When Maya Angelou blasted Obama’s school-reform policies


In this Feb. 15, 2011, file photo, President  Obama kisses author and poet Maya Angelou after awarding her the Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the White House in Washington.  (Charles Dharapak/AP)

The legendary poet and author Maya Angelou, who just passed away at the age of  86, was a big supporter of President Obama, and in 2011, he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. But she also was a critic of his school-reform policies, raising her voice last year to blast his signature education initiative, Race to the Top, and expressing concern about the impact standardized testing was having on children.

Angelou was one of the more than 120 other authors and illustrators of books for children who signed a letter last October to Obama and said they were “alarmed” about the impact his standardized test-centric school-reform policies were having “on children’s love reading and literature.” The letter, organized by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said in part:

We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your administration’s own initiatives, on children’s love of reading and literature. Recent policy changes by your Administration have not lowered the stakes. On the contrary, requirements to evaluate teachers on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration.

A week later, she appeared on the MSNBC show “Andrea Mitchell Reports” and responded to questions about her opposition to Race to the Top, a multibillion-dollar competition run by the U.S. Education Department that allowed states and later individual school districts to vie for federal funds by promising to enact education reforms favored by the administration. Critics have charged that Race to the Top has led to increased high-stakes standardized testing because it requires states that win funds to evaluate teachers in part on student standardized test scores. She said:

“Race To The Top feels to be more like a contest … not what did you learn, but how much can you memorize.”

She also said that young people should have the freedom to read the great authors, including Tolstoy and Balzac, because their books help young people learn about the complexities of the world.

“Writers are really interested in forming young men and women. … ‘This is your world.’  ‘ This is your country.’  ‘ This is your time.’ And so I don’t think you can get that by racing to the top.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 28, 2014