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Obama’s real education legacy: Common Core, testing, charter schools

President Barack Obama pretends to take a selfie during an event at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School on Oct. 17, 2016, in Washington, D.C. President Obama delivered remarks to highlight the progress he has made to improve education across the country, including a rise in high school graduation rates. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Obama went to a high-performing D.C. high school this week to tout the “progress” his administration has made in public education, America’s most important civic institution. To mark the legacy moment, he brought along the two men who have served as his education secretaries — Arne Duncan and John King Jr., along with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Gen. Colin Powell and his wife Alma.

It’s what he didn’t say that was most revealing. A fuller evaluation of the Obama education legacy would look somewhat different from the one he offered.

Read: Obama’s speech on his education legacy

Obama charmed the student audience at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, joking with them and telling them he remembers some of the awkward social moments of being a high school student. As the White House text shows:

So, by now you’ve settled into the new year. Right? Adjusted to classes. You’re preparing for Spirit Week. (Applause.) Learning how to ballroom dance. (Laughter.) I remember having to do that. Getting the nerve to text that cute girl or boy in your English class. (Laughter.) I don’t remember that; we did not have texts. We had to send little notes. And then we used to actually have to go up to somebody if we liked them and talk to them. So that may happen to you someday. (Laughter.)

He reminded the kids that he had visited Banneker in 2011 and was so impressed that he wanted to return “because you’re an example of a school that’s doing things the right way.” Later he said he wanted every school to be “as great as this one.”

There’s no denying that Banneker is a top-performing school in the nation’s capital, and that 100 percent of its seniors graduate. But it’s unclear if Obama knows that if every school did what Banneker does, the high school graduation rate might plummet. That’s because Banneker is a magnet school where students must apply to get in — but the only entry grades are ninth and tenth. And they must maintain a B- average to stay. Kids who can’t cut it leave, but that attrition isn’t counted against the school’s graduation rate.

Obama did touch on graduation rates, touting the newly announced, highest-ever national high school graduation rate of 83 percent. He noted that “D.C.’s graduation rates grew faster than any other place in the country” this past year. He didn’t say that that “fastest-growing” designation would include D.C. charter schools in the mix with traditional public schools, perhaps because he didn’t mention charter schools at all.

Why is that strange in a speech dedicated to talking up his education legacy? Because the growth of charter schools was a key priority in his administration’s overall school reform program. Promising to promote the expansion of charter schools was one of the ways that states could win some of the money in Obama’s signature $4.3 billion Race to the Top funding competition. Today, 6 percent of U.S. public school students attend charter schools, up from about 3 percent when he took office in 2009. (It was 2 percent in 2004.) And he was standing in a city that has one of the most successful charter school sectors in the country.

Charter schools — which are funded by the public but allowed to operate outside traditional districts — have become highly controversial in the world of education, with supporters saying they promote educational equity by giving students in failing systems an alternative, and opponents saying that they operate without accountability to the public and rob traditional schools of resources they need to educate the neediest students, which charters don’t enroll in the same percentages.

While some charter schools do an excellent job, scandals — especially with for-profit companies allowed to operate charters — have become common in the sector because of little or no oversight by states. A recent audit by the Education Department’s Inspector General’s Office found that the department — which awards multi-million-dollar grants to states for the creation and expansion of charters — had failed to provide adequate oversight of some of its relationships with charter management organizations.

Meanwhile, as charter schools grow with administration support, charter supporters and opponents are in a scorched-earth war of words, with both sides claiming the civil rights mantle and accusing the other of harming children. When the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, last week ratified a referendum calling for a moratorium on new charters until new accountability measures can be instituted, critics accused of it being no better than the racist former governor of Alabama, George Wallace.

That wasn’t the only controversial subject Obama barely mentioned. He did not mention by name the Common Core State Standards initiative, another big priority for the administration during Duncan’s seven-year tenure running the Education Department, during which he wielded more power than any previous education secretary while also attracting more opposition than his predecessors.

Adopting common standards was also on Race to the Top’s list of preferred reforms Duncan sought from applying states, and the administration spent some $360 million for two multi-state consortia to develop new Core-related standardized tests. Duncan himself promised that the new tests would be “an absolute game-changer” in public education.

It didn’t work out that way. The tests were nowhere as sophisticated as originally promoted. The rush to get them into schools led to computer troubles in some states, some of them severe. One of the tests, known as PARCC, was abandoned by most of the states that had agreed to use it, and the overall idea behind the standards and aligned testing — that test results would be comparable across states — has not been accomplished.

