and communities, and large, privately-funded budgets. These advantages, when shared by public schools, would yield the same or better results.

So, did Secretary Duncan conduct a nationwide search to recruit the best and most knowledgeable principals? Did he fund community-building for existing schools? "Innovation" seems to mean giant hand-outs to districts that privatize and deregulate. President Obama's 20 test cases became billions of dollars in federal incentives, and doing the research first to evaluate what works seems to have gone out the window -- along with briefcases full of cash.


Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

In August, 2010, Congress rolled out a $26 billion emergency package, ostensibly to "save the jobs" of public employees, including teachers. There were two problems with this. One, it did not fix the system. Without addressing wide-spread, massive waste at the top of the pay scale, it was nothing but a gigantic pork barrel for test companies and charter organizations. Two, it was funded partly by cutting food stamps.

Increasing the consequences of poverty is never a benefit to education. The culture of poverty in the U.S. is an impediment to learning that reaches into the classroom. Based on the 2009 results for the Program for International Student Assessment, an international evaluation of basic skills in different countries, the U.S. seemed to perform about average. But researcher Stephen Krashen reports that areas in the U.S. with 25% or fewer students on free or reduced-price lunch programs performed comparably with the top 3 countries, while areas with 75% or more on free or reduced-price lunch programs performed poorly. Poverty has long been recognized as the single greatest hindrance to student performance in the U.S.

Waiting for Superman, however, tries to convince viewers that poverty is less harmful to students than poor teachers and the unions that protect them. This is untrue but alluring, since it gives people scapegoats to which they can all relate. After all, many people have never seen the consequences of poverty, while nearly all have at some time or another suffered through poor teaching. The film (and others like it) point at "tenure" as a cause of poor student performance, insinuating that it protects "bad teachers" from fair and just accountability. Firstly, competent principals do fire poor teachers, no matter how long they have been around. We know multiple principals who have; it just takes hard work and good documentation. Tenure only guarantees due process.

Secondly, countless competent teachers are falsely accused, improperly evaluated, given an unreasonable course load or assigned the most challenging students. Any or all of these may result in lower student test scores, through no fault of the teacher. Unfair treatment can be personal, political, based on prejudice, or to make room for a friend or political ally. It happens for standing up to malevolent students and parents, or supporting a student who has been treated unfairly by the school. As in the case of Patrick Williams, a highly decorated Miami-Dade teacher, sometimes it happens when you ask too many questions about how a principal spent the school's grant money.

Teachers' unions, although they may have flaws, mainly fight for good working conditions for teachers, which happen to be nearly-identical to good learning conditions for children. We do not believe it is a coincidence that the highest-achieving states also have the strongest unions. Yet, all evidence suggests that the president and his Secretary of Education both seem intent on making unions weaker.

If you doubt this, consider the case of Rhode Island's Central Falls High School. The school -- high in poverty and non-native English speakers -- wasn't getting high enough test scores, and was labeled "failing." This past April, the district insisted teachers there must work more without compensation. The union refused, and the district responded not only by closing the school, but by firing all 90 teachers and support staff who worked there. President Obama came out publicly in support of that decision as "accountability."

The president's response defended the district and spurned each individual teacher that was fired. Did he meet with each of the teachers or observe their classrooms? Even presuming the test data were valid (which most educators and scientists do not), indiscriminate mass-firing in a labor dispute is a tactic of intimidation. Imagine the AMA response if the president's words were directed toward doctors at an under-funded medical clinic who didn't cure enough of their poor patients, or the reaction of the ABA if a municipality fired attorneys who took on the poorest clients and didn't win enough! In December of 2010, the students of Central Falls staged a walkout to criticize the district for unfairly blaming teachers for the school's troubles. If the students themselves are supporting their teachers, why isn't the President of the United States?



The Obama administration has taken ideas from the 2008 campaign and transformed them into pro-corporate education policy. The senator who said education was a means to social justice became a president whose policies funnel billions of education dollars to charter schools and testing companies. Instead of eliminating administrative waste, this policy removes and sends to corporations the education money that pays for everything else, including teachers, classrooms, desks, photocopies and textbooks.

Candidate Obama said that we should use the data based on scientific research. President Obama seems to base policies on his own preferences and uses pseudo-science to justify them. His administration has ignored actual scientific research and the policies that the research supports, namely education based on:

  • High quality Pre-K
  • Highly-engaged, effective principals
  • Smaller class sizes
  • Family and community support
  • Rewarding teachers who are educated, experienced, and work with the neediest students, not firing them or cutting pay based on invalid, unscientific data
  • Assessment that is process-oriented and based on multiple measures and methods, not mainly a single standardized test.

