The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Obama’s debate performance says about his education policy

In the wake of President Obama’s lackluster performance in his first debate with Mitt Romney, commentators have suggested that part of the president’s problem was that during his time in the White House, he (like other presidents before him) has rarely been challenged. People don’t interrupt him, tell him he is being obtuse and that he is dead wrong.

So what does this have to do with his education policy?

For years many people in the education world have wondered if Obama actually understands the effect that his policies have on schools, teachers, principals and students. Take his comment in the debate that the Race to the Top initiative wasn’t a “top-down” effort.

Race to the Top is the multi-billion-dollar program in which federal dollars were awarded to states and school districts that promised to make the reforms that Obama’s Education Department wanted. States, in a desperate attempt to win dollars during a time of shrinking resources, changed their laws to try to get the money, not necessarily because they thought what they were doing was the right thing. Some won the cash and some didn’t.

Many states felt that Race to the Top was nothing but a top-down program. But the question is whether any of Obama’s aides told him that they did.

Another example are the waivers that the Education Department gave to states that allowed them ignore the toughest mandates in No Child Left Behind. Obama has in campaign speeches talked about the freedom these waivers gave to states. Did no one tell him that states could only get the waivers if they agreed to do what the Education Department wanted them to do? Again, this was another top-down approach that the administration keeps characterizing otherwise.

Does Obama know — and if he does, when did he find out — that many public school teachers are furious at his administration because of its support of evaluating educators in part by student standardized test scores, a method that assessment experts say is unfair?

Obama repeatedly talks about how his policies have improved schools, but does anybody tell him why so many people believe they haven’t?

Does he know that many people think his administration has virtually ignored the biggest elephant in the education debate: the effect of poverty on student achievement?

These are legitimate questions to ask in the wake of the debate.

Obama needs to get out more in the education world and really listen.