Archives for category: Obama

Jesse Hagopian wrote the following essay for the blog. Jesse is an associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine and teaches history at Garfield High School. Jesse is the editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. 

Obama regrets “taking the joy out of teaching and learning” with too much testing

In a stunning turn of events, President Obama announced last weekend that “unnecessary testing” is “consuming too much instructional time” and creating “undue stress for educators and students.” Rarely has a president so thoroughly repudiated such a defining aspect of his own public education policy.  In a three-minute video announcing this reversal, Obama cracks jokes about how silly it is to over-test students, and recalls that the teachers who had the most influence on his life were not the ones who prepared him best for his standardized tests. Perhaps Obama hopes we will forget it was his own Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who radically reorganized America’s education system around the almighty test score.

Obama’s statement comes in the wake of yet another study revealing the overwhelming number of standardized tests children are forced to take: The average student today is subjected to 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. Because it’s what we have rewarded and required, America’s education system has become completely fixated on how well students perform on tests. Further, the highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color.

To be sure, Obama isn’t the only president to menace the education system with high-stakes exams.  This thoroughly bi-partisan project was enabled by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB became law in 2002 with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Obama, instead of erasing the wrong answer choice of NCLB’s test-and-punish policy, decided to press ahead.  Like a student filling in her entire Scantron sheet with answer choice “D,” Duncan’s erroneous Race to the Top initiative was the incorrect solution for students.  It did, however, make four corporations rich by assigning their tests as the law of the land.  Desperate school districts, ravaged by the Great Recession, eagerly sought Race to the Top points by promulgating more and more tests.

The cry of the parents, students, educators and other stewards of education was loud and sorrowful as Obama moved to reduce the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning to a single score—one that would be used to close schools, fire teachers and deny students promotion or graduation.  Take, for instance, this essay penned by Diane Ravitch in 2010. She countered Obama’s claim that Race to the Top was his most important accomplishment:

[RttT] will make the current standardized tests of basic skills more important than ever, and even more time and resources will be devoted to raising scores on these tests. The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, because of the link between wages and scores. There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test.

What Ravitch warned us about has come to pass, and Obama has now admitted as much without fully admitting to his direct role in promoting the tests. Duncan and Obama, with funding from the Gates Foundation, coupled Race to the Top with Common Core State Standards and the high-stakes tests that came shrink wrapped with them.  Together these policies have orchestrated a radical seizure of power by what I call the “testocracy”—The multibillion dollar testing corporations, the billionaire philanthropists who promote their policies, and the politicians who write their policies into law.

These policies in turn have produced the largest uprising against high-stakes testing in U.S. history.  To give you just a few highlights of the size and scope of this unprecedented struggle, students have staged walkouts of the tests in Portland, Chicago, Colorado, New Mexico, and beyond.  Teachers from Seattle to Toledo to New York City have refused to administer the tests.  And the parent movement to opt children out of tests has exploded into a mass social movement, including some 60,000 families in Washington State and more than 200,000 families in New York State. One of the sparks that helped ignite this uprising occurred at Garfield High School, where I teach, when the entire faculty voted unanimously to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test.  The boycott spread to several other schools in Seattle and then the superintendent threatened my colleagues with a ten-day suspension without pay.  Because of the unanimous vote of the student government and the PTA in support of the boycott—and the solidarity we received from around the country—the superintendent backed off his threat and canceled the MAP test altogether at the high school level.  Can you imagine the vindication that my colleagues feel today—after having risked their jobs to reduce testing—from hearing the president acknowledge there is too much testing in the schools?  And it should be clear that this national uprising, this Education Spring, has forced the testocracy to retreat and is the reason that the Obama administration has come to its current understanding on testing in schools.

However, the testocracy, having amassed so much power and wealth, won’t just slink quietly into the night.  A Facebook video from Obama isn’t going to convince the Pearson corporation to give up its $9 billion in corporate profits from testing and textbooks. The tangle of tests promulgated by the federal government is now embedded at state and district levels.