Rather than implement any of the above, real teaching has continued to be replaced by test preparation. Meanwhile, teachers are frightened because their jobs are being increasingly cut, based on factors beyond their control and unrelated to the quality of their work. The president should be smart enough to realize that the above reforms have been proven by research, and would be more effective than the profit-driven privatization, deregulation and scapegoating that have characterized the Race To The Top policy.

President Barack Obama must somehow be made aware of the levels of panic and despair his policies have caused among educators. In spite of these policies, teachers around the country have done their best, and still look to him for leadership. As long as it is fair and in the best interests of the students, the president must know that teachers are willing to make a difficult change. However, as Obama's current policies continue to prove neither fair nor in the best interests of students, how willing to change is he?


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


18 Comments on “Guest Column: Obama on Education -- A-Plus Values, F-Minus Policies”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    Class size can't be accurately measured by a single number, because classes aren't all the same size -- nor should they be. I would like to see some larger classes and some smaller ones.

    You can't get much interaction in a class of 30 students. The options are basically lecture, test, time designated for individual in-class work on assignments, and small-group work with minimal teacher involvement. Instead of two such classes, I would rather see a 45-student lecture section and a 15-student discussion section, with each student spending three fourths of their time in lecture and one fourth in discussion.

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Excellent commentary..

    For what it's worth, I did something I have never done before..

    I emailed President Obama with the link to this commentary and the note, "This is shameful.."

    Maybe the President will read it and, better yet, HEED it...


  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    what you're advocating is most similar to the traditional university model, with a large lecture by a lead professor, followed by a smaller recitation section, usually taught by a graduate student. this model might be effective in some high schools, but i'm not sure how it would or could be implemented in a public school setting.

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    Excellent commentary..

    thank you, i think i'm blushing. somehow i think that if the president actually listened to you (or CW, or any of the regulars in this little corner of the web), we'd all probably be a bit better off.

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    thank you, i think i'm blushing. somehow i think that if the president actually listened to you (or CW, or any of the regulars in this little corner of the web), we'd all probably be a bit better off.

    Amen to THAT...


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:


    Although I should have, I didn't initially make the connection between CW's introduction and you..

    At the risk of being corny, I am truly honored to be on the same blog as someone of your education and caliber... :D


  7. [7] 
    dsws wrote:


    Yes, I take no credit of my own for the idea, shamelessly cribbed from the university system.

    I agree that as described it would be hard to implement in small to medium-sized high schools, and for classes taken by few students even in large high schools. But class size can vary less dramatically too. A small high school might have one teacher do the freshman English class for the whole school, using lecture to teach mechanical skills and survey a broad range of literature, and three teachers doing the sophomore English class with lots of writing and critique, instead of two teachers for each year.

  8. [8] 
    dsws wrote:


    Your name links to "page not found" at instead of to

  9. [9] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Joshua, Miriam and Vedana,

    Just have to say excellent article. Though I was familiar with the consequences of NCLB, I hadn't heard about the Value-Added approach.

    I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of who is driving many of the educational policy changes in our country. Again, it's not a one or the other Republicans or Democrats, but both parties at the urging of corporate lobbyists for private education companies. Companies that stand to make a lot of money from changes.

    Its hard for the average person to understand

  10. [10] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Whups. Lousy fat fingered typing.

    Was trying to say that I think it's hard for the average person to understand the argument FOR public education. Especially when there is so much hype and marketing around the entire "privatization = good" applied to everything argument.

    To me it's things like the following:

    1. We're a country where education is a right, not a privilege.
    2. Under a public system, educators enjoy the freedom to do what they know is best for students as professional educators. Not what is best to meet a profit goal.
    3. Resources can be allocated fairly and not based on who has the most money.

    Interested in your take. If someone posed the question to you, why should we keep the public school system, how would you respond?

    I'm also going to up the ante by asking you to put in the frame of 3 bullet points.

    The reason I ask is not out of any sort of disagreement. Rather the contrary. I believe in our public school system. But the opposition has a version of these 3 bullet points that they repeat over and over. And I don't believe the public school system does.

    Off the top of my head, here's the bullet points you're fighting against (most of which in one way or another you mentioned in your narrative):

    1. Pay for performance; teachers can be hired/fired/and paid based on performance
    2. Private schools create competition that will force public schools to improve and reform
    3. Private schools give parents choices

    This is a powerful narrative that, as you mentioned, forms much of the basis for the movie Waiting for Superman .

    I'm not trying to argue whether it's true or not. My personal opinion is that it isn't.

