By Dana Milbank
Sunday, August 15, 2010; A09
The Education Department kicked off its first ever "Bullying Summit" this week with a speech by Secretary Arne Duncan about the need "to break the cycle of bullying."
But if Duncan really wants to stop the biggest bully in America's schools right now, he'll have to confront his boss, President Obama. In federal education policy, the president and his education secretary have been the neighborhood toughs -- bullying teachers, civil rights groups, even Obama's revered community organizers.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, in now-famous remarks, said that those who claim Obama is like George W. Bush should be "drug tested." In general, I have sympathy for Gibbs's frustration --liberals have an annoying tendency to eat their own -- and I often think Obama should be more forceful. But in education, the Bush-Obama comparison is spot on. If anything, Obama has taken the worst aspect of Bush's No Child Left Behind education law -- an obsession with testing -- and amplified it.
Obama has expanded the importance of standardized testing to determine how much teachers will be paid, which educators will be fired and which schools will be closed -- despite evidence that such practices are harmful. In the process, he's offended just about all the liberals involved in or advocating for education without gaining much support from conservatives.
Stunned, Obama's erstwhile allies have begun to push back. On July 26, a coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, called for an end to "federally prescribed methodologies that have little or no evidentiary support" and that use minority communities as "testing grounds."
The next day, the American Federation of Teachers issued a statement saying the administration was encouraging "bad teacher evaluation systems." And the day after that, a coalition of community organizing groups scolded the administration for continuing "rigid, top-down solutions that are not supported by research."
Privately, Obama's one-time friends are far more caustic. They talk of an "elitist" and "arrogant" administration embracing an education policy produced by the Center for American Progress with too little regard for what happens in practice.
Obama's response to his supporters: Buzz off. On July 29, he gave a speech to the Urban League and said his critics are "comfortable with the status quo" and have "a general resistance to change."
But it's not just ossified interest groups that oppose the testing. When winners of the state Teachers of the Year came to town this spring, Valerie Strauss, author of The Post's Answer Sheet blog, asked several of them for their thoughts on education policy. All complained about using test scores to rate teachers.
There's nothing wrong with testing, but when you use tests to determine pay and job security, you inevitably induce teachers to turn children into test-taking automatons, not the creative thinkers that have been the most valuable product of American schools. Test obsession won't help the bad schools, and it will wreck the good ones.
"The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind," New York University education professor Diane Ravitch, an education official in George H.W. Bush's administration, wrote of Obama's education policy in a piece for the Huffington Post. "There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test. There will be more cheating, more gaming the system." The tests, she said, are "simply not adequate" to separate good teachers and schools from bad.
Consider the reliability of standardized tests in New York. In New York City schools, 82 percent of students were at grade level in math last year; this year, only 54 percent are at grade level, after administrators revised their artificially low standards for proficiency.
Daniel Koretz, a Harvard professor and authority on testing, has concluded that high-stakes testing causes "substantial distortions of practice" in the classroom "and inflation of test scores." In an article published this summer, he writes: "The seriousness of this problem is hard to overstate. When scores are inflated, many of the most important conclusions people base on them will be wrong, and students -- and sometimes teachers -- will suffer as a result."
But try telling all this to the Obama administration. "There's an attitude that if you aren't with us, you are against us -- and therefore against children and reform," a Democratic friend of mine who runs an education advocacy group in Washington told me. The administration, she said, "tries to bully and condemn any opposition, even if it is from groups that should be their allies."
If Obama's interested, she's available to speak at the next bullying summit.