More importantly, the President exposed just how halfhearted his change of heart was by declaring he will not reduce the current federal requirement to annually test all students in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading, with high school students still tested at least once. A reauthorization of NCLB is in the works right now, and all versions preserve these harmful testing mandates.  As well, Obama’s call to reduce testing to 2% of the school year still requires students to take standardized tests for an outlandish twenty-four hours.  And it isn’t even all the time directly spent taking the tests that’s the biggest problem.  The real shame, which Obama never addressed, is that as long as there are high-stakes attached to the standardized tests, test prep activities will continue to dominate instructional time.  As long as the testocracy continues to demand that students’ graduation and teachers’ evaluation or pay are determined by these tests, test prep will continue to crowed out all the things that educators know are vital to teaching the whole child—critical thinking, imagination, the arts, recess, collaboration, problem based learning, and more.

Obama’s main accomplice in proliferating costly testing, Arne Duncan, said, “It’s important that we’re all honest with ourselves. At the federal, state, and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation.”

Yes, let’s all be honest with ourselves. Honesty would require acknowledgement that standardized test scores primarily demonstrate a student’s family income level, not how well a teacher has coached how to fill in bubbles. Honesty would dictate that we recognize that the biggest obstacle to the success of our students is that politicians are not being held accountable for the fact that nearly half children in the public schools now live in poverty. As Congress debates the new iteration of federal education policy, they should focus on supporting programs to uplift disadvantaged children and leave the assessment policy to local educators.  They have proven they don’t understand how to best assess our students and now they have admitted as much. It’s time to listen to those of us who have advocated for an end to the practice endlessly ranking and sorting our youth with high-stakes tests.  It’s time Congress repeal the requirement of standardized tests at every grade level.  It’s time to end the reign of the testocracy and allow parents, students, and educators to implement authentic assessments designed to help support student learning and nurture the whole child.

Peter Greene carefully reviewed the Obama administration’s “Testing Action Plan” and concluded it is phony, a duplicitous confirmation of the status quo.

Did you think the administration realizes that the billions of dollars spent on 13 years of standardized testing was a waste? Think again.

Did you think the administration really wants to reduce time spent on testing? Think again.

Did you think the administration understands that it is not fair to give exactly the same test to children who can’t read English, children with disabilities, and others of their age? Think again.

Have they lost faith in standardized testing? Not a bit.

Here is what they see as the problem that needs fixing, Greene writes:

“Before you get excited about the administration taking “some” blame for the testing mess, please notice what they think their mistake was– not telling states specifically enough what they were supposed to do. They provided states with flexibility when they should have provided hard and fast crystal clear commands directions for what they were supposed to do.

“Because yes– the problem with education reform has been not enough federal control of state education departments.”

What a story. First Lady Michelle Obama joined with Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner to christen a new $2.7 billion nuclear submarine.

Rauner has cut programs for the homeless mentally ill and for children with disabilities. He hates unions and public schools. He is a rightwing Republican who would cut every social program and privatize public education if he could get away with it. All to balance the budget without raising taxes on billionaires like himself.

The sub, of course, was built in Connecticut by union labor.

Here are John Thompson’s reactions to the transition at the U.S. Department if Education. I am happy to welcome John’s first direct contribution to the blog. John is a historian and a history teacher. He writes frequently about current issues in education. In this post, he speculates that Acting Secretary John King will be a problem for the Democratic nominee in 2016.

“Watching President Obama’s press conference where he announced the resignation of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was déjà vu and more déjà vu and even more déjà vu all over again. I still love the president as much as I despise his test and punish school policy. And, once again, President Obama displayed his charm even as he praised the discredited Duncan and his interim replacement, John King. Obama’s knows basketball and his jokes about Duncan and b-ball were great. However, his lack of understanding of the catastrophic misrule by King was not funny.

“Even in 2007, I knew that Hillary Clinton would be a better education president, but I went to Iowa to campaign for Obama. In 2012, I worried that Duncan (or should I say Scott Walker-lite?) would cost us the reelection. Fortunately, teachers and workers in Wisconsin and Ohio did not respond to the administration’s antiunion education policies by staying at home.

“After 2013, there was no logical reason for Duncan to not recant his test-driven accountability and his devotion to school closures, charters, and micromanaging. As Politico’s Mike Grunwald reports, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel had tried to warn him that “if he didn’t bring sanity to the testing craze, everything he was doing would collapse under its own weight.” AFT President Randi Weingarten told Duncan that “this fixation on testing was a disaster. If you don’t fix this, all you’re going to hear about for the next few years is testing, testing, testing.”

“Once again, Duncan remained loyal to corporate reformers, defended their social-engineering, and invested billions of dollars on competition-driven mandates and almost nothing on science-based, win-win policies like early education and full-service community schools.

