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Posted at 11:19 PM ET, 03/15/2011

Obama and Boehner: Education nonsense

It’s hard to keep track of who is making less sense on education in Washington D.C. right now: the Democratic president or the top Republican.

President Obama gave a speech this week about the need to rewrite No Child Left Behind, which makes sense given that the law has not achieved its main goal of closing the achievement gap and instead has ushered in an era of high-stakes standardized tests and curriculum that squeezes out everything but the basics -- and doesn’t even do a good job teaching kids reading and writing and math.

But too much of the rest of what he said has little bearing in reality. Speaking directly to teachers, for example, he said that while the country needs better assessments to figure out how students are progressing, “I’m not talking about more tests. I’m not talking about teaching to the test.”

Really? Then why have his policies pushed states and school districts to evaluate and pay teachers according to students’ standardized test scores, which is resulting in the development of new and more tests to assess kids in subjects not covered now by such exams? And when teachers’ livelihoods depend on test scores going up, does he really think teachers are not going to “teach to the test?” It has already become commonplace in public schools, one of the unfortunate consequences of No Child Left Behind.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, House Speaker John A. Boehner is making clear this week that he will insist on resurrecting a $2.3 million voucher program in the nation’s capital so that poor children can use public funds to have the same Catholic education that he had when he was young.

According to a story by my Post colleagues Ben Pershing and Paul Kane, Boehner credits Catholic schools with helping him become the most powerful member of Congress, and wants to give low-income D.C. kids a chance to escape what he calls “one of the worst school districts in the country.”

He has called the nation’s $14.1 trillion debt “a mortal threat to our country” and has said that all discretionary programs -- except for the few that he especially likes -- are at risk of being cut.

So, the word is out that he might be willing to compromise with Obama on education if Obama, whose administration opposes vouchers, will accede to his wishes on this program.

“This is very, very important’’ to Boehner, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, was quoted as saying in the Pershing/Kane story. “So the White House would be wise to take that under consideration.”

Hmmm.

The fact that public school districts around the country are slashing their budgets so much that kids are sitting in classes of 40 and 50 and more kids and that some schools in California have had to hold bake sales to keep the schools open doesn’t seem to move Boehner much.

Obama himself didn’t exactly address in his speech the slashing and burning going on in public school districts today -- not the plan just announced in Detroit to close half of all public schools and create high schools with classes of 60 kids, and not the stripping of most collective bargaining rights for teachers in Wisconsin and other states, and not a plan in Idaho to lay off hundreds of teachers and have students take a few courses on line.

(In fact, while teachers in Madison were protesting, Obama flew to Florida to share a stage and effusively praise former Gov. Jeb Bush, a leader in market-driven school reforms that many teachers believe is destroying their profession. But I digress.)

Instead, he said, somewhat inexplicably, that while he is determined to cut the deficit, “I refuse to do it by telling students here who are so full of promise that we’re not willing to invest in your future.”

Obama doesn’t have to tell kids that if he doesn’t want to; they can see what’s going on in their schools. They know when their teachers pay out of their own salaries for paper and pencils. They know when their class sizes soar. They know what’s going on, even if Obama doesn’t want to mention it.

Obama, too, strained credulity in his description of his administration’s Race to the Top competition, which dangled $4.3 billion in federal funding in front of states that promised to make reforms favored by Education Secretary Arne Duncan but that have not been borne out by evidence. Eleven states and the District of Columbia won funding but other states went ahead and adopted the reforms anyway.

Obama said his administration now wants to let local school districts apply, and then he said, “That’s why we need to [have] the same bottom-up approach when it comes to reforming America’s most important education law, otherwise known as No Child Left Behind.”

Bottom-up? Does the president really believe that the recent education reforms weren’t top-down, starting with his administration?

Meanwhile, in part because Obama’s proposals for rewriting No Child Left Behind included more federally mandated tests that pile more consequences onto the scores, it isn’t likely things are going to get any better, even if Congress does eliminate the “adequate yearly progress” requirement.

Obama, in his speech, pointed to a statement made last week by Duncan that more than 80 percent of public schools could be declared to have failed to meet adequate yearly progress requirements, and there is bipartisan support for getting rid of it. That figure was contested by some in the education world, including Duncan’s normal allies, but clearly the trajectory in this regard is not good.

Education historian Diane Ravitch recently described the world of public education today as “a moment of national insanity.” All the signs suggest that that moment is extending into weeks and months and years.

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By  |  11:19 PM ET, 03/15/2011

 
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