Jon Stewart showed considerable restraint this week when he welcomed Melody Barnes, President Obama’s chief of domestic policy, on The Daily Show and she spoke about the administration’s education reforms in a way that revealed how out of touch the White House is on the subject.
Stewart asked Barnes, who is leaving her post as director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council at the end of the year, what she was most proud of. She singled out the administration’s education policies, both K-12 and higher education, though Stewart steered the converation to the former.
When Barnes said that “we are turning schools around” and that the multi-billion-dollar Race to the Top competition is a paradigm shift away from the “cookie cutter approach” to education than the prescriptive No Child Left Behind, Stewart was clearly not buying it.
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“The biggest complaint I hear from teachers, and by teachers I mean my mom... A) Why did you wear that shirt? and B) the teaching to the test. This idea that this Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, these benchmarks that have been given from Washington have caused schools to focus entirely on whatever benchmark or requirement they need to get funding, and it has removed from education the, I guess what you’d call it, the educating.”
The crowd laughs. It’s clear Stewart isn’t a Race to the Top fan.
Barnes, noting that her mother was a teacher too, quickly responds:
“That’s what we’re trying to turn around. No Child Left Behind had that cookie cutter one-size-fits-all approach to education. And instead what we’ve done through Race to the Top, and most recently because Congress wouldn’t move on reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act and turning it around, we’ve used our flexibility in the executive branch to say, ‘You’ve got some relief if you are going to put in place some smart reforms from those mandates from No Child Left Behind so there’s more flexiblity, there’s more innovation, there’s more creativity so teachers can in fact teach.”
At that point, Stewart might have lowered a hammer on her if she had been, say, Jim Cramer, the former hedge fund manager turned television personality who Stewart took apart in 2009 for Cramer’s financial commentary while the economy was melting down.
After all, Race to the Top — a competition that has states vie for federal funds by promising to implement reforms championed by the Education Department — does, in fact, extend NCLB’s obsession with standardized testing. How? By requiring that teacher evaluation be in part measured by the scores students get on these exams. There is no concrete evidence that any of the Race to the Top reforms actually improve student achievement, but when has education policy paid attention to research?
But Stewart lets Barnes off easy, perhaps recognizing there was no point in a frontal assault. Instead, he said:
“So your feedback... The feedback I’m getting is that Race to the Top has intensified the issue, not alleviated it, but I guess the people I talk to don’t work in the White House.”
Barnes proceeded to chastize him as if she were a kindergarten teacher talking to a 5-year-old. She said, “Now, now, now.”
He let her persist in defending Race to the Top, saying that in states that have won money in the competition, teachers and principals and parents and community leaders have all come together to “focus on plans to help reform education.”
I’m not sure to what states she was referring, as the initial rounds of Race to the Top money included nothing about parent or teacher involvement in reform plans, and many public school teachers are strongly opposed to linking their evaluations to student test scores.
Stewart tried yet again, saying, “I’ve always found with education that individuals are the ones that make the enormous difference. And the more that you are able to empower a great teacher, a great principal, a great superintendent, that can make enormous diferences. How do we empower the individuals to have the authority and responsibility to make those changes and not tie them to arbitrary objective realities or goals?”
And they kept talking until, apparently, Stewart realized it was hopeless.
He suggested that schools raise money by renting out rooms at night: “Brothels.”
Barnes said the only thing that made much sense: “Not the brothel plan.”
The takeaway? Administration officials either are oblivious to the opposition to their education policies — which is significant enough that the host of a news satire television show knows about it — or they are willfully ignoring it.
Either way, we’ve got a problem.
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