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Obama defends education policies in speech to National Urban League

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010; 10:40 PM

President Obama pushed back Thursday against critics of his policy of forcing staff shake-ups and other major interventions at struggling schools, telling a civil rights organization that "something needs to be done differently" when schools fail year after year.

Obama said he wants to help educators raise achievement, not punish them.

"Now, sometimes a school's problems run so deep that you can do the better assessments and the higher standards and a more challenging curriculum and that's not enough," the president said in a speech to the National Urban League in Washington. "If a school isn't producing graduates with even the most basic skills, year after year after year after year, something needs to be done differently. You know, the definition, somebody once said, of madness is you do the same thing over and over again and keep expecting a different result."

This year, the Obama administration is distributing $3.5 billion in grants for perennially low-performing schools, with conditions that rile some educators. To qualify for the aid, local educators must choose one of four options: replacing the school's principal and at least half the staff; converting the school to a charter school or a similar alternative; shutting it down and dispersing students; or transforming it through a series of changes in curriculum and management that generally include replacing the principal. The fourth choice is proving the most popular.

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University has found that 2,136 schools nationwide have been identified as eligible for the grants, including 10 in the District, 16 in Maryland and 22 in Virginia.

Obama and his aides say that without strong accountability, many schools in poor and predominantly minority communities will languish. But some lawmakers from both parties have called the administration's prescriptions rigid and unproven.

"Unfortunately, our turnaround policy focuses more on finding someone to blame than finding solutions," said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.). She said troubled urban and rural communities need more social services to help remove obstacles to education -- a view echoed by some civil rights leaders.

The National Urban League, the NAACP and some other groups also have urged the administration to seek more equitable funding for schools and have questioned the competitive emphasis of Obama's $4 billion Race to the Top grants, which produces winners and losers. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced this week the creation of a commission to study education equity issues.

Obama acknowledged controversy about Race to the Top. "Part of it, I believe, reflects a general resistance to change. We get comfortable with the status quo," he said, adding, "Even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we've got to make sure that we're seeing results in the classroom."

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