Rethinking the Classroom: Obama’s overhaul of public education


President Obama visits with teachers at Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas in August. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
September 20, 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one in a series of articles examining President Obama’s record.

In 31 / 2 years in office, President Obama has set in motion a broad overhaul of public education from kindergarten through high school, largely bypassing Congress and inducing states to adopt landmark changes that none of his predecessors attempted.

He awarded billions of dollars in stimulus funding to states that agreed to promote charter schools, use student test scores to evaluate teachers and embrace other administration-backed policies. And he has effectively rewritten No Child Left Behind, the federal law passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush, by excusing states from its requirements if they adopt his measures.

Under Obama’s framework, teachers with weak ratings tied to student achievement could lose their jobs, while high ratings could mean bigger paychecks. And children in 45 states and the District of Columbia will for the first time follow a set of common standards aimed at raising achievement, with a third-grader in Hawaii expected to know the same things as a third-grader in Maine. One result will be that children at all levels will read less literature and more speeches, journalism and other “informational texts” to prepare for life after graduation.

Obama’s agenda has amplified ideas that have been simmering around the country, including those championed by Republicans, among them the push to give parents more choice about where children attend school and to blast apart a long-standing system that rewarded teachers for longevity but not necessarily effectiveness.

The president has said changes are needed to close the persistent gap between poor and privileged students, drive up high school graduation rates and produce a workforce that can compete globally.

But it is impossible to predict whether his policies, which are years from full implementation, will work. There is little or no research showing that these measures lead to better-educated children or higher graduation rates. Unions and some parents contend that Obama’s approach overemphasizes testing and crowds out the arts and other subjects.

There is wide agreement, however, that the administration has been particularly successful at pushing through its flavor of education policy.

Critics see overreach

“They’ve taken their concept of reform, like it or not, laid it out very directly, put the resources around it and moved to drive state practices,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonpartisan group that represents state education officials.

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said he recognizes the effort the administration has poured into education, even as he argues that Obama has overreached.

“They’ve been extraordinarily aggressive and engaged,” he said.

The Obama education agenda, which relies on competition, accountability and other market concepts, has provoked controversy around the country.

Last week, unionized teachers in Chicago walked out of their classrooms for the first time in 25 years in a strike over proposals similar to Obama’s, including revamped teacher evaluations and ending job security based only on seniority.

Civil rights groups also have raised questions about Obama’s proposals, worried that stepping away from No Child Left Behind will ease pressure on states to help poor children perform as well as their wealthier classmates.

Going around Congress

Obama was able to propel change two ways. With states clamoring for relief from No Child Left Behind, and Congress stalled five years over reauthorizing it, the president forged ahead with his agenda rather than waiting for Congress to act.

He used his authority to issue waivers from No Child Left Behind to 33 states.

The administration also leveraged $4.3 billion in stimulus money that Congress approved for education, creating a series of competitive grants known as Race to the Top, pumping to a new level this type of award. In the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, federal officials dangled the stimulus money to persuade struggling states to make big policy shifts.

“They’ve pioneered it,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative research group. “Making states compete for a limited pot of money and awarding it to the most serious state is pretty unusual.”

So far, 18 states and the District of Columbia have won grants, but more than half of the states have tried — and each had to adopt policies favored by the Obama administration in order to compete. That led 28 states to change a total of 100 laws or policies, the Education Department reports.

The California legislature, for example, threw out a law that prohibited schools from using student test scores to evaluate teachers.

The administration also made it clear that, to compete, states needed to embrace a new, common set of demanding academic standards or similiar benchmarks.

Massachusetts, home to some of the strongest academic standards in the country, ditched its framework to adopt the common standards in 2010 so it could apply for the grants. The state was awarded $250 million.

Although the standards were written by a consortium of state leaders and the federal government was not involved, some states refused to participate.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said in a statement that Texas would not compete in Race to the Top because it would be “foolish and irresponsible to place our children’s future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special-interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington.”

Undeterred by the state’s resistance, the administration in May announced a round of grants that will be awarded to individual districts. That would allow Houston, for example, to apply even if Texas remained uninterested.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan likes to point out that Race to the Top funding represents less than 1 percent of the $500 billion spent in this country annually for elementary and high school education, but that it has had an outsized impact.

“This minor provision in the Recovery Act has unleashed an avalanche of pent-up education reform activity at the state and local level,” Duncan said in a speech at the National Press Club last year.

‘Crazy-quilt thing’

With 33 states excused from No Child Left Behind and six other waivers pending, more than half the country is now adhering to the administration’s educational policies, rather than those formed by Congress.

Some critics say the result is a complicated patchwork, with each state crafting its own reforms and accountability measures.

“The crazy-quilt thing completely obfuscates the transparency that No Child Left Behind brought to bear,” said Margaret Spellings, who was education secretary under George W. Bush and now advises the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others on education issues. “Even the most learned wonk can barely decipher what’s going on, let alone a teacher or a parent. His people are passing judgment on state policy. And instead of a national framework, we now have 50 different systems.”

States that received waivers are in various stages of planning and implementation. A handful have begun using the common standards, while most will have them in place by the school year that begins in the fall of 2013. That will require many states to rewrite curriculum and tests and retrain teachers.

School administrators around the country are working on strategies aimed at lifting the performance of students in their worst schools, including longer school days and greater individualized attention. And most states are working out the thorny details of teacher evaluation systems, a process that has prompted collaboration with unions in some places and conflict in others.

Unions bristle

Teachers unions, a core Democratic constituency, bristled at several of the policies, particularly the idea of merit pay and linking teacher evaluations to student performance.

States were required to consult with teachers unions in seeking waivers, but unions remain concerned about the way the new systems are being implemented. Their leaders worry that states will place too much emphasis on student test scores, and they say it is unfair to blame a teacher whose students are struggling with poverty, violence and other factors that make it difficult for them to perform well in school. Complicating the matter is that none of the school systems that have begun using new teacher evaluation systems, including the District’s, have developed a model satisfactory to both sides — the school districts are regularly tweaking and changing their systems.

Still, the National Education Assocation and the American Federation of Teachers both have endorsed Obama.

“We agree on where we ought to be going as a nation, to fulfill the promise of public education so that every kid has a shot,” said NEA head Dennis Van Roekel, who has monthly breakfasts with Duncan. “It’s good to fight over these issues.”

While Republicans on Capitol Hill endorse much of the Obama education agenda, they say Duncan has overstepped his authority.

“We shouldn’t allow one person to decide the priorities in education and what the policies in education are,” Kline said. “That’s way, way too much power in one person.”

Results uncertain

Unanswered is whether the Obama policies will boost achievement and graduation rates or better prepare students for colleges and careers.

None of the top-performing countries against which the United States is frequently compared — in an unflattering light — use any of the techniques advocated by Obama. Finland, which leads the world in student achievement, has no merit pay or standardized tests except for a national exam that all students take at age 16. Instead, Finnish teachers write the tests to measure their students’ progress.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that common standards won’t necessarily improve student performance. And the idea that merit pay leads to better teaching is not backed up by research.

“When you look at the press releases and public speeches of federal officials, they are quick to claim, ‘Look at how successful we are because we’ve got a lot of policy changes,’ ” said Paul Manna, an associate professor at the College of William and Mary who has written about Race to the Top. “But we won’t know if it’s successful until we see if children are learning more.”

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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