“Even as the grassroots backlash against test, sort, reward and punish grew, Duncan did no more than mumble words about over-testing, invest relative pennies in socio-emotional student supports, and imply that he would have supported school integration had it been more politically popular. Such words rang hollow as his market-driven policies put NCLB-type testing on steroids and accelerated the resegregation of schools.

“And that leads, once again, back to the question of why President Obama would go along with the corporate reformers who see themselves as righteous crusaders against unions and demonize educators who reject their competition-driven policies. Nobody denies that King, like Duncan, is sincere. They are such nice guys that I really wanted to believe King’s words about the need for socio-economic integration. As was explained in Chalkbeat NY, Richard Kahlenberg says that “King could sway districts to take steps on integration even with relatively minor incentive programs.”

“But, I doubt we will hear more than sweet talk from him on how “schools that are integrated better reflect our values as a country.” After all, King is deeply rooted in the “No Excuses” charter school value system and nothing is a better recipe for increased resegregation than that pedagogy. What parents, if they had a choice, would embrace his behavioristic charters and the neo-Plessyism that results?

“In another “déjà vu all over again” moment, I’m torn by the destructive effect the King nomination could have on the Hillary Clinton campaign. Although I’m still undecided, I very much hope that the Democratic campaign can avoid circular firing squads. Any Democrat’s comment on the transition from Duncan to King will anger key constituencies. After all, education reform consciously pitted liberal versus liberal, generation versus generation, and civil rights advocate against civil rights advocate. It is Hillary who will most often have to face those questions.

“I can understand why the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association chose to make early endorsements of Hillary. I also respect the anger of educators who remind us of her long friendship with one of the most destructive and anti-union corporate reformers, Eli Broad. I cannot understand why a Democratic president would dump this on the plate of Democratic presidential candidates. I doubt they fully played out the political chess game, and how the King appointment comes at a bad time for Hillary, but how there are plenty of scenarios where Bernie or Biden could be hurt.

“Educators are energized. We see the no-longer-secret Broad plan to charterize Los Angeles school system for what it is – an all-out attack on teachers unions and the idea that the public and not the Billionaires Boys’ Club should run our schools. It was inevitable that this $500 million dollar assault on our educational values would provoke a backlash and at least stall Hillary’s momentum in the wake of the NEA endorsement. Now is not the time when she wants to face questions on which side is she on – corporate donors and King supporters (and funders) or teachers, parents, and unions.

“King may not be well-known outside of New York, but that state is hardly a political backwater. Moreover, it may be the strongest bastion of the Opt Out movement – a grassroots campaign that was prompted by high stakes testing, Common Core, and the unforced turnovers committed by Duncan and King.

“The national, non-education press may not be fully aware of the causes and the extent this anger, but there are plenty of educators and patrons who will inform them about the Duncan/King fiascoes, and the reasons why their test and punish policies are so despised.

“I will focus on just one – the pain caused by these nice guys as they personalized policy differences. Duncan ridiculed sincere opponents as “white suburban moms” who are afraid “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought.” King might be just as sincere, but that doesn’t make his slanders any more palatable to those of us who dedicated our lives to teaching poor children of color. We are primarily fighting for the right of our kids to get the same respectful, holistic engaging instruction as affluent kids. King, however, dismisses our concerns as excuse-making and low expectations.

“King, like Michelle Rhee, Scott Walker, John Deasy, Eli Broad and, yes, Arne Duncan, dismisses educators who disagree with him as putting “adult interests” over our kids. So, I believe the national press will soon be learning why we teachers are so offended by the King appointment. I just hope that Clinton, Sanders and, perhaps, Biden are not hurt by it.”

Andrew Rotherham is an insider inside the deepest realms of the Beltway. He is also a bona fide reformer who supports TFA, charters, and the whole corporate reform menu. Long ago, he advised Bill Clinton; now he is on the advisory board of Campbell Brown’s “The 74,” which has a long list of things it wants to do to strip away tenure, collective bargaining rights, and whatever teachers care about.

Andy wrote a very interesting story about the five “takeaways” from Duncan’s departure.

Here are some of his thoughts that are especially informative:

Education is apparently on the president’s “Eff-It” list. At this year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, President Obama said that he didn’t have a bucket list, but with time running out on his administration, he did have something that rhymed with it. The president’s choice of John King* to oversee the department after Duncan is a signal he’s not that concerned with education politics at this point.