    What I believe though is that what public schools need is a better narrative. People need to be reminded of what's so great about public schools. And I play devil's advocate here because I think the three of you might be able to do a better job at this than myself.

    Again, truly enjoyed your article. It got me thinking about many things so hope you don't mind the commentary.


  11. [11] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    that's a good point. it's been awhile since public schools have had to justify their very existence, and it certainly wouldn't hurt do develop a clear narrative to combat the seductive myth that has been constructed to favor privatization and deregulation of yet another resource. i don't think i can generate three bullet points on the spur of the moment, but i'll definitely give it some thought. thank you.


  12. [12] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    well... that's not entirely true.

    i could generate three pretty good points any time, but they wouldn't be the right three.

  13. [13] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Thanks, Joshua. I'd be interested in your thoughts even if just off the top of your head. Since I often only have a few minutes at a time to comment on articles (would be nice if we didn't have to work, eh?), I'll often use the comments section as a sounding board.

    p.s. I posted this to my Facebook page and here's one of the comments from a teacher friend of mine in Indianapolis:

    "Thanks for posting this! Spread the word---when I say these exact same things--people dismiss them because I am a teacher...I have spent the last year reading tons of research and it all says we are really headed the wrong direction ...with these stupid high stakes tests "test" and "growth models"....they are going to lose generations of teachers too, because we ALL feel under attack!"

  14. [14] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    ok i'll bullet-point a few ideas that are tossing around in my head, but consider this a disclaimer that it's basically just brainstorming, not a coherent argument:

    - public schools take everyone and don't discriminate. (whatever the reason for it, charters reliably end up about 20% more segregated by race, class, disability, etc.)

    - on average, public schools frequently perform better on tests than neighboring charters (not that i agree with testing at all, but 37% do better, 46% the same, 17% worse - not a bad record).

    - Public schools as an organization don't have any agenda other than educating students. (individuals might, but the organization does not. the same cannot be said for most charters.)

    - Public schools protect children from the abuses of wall street and corporations. (public schools are not allowed to cut too many corners to save money, while private companies are not regulated enough to prevent corner-cutting that puts kids at risk for more than just a mediocre education.)

    - public schools are answerable to their entire neighborhoods (not just a select few parents and students).

    - public schools put learning before profit.

    - public schools provide stability. (with very little oversight, charters can easily turn from good to bad and back.)

    (also, google charter school embezzlement and see how many hits you get. google public school embezzlement and quite a few of the hits are still about charters.)


  15. [15] 
    Michale wrote:


    Where ya been hiding!!!?????

    Long recuperation from a hellascious New Years Eve party??? :D


  16. [16] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Learning before profit is a great slogan.

    I think the standardized test statistics, oddly enough, are compelling as well. Not that I agree with standardized testing, but I'd of guessed charter schools would have been higher more often. If only because I'd think they'd be able to "cherry pick" students.

    Here's my second iteration at 3 bullets (ok, 4 bullets). I'm doing the same thing - brainstorming and riffing off your comments so please just take as an iteration. Also, I'm thinking about this as a bit of a sell so trying to focus only on the positive.

    What makes our public education system one of the best in the world?

    1) Teacher-driven learning puts control in the hands of professional educators, not businessmen or bureaucrats; learning comes first
    2) Education is a right and not a privilege (not every country can say this)
    3) An education should teach students how to think and lead; not how to follow or recite answers to multiple choice questions
    4) Public schools provide stability and community

    Then, I'd talk about what some of the early proponents in our country were thinking when they proposed public education. Would have to research this as I know little about it.

    Then, I'd add in some personal stories from prominent folks to make it real. People like Barack Obama. How they succeeded and what it meant to them. This is why I added a bullet about "Learning how to think". I was taught very early on that thinking and leading is more important than memorizing and reciting.

    Think and Lead (over)
    Follow and Recite

    Then, I'd throw in some of the statistics you mentioned about public schools compared with charter schools. And I'd add the note about Googling embezzlement as it's very powerful and hands on.

    Good discussion! You've got me envisioning the Keynote presentation in my head :)


    p.s. Hey Michale! Been working on a side project so I have been hiding in a bit of a hole since NYs. Apologies my friend. No hellacious NYs Eve stories (this year) :)

  17. [17] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Dangit. Before I fall asleep, another thought would be to talk about public high school sports as an aspect of community and stability.

    This brings out really positive memories in a whole lot of people.

  18. [18] 
    Michale wrote:

    This brings out really positive memories in a whole lot of people.

    Unless one happens to be a former High School Geek.. :D

    Not me, of course. :D I was on the High School Dive Team.. Actually competed against Greg Louganis..

    Not that I was much competition. :D


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