White House officials say they didn’t tell President Obama about an impending IRS scandal, and nobody told him the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed reporters’ phone records, and exactly what he knew when about the Benghazi controversy is unclear. This, then, seems like a good time to ask: How much has the president been told about the unfortunate effects his education reform policies are having on public schools?
He’s never given any real indication that he knows the severity of problems teachers and schools are facing.
He’s never, for example, acknowledged that his policies have fueled a high-stakes standardized testing obsession in public education, and then led to a growing national revolt involving students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, professors and researchers.
Issues that seem to have barely registered with him — at least as judged from his public posture — include how living in poverty affects student achievement, the increasing segregation in public charter schools, and the plummeting morale of teachers who are being unfairly being evaluated, with the support of his Education Department, on the test scores of their students (and sometimes on the test scores of students they haven’t taught).
Back in 2011, he seemed to pay no attention to teachers who were angry that he chose to embrace the anti-union former Republican governor Jeb Bush as a “champion” of school reform at the very same time Wisconsin teachers were striking for their collective bargaining rights in early March. And at about that same time, in a town hall meeting hosted by Univision, this is how he answered a student who asked if there was a way to reduce the number of tests students have to take:
We have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at. Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.
Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.
In January 2012, education historian Diane Ravitch wrote this :
I don’t know about you, but I am growing convinced that President Barack Obama doesn’t know what Race to the Top is. I don’t think he really understands what his own administration is doing to education…
Ravitch, on her then Education Week blog, Bridging Differences, wrote that Obama, in his 2012 state of the union address, portrayed a vision of teaching and learning that flew against what his own policies were creating:
In his  State of the Union address last week, he said that he wanted teachers to “stop teaching to the test.” He also said that teachers should teach with “creativity and passion.” And he said that schools should reward the best teachers and replace those who weren’t doing a good job. To “reward the best” and “fire the worst,” states and districts are relying on test scores. The Race to the Top says they must.
Deconstruct this. Teachers would love to “stop teaching to the test,” but Race to the Top makes test scores the measure of every teacher. If teachers take the President’s advice (and they would love to!), their students might not get higher test scores every year, and teachers might be fired, and their schools might be closed.
Why does President Obama think that teachers can “stop teaching to the test” when their livelihood, their reputation, and the survival of their school depends on the outcome of those all-important standardized tests?
Some months later, in October of last year, he again seemed clueless about the details of his signature education initiative during his first debate against Republican Mitt Romney. Obama made the somewhat astonishing statement that Race to the Top was not a “top-down effort.” It’s hard to call it anything else.
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. In a desperate attempt to win dollars during a time of shrinking resources, states 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.
Given that there are so many other things that the president hasn’t been told, it seems fair to ask how much he really knows about what is going in his Education Department.