To the right, King is a lightning rod because of his support for Common Core standards and his leadership implementing them in New York. To the left, he’s a flashpoint because of his support for teacher evaluations and no-nonsense championing of high expectations for low-income students and real accountability for the schools that serve them.

Teachers unions and some conservatives have been calling on Duncan to resign – this is not what they had in mind.

The education debate is about to get nastier. John King is an accomplished African American educator who helped found a highly regarded charter school in Boston. His personal story is as compelling as any education official in the country. Most reform critics don’t want to tangle with him publicly, if for no other reason than they have sense enough to recognize the gross optics of well-heeled white people explaining to an African American man why we shouldn’t have demanding expectations for educators serving low-income minority youth. So expect the debate to get nastier behind the scenes as those tensions manifest in other ways. In particular, look for more controversy in states and local communities but don’t expect much from Washington other than more administrative action.

Hillary is in the hot seat. Teachers unions need scalps and political theater to keep their activist members happy. (That’s why you get odd spectacles like Duncan helping write the very talking points teachers union leaders were using to castigate him publicly.) There is no way to read King’s ascension other than as a slap in the face to teachers unions, especially the New York-centric American Federation of Teachers, which has been sharply critical of the future secretary. Look for them to ratchet up the pressure on Hillary Clinton to distance herself from reform in a visible way, particularly in a primary fight where she needs labor’s support and her political problems lie to the left.

By the way, it was Michael Grunwald of Politico who wrote that Arne helped to draft the NEA’s condemnation of him.

Grunwald wrote:

At the NEA’s convention in 2011, the union formally declared that it was “appalled” with Duncan’s work. But at the same convention, the NEA endorsed the president’s reelection, as if the education secretary whose family hung out with the Obamas at Camp David was some kind of rogue operative. I heard from several sources that Duncan actually helped negotiate the language of his own condemnation; he’s no politician, but you can’t run the Chicago schools without some sense of politics.

In the car yesterday, I heard a report that Arne Duncan was stepping down. President Obama said: He did more than anyone else to bring American education into the 21st century, sometimes kicking and screaming.

I am paraphrasing but that is a very close approximation of what he said.

So this is what the 21st century will look like: boot camps for minorities; teachers with scripts; schools run for profit; school scams by corporations; education industry traded on Néw York Stock Exchange; high-yield online schools with high attrition rates; the monetization of public education.

The Los Angeles Times reports that some teachers are unhappy with their unions’ early endorsement of Hillary.

She supports unions. But where does she stand on charters? 90% of charters are nonunion. You can’t be pro-union and pro-charter.

Is she close to Eli Broad? For many teachers, that is the kiss of death.

Will she follow the Bush-Obama line?

She has to make clear where she stands.

Let me confess: I once thought Cornel West was way too radical. His politics were too extreme. Boy, was I wrong. Yet another bad judgment call on my part. Either the times have changed or I have changed. I now think that he makes sense.

As I watched this brief video clip of Cornel West facing down a panel that included Newt Gingrich, I found myself agreeing with everything he said. He called out progressives for their complicity with the far right and their silence in the face of intolerable abuses heaped on the weakest members of our society.

When he got to the part about the privatization of public education, I was cheering. His point was that we have to educate all the children, not just a favored few. We as a society are responsible for all our children.

Nicholas Tampio seeks to understand why the Democratic Party abandoned public education.

Some part of the explanation, he believe, can be found in the leadership’s limited personal engagement with public schools.

“The key to understanding Obama’s education policy, according to Maranto and McShane, is his biography. Obama attended the prestigious Punahou School in Hawaii, an experience that prepared him for college and law school. Obama also observed from a distance a Hawaiian public school system rife with ethnic violence, low academic standards and an unresponsive bureaucracy. These experiences influenced Obama’s decision to send his daughters to Sidwell Friends, the elite Washington, D.C. institution whose alumni include the younger Albert Gore and Chelsea Clinton.

“As president, Obama has advocated reforms to the public education system that include upping merit pay, weakening tenure rules and evaluating teachers by student test scores. Obama’s most controversial education policy, however, was the Race to the Top program that gave states additional incentives to adopt the Common Core standards.”

