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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 09/28/2012

What was Obama talking about on Education Nation?

President Obama gave an interview to NBC News that was aired on Tuesday during the network’s Education Nation Summit in New York City. He said some things that raised eyebrows in certain circles.

You can read the complete transcript of the Obama interview here, and
(Steve Helber/AP)
then the following critique by education historian Diane Ravitch which appeared on her blog:

By Diane Ravitch

First, the president acknowledged that he was not a very good student when he was in school. He said that he was “mediocre.” Several readers [of Ravitch’s blog] have asked: Does the president think that his teachers should have been fired because he didn’t try? Did he have bad teachers? Were they responsible for his poor performance or was he?

Second, the president lauded the idea of merit pay, paying teachers more if the standardized test scores of their students go up (and firing them if they don’t). No one has told him that merit pay has failed wherever it was tried. No one has told him that it failed in Nashville in 2010, it failed in New York City in 2010, it failed in Chicago last year. Yet his administration has allocated $1 billion for more merit pay. Why doesn’t someone tell him?

Third, the president said that teachers in Denver are very happy to be paid more for performance. No one explained to the president that the Denver ProComp plan contains extra pay for taking on harder assignments, and that the Denver teachers opposed the pay-for-scores legislation that was imposed on them by the faux reformers two years ago. But Denver has little to show for its “reforms.” Denver is no national model. Read Gary Rubinstein’s post on the unimpressive results in Denver. The scores in Denver (which is what the President means by “results”) remain well below the state average.

Fourth, the president referred to class size. He said that he talked to teachers in Las Vegas who were unhappy that their classes at the opening of school had 42 students, and it took a few weeks to get them down to 35-38. The president didn’t say whether he thought that it was okay to have 35-38 students in an elementary school class. I wish the reporter had asked whether any of the classes at Sidwell Friends [where Obama’s daughters go to school] have 35-38 students.

Fifth, the president lauded his administration’s Race to the Top as he talked about “results,” but he seems unaware that it has no evidence to show that it will produce results. States and districts are now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to tie teacher evaluations to test scores, and not one of them can show that schools are better or kids are learning more because of this unproven method. Where are the successes?

Not in Washington D.C., which has been practicing Michelle Rhee-form since 2007 and is still one of the nation’s lowest performing districts; not in Chicago, where teachers recently struck over poor working conditions and lack of necessary resources for students; not in New York City, where the scores collapsed in 2010 after the state acknowledged that it had gamed the testing system; and not in New Orleans, where an almost all-charter system is ranked 69th of 70 districts in the state and 79% of the charters are rated D or F.

Sixth, the president says he really likes charter schools. But nowhere does he acknowledge that charters are recreating a dual system of publicly funded schools in the nation’s cities and are now starting to expand their “market” into affluent districts where there are no “failing” schools. Nor does he acknowledge that numerous studies find that charters don’t get different results than public schools if they serve the same students. Why does he want two systems, one regulated, the other deregulated? I wish the reporter had asked those questions.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The president has many more pressing issues to think about, both foreign and domestic. He wants to win the election.

But he is woefully misinformed about his own education policies, about the absence of evidence for them, about the lack of results, about the harmful effect they are having on students and teachers and the quality of education, about the shared assumptions of Race to the Top and the failed No Child Left Behind. He doesn’t seem aware that his own policies require “teaching to the test,” which he says he opposes.

He has not heard the voices of teachers and parents. He is not changing his policies. They will fail as No Child Left Behind has failed because they are based on flawed assumptions about teaching and learning, and because they are based on carrots and sticks.

Carrots and sticks work for donkeys, not for professionals.

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