Jeff Bryant noted that President Obama has been boasting lately about the success of his education policies, pointing to a rise in high school graduation rates as proof of their efficacy. Bryant says that the President’s education policies are nothing to brag about.
The emphasis on using outcome measures has been a hallmark of the Obama years in education. That has put unusual and often harmful pressure to get results, even when the results are meaningless. Take those rising graduation rates. Some schools have increased their graduation rates by assigning low-performing students to phony credit recovery classes, where they can guess the right answer until they pass and get meaningless credits.
The focus on test scores has warped education, in some cases, causing schools to cut time for recess, the arts, history, civics, and everything else that is not tested.
For instance, according to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” academic achievement generally is declining under Obama’s watch.
As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, for the first time since the federal government began administering the exams in 1990, math scores for fourth-graders and eighth-graders declined. Reading scores weren’t much better: Eighth-grade scores dropped while fourth-grade performance was stagnant compared with 2013, the last time the test was administered. Achievement gaps between white and minority students remain large.
But the education numbers that have worsened the most are those associated with what’s being invested into the system rather than what’s coming out of it.
Drawing from a new report on government spending on children, Bruce Lesley president of First Focus finds, “Federal support for education has dropped from a high of $74 billion in 2010 to $41 billion in 2015, a decline of more than 40 percent in the last five years … Federal education spending remains 9 percent lower than in pre-recession 2008.”
Beyond the support for education at the federal level, the picture is arguably even worse.
In its most recent report on spending on education, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds, “Thirty-five states provided less overall state funding per student in the 2014 school year (the most recent year available) than in the 2008 school year.” Even in the states where local funding rose, the “increases rarely made up for cuts.”
Local funding for schools, another significant share of education support, generally fell during the same time period. “In 36 states, total state and local funding combined fell between the 2008 and 2014 school years,” the CBPP finds.
This steep decline in education funding is arguably the most significant threat to our children’s education, and thus, the country’s future.
According to a recent review of the research on the systemic correlation between education spending and school quality and student achievement, William Mathis and Kevin Welner, of the National Education Policy Center, find, “While specific results vary from place to place, in general, money does matter and it matters most for economically deprived children. Gains from investing in education are found in test scores, later earnings, and graduation rates.”
In another review of research studies on the importance of adequate and equitable school funding, Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker writes, “To be blunt, money does matter. Schools and districts with more money clearly have greater ability to provide higher quality, broader, and deeper educational opportunities to the children they serve. Furthermore, in the absence of money, or in the aftermath of deep cuts to existing funding, schools are unable to do many of the things they need to do in order to maintain quality educational opportunities.”
What Obama Never Got About Education
Emphasizing education output, while generally leaving input unaddressed, has been a feature, not a bug, of the Obama administration’s education policy all along.
This was the administration whose signature programs, Race to the Top and the waivers to No child Left Behind, demanded states rate schools and teachers based on a “learning output,” which most states took to mean student scores on standardized tests. The president’s Education Department and Secretary Arne Duncan incentivized states to lift any restrictions on the number of charter schools in the system and provided significant grant money to expand their numbers. States were encouraged to spend vast sums of money on new systems to track output data and use them to sort and rank schools, evaluate teachers, label students, and force schools into turnaround efforts that would result in being subjected to even more scrupulous data tracking.
But while the Obama administration obsessed over output numbers, its attention to the inputs in the system was ad hoc and haphazard at best.
Obama’s Education Department never showed much interest in equitable and adequate funding, nor for that matter, in desegregation. The biggest change induced by Race to the Top was more funding for privatization, and more states authorizing privatization in order to be eligible for RTTT money. Imagine if Race to the Top had awarded millions to states that created policies to promote desegregation. It is important, it is measurable. It would have changed our schools and our society. But desegregation was not a priority.
And then there are his choices for Secretary of Education. Arne Duncan was a failure as Superintendent in Chicago, where he promised that there would be a Renaissance by 2010 (the name of his program, “Renaissance 2010”). He failed. He closed schools, he opened charter schools. He failed. And then came John King, who had been an embarrassing failure in New York state. He couldn’t speak to parents, because they were so angry about his heavy-handed promotion of Common Core and high-stakes testing. Governor Cuomo wanted him gone. And now he is Secretary of Education. Based on what?
Nothing to brag about here.
An object lesson in what not to do to improve American education.