The Education Department’s ties to the Gates Foundation, which funded the creation and implementation of the Core, also sparked criticism that the administration was too close to wealthy philanthropists who were intent on driving their own personal vision of school reform.

Another priority of the administration’s was creating teacher evaluation systems that were linked to student standardized test scores — yet another part of Race to the Top. This policy was also part of waivers that the Education Department gave to states seeking to avoid the most onerous parts of the flawed No Child Left Behind law. If a state wanted a waiver, it had to agree to specific reforms, including linking educator evaluations with test scores.

What the Common Core tests are — and aren’t

High-stakes tests for students are questionable enough, but the idea of putting a teacher’s job and salary at risk based on how well their students do on test scores raises a host of other problems. Assessment experts have repeatedly warned that methods used to link student test scores to teacher evaluations are largely unfair and invalid. Those experts include the American Statistical Association, the largest organization in the United States representing statisticians and related professionals, as well as the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

But the administration pushed the practice anyway and the problems that developed would be amusing if the consequences weren’t so serious.

Remember that kids are tested in English Language Arts and math. So how do teachers of other subjects get linked to test scores? Some districts considered and even experimented with standardized tests in other subjects; in North Carolina, one district even tried a test in Yearbook class.

Another method was to evaluate teachers in non-tested areas by exam averages of their entire school — or by either English or math test averages. As a result, many teachers were evaluated in part on how well students they didn’t teach do on exams, as well as on test scores from subjects they didn’t teach. One superintendent lauded by the Obama administration was Michelle Rhee, who led D.C. Public Schools from 2007 to 2010 and was a pioneer in test-based assessment systems. She was so enamored with test scores that she required every adult in every school building — including the custodians and lunch ladies — to be evaluated in part by them. Duncan liked her so much that when rumors rose that she was quitting in 2010, he (unsuccessfully) tried to get her to stay.

The elevation of standardized test scores as the chief accountability metric had other insidious consequences. Under a philosophy that nearly every student could and should take some version of a standardized test to show progress, some kids were forced to take tests who couldn’t possibly know what was going on. That included a boy in Florida named Michael who was born with a brain stem but not a complete brain, who was forced to “take” an alternative version of the standardized Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Blind and unable to talk or understand basic information, his state-funded teacher literally moved his hand to the right answers. While Michael’s disability was exceptional, he was not the only child with extremely severe disabilities to be forced to take tests because Education Department officials decided every student should be assessed with a standardized exam.

They made him take the test

The administration’s obsession with standardized tests led to a rebellion by parents, students, teachers, principals and even superintendents. Many spoke out against testing policies — and many parents refused to allow their students to take exams mandated by states for federal accountability purposes. In New York, with the most active movement, 22 percent of students “opted out” of at least one test, and opt-outs were reported in numerous other states. It was only after the “opt out” movement began to grow that the administration conceded that kids were being tested too much.

The New York State commissioner of education who pushed the test-based teacher accountability system — which has been crashing and burning for years — was John King Jr., who left the job early after 3 1/2 years, essentially getting a public shove by Gov. Andrew Cuomo not only for the teacher evaluation fiasco but for a botched implementation of Common Core. The reason this is worth mentioning is that King — who has an inspirational personal story — is now Obama’s second education secretary.

How can anyone take standardized test scores seriouisly when stuff like this happens?

Such micromanaging of education by the administration — traditionally seen as a local function — is what led Congress, in November 2015, to pass a successor to NCLB, called the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Obama did mention the new law in his speech at Banneker:

So teachers deserve more than just our gratitude — they deserve our full support. And we’ve got to make their lives easier, which is why we enacted a law to fix No Child Left Behind, which gives teachers more flexibility to spend more time teaching creatively than just spending all their time teaching to a test. Give your teachers a big round of applause.  (Applause.) They deserve it.

What he didn’t mention was that Congress was finally inspired to replace NCLB — eight years after it was supposed to be rewritten — because members of both parties wanted to stop the administration’s unprecedented exercise of federal power in education. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who heads the Senate education committee and was a prime mover behind the new law, called the Education Department under Duncan “a national school board.” By exercising federal power in questionable ways, the administration gave an opening to Congress to send back a great deal of education of power to the states, many of which never covered themselves in glory in how they approached public education.

The notion of giving teachers “our full support” is likely welcome to them, many of whom have felt they were being targeted by the Obama administration. The 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found that teacher job satisfaction had plummeted from 62 percent of teachers feeling “very satisfied” in 2008 to 39 percent by 2012. This was the lowest in the 25-year history of the survey.

And the percentage of students who apply for teacher preparation programs has significantly dropped in recent years. He told the students to appreciate their teachers:

You all know how