Unions Criticize Obama School Reform's Reliance on Tests, Charters as 'Bush III'

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

To the surprise of many educators who campaigned last year for change in the White House, the Obama administration's first recipe for school reform relies heavily on Bush-era ingredients and adds others that make unions gag.

Standardized testing, school accountability, performance pay, charter schools -- all are integral to President Obama's $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" grant competition to spur innovation. None is a typical Democratic crowd-pleaser.

Labor leaders, parsing the Education Department's fine print, call the proposal little more than a dressed-up version of the No Child Left Behind law enacted seven years ago under Obama's Republican predecessor.

"It looks like the only strategies they have are charter schools and measurement," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "That's Bush III." Weingarten, who praises Obama for massive federal aid to help schools through the recession, said her 1.4 million-member union is engaged in "a constructive but tart dialogue" with the administration about reform.

Debate over Race to the Top among Democrats, education groups and others is widespread, with thousands of written comments pouring into the government since late July. It previews the clash to come when Obama and the Democratic-led Congress update No Child Left Behind. The controversial law is certain to be renamed and reworked. But those who want to scrap it entirely might be disappointed because federal education policy has been largely bipartisan for the past two decades.

"Obama's the fourth president in a row who has been in favor of standards-based reform and test-driven accountability," said Jack Jennings, a former Democratic congressional aide and president of the Center on Education Policy. "Obama's very much in a line of four consecutive presidents -- two liberals, two conservatives; two Democrats and two Republicans -- who are all in favor of the same kind of reform."

On Thursday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told interest groups in Washington that the administration hopes to improve the 2002 federal law by raising expectations for students, giving schools more flexibility and tracking classroom gains rather than how far test scores fall short of what he called "utopian goals."

But Duncan reiterated his commitment to testing and accountability: "I will always give NCLB credit for exposing achievement gaps and for requiring that we measure our efforts to improve education by looking at outcomes rather than inputs. . . . Today, we expect districts, principals and teachers to take responsibility for the academic performance of their schools and students."

The standardized testing culture has sunk deep roots in public education under the federal mandate to assess students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. State tests are widely criticized for uneven rigor and quality, but they provide data crucial to many reform efforts. The administration has set aside funding to help develop a new generation of exams as a group of states seeks to write what could become the first nationwide academic standards. But for now, the regular state tests will feed into Race to the Top.

The administration's proposed rules for the grants challenge the education establishment on several fronts:

-- To create systems to track individual student achievement over time and link growth in scores to individual teachers and principals;

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