“There is nothing wrong with private school. The problem here, though, is that too many Democratic elites advocate education reforms such as the Common Core standards, charter schools, and high-stakes testing with minimal first-hand knowledge of how they affect schools or children. In sending their children to private schools, Democratic elites exempt themselves from policies that they might oppose if they saw their own children being harmed by them.”

“Liberty produces wealth, and wealth destroys liberty”
Henry Demarest Lloyd

News that teacher shortages exist in many states is not surprising to the nation’s educators.

Many, if not most, teachers in the United States today do not feel as though they are respected. Public school teachers feel as though their profession is under assault in a country that seems to be abandoning the idea of public education.

Those who seek to defund public education and replace it with a corporate model that makes use of market mechanisms to serve “strivers” and their families sound very well intended.

Education “reformers” typically target takeovers of inner city schools by managers who see charter school networks as assets in stock portfolios. Much as investment firms have bought up distressed mortgages, investors in charter schools envision long-term investment and risk leading to long-term dividends. These fledgling education capitalists sing a confident song of win-win: their schools will close the “achievement gap” between inner city and suburban youth and display the data proving it in “real-time.” They proof will be displayed in the “data,” lighting the path for the disruption of public schools and relieving tax-payers of school pension debt as the corporate school model displaces public control of schooling. The key source of profit for this privatization scheme, the real target of education capitalists, is the destruction of teacher unions. Investors will benefit by profit margins derived at the expense of teachers and their families. With the institution of work to order regimes that pay charter schoolteachers lower salaries, fewer benefits, and that offer virtually no workplace protections; investors will be able to realize more value in their portfolios.

That the Obama administration made a Faustian bargain with Republicans on public education is blindingly obvious. Long before Obama considered a run for the presidency, his best friend, Marty Nesbitt, along with Rahm Emanuel and the major Chicago developer clans: the Rauners, the Crowns, and the Pritzkers guided the creation of public-private partnerships to build housing to replace the city’s decaying and crime-ridden behemoth public housing projects under the Clinton era Hope Acts.

These same individuals, not surprisingly, turned to public-private initiatives in education, by founding and funding the Noble Charter chain. These schools cater to the city’s inner-city “strivers.” While the resources provided by the Pritzkers, Crowns, and Rauners to these schools and their students represent a sterling display of civic investment, what they give they hope will be multiplied by more investment in similar charter enterprises. Mr. Nesbitt predictably has started an investment firm, the Vistria Group, that seeks to attract investors into the charter school education business. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, has expressed great confidence in Mr. Nesbitt and the Vistria Group.

The direction of Obama education policy was thus built on two factors: the focus on building public-private partnerships in education modeled on the dismantling of the Chicago Housing authority and the need to attract Silicon Valley and tech sector billionaires, most prominently, Bill Gates. The tech billionaires also wanted more access to school markets and the privatization of public schools could free up money that would otherwise go to teacher salaries and benefits. When the Obama transition team chose Arne Duncan as Education secretary over arguably the most knowledgeable and able education researcher in the country, Linda Darling-Hammond, the die was cast.

Mr. Duncan was never a teacher and thus has little empathy for teachers or teaching. His favorite teacher, a University of Chicago Laboratory High School English teacher, has expressed “concern for the future of her profession” in the wake of attacks on teachers coming from Bill Gates and his foundation, Michael Bloomberg, Republican governors, representatives of the Bush and Obama administrations, and most prominently, her former student.

Many teachers view Mr. Duncan’s Race to the Top Initiative as a failure and the recent revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as a necessary corrective to out of control Federal, state, and local testing mandates that turn teaching into a nightmare.

We have reached an Education tipping point in the United States. We can either reverse course and end our romance with the privatization of Education and our obsession with standardized testing regimes, or our resourced starved public schools will simply collapse, trapped as they are in a zero-sum game of diminishing resources.

The editorial pages and publishers of the New York Times and the Tribune Company have served as the praetorian guard of education reform movement sponsored by well-intentioned plutocrats who have little or no first hand knowledge about the everyday challenges that face most public school teachers, students, and parents.

Our political leaders need to begin to listen to parents who opt their kids out of invalid and ridiculous tests, teachers who are quitting or fleeing teacher hostile states like Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, and Arizona, and potentially excellent candidates for teaching who decide that teaching is not a rewarding profession.

Disruption is leading us down the wrong road.

Paul Horton teaches history at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. His views in no way reflect the views of the board or the administration of the Laboratory Schools (several former members of this board are mentioned in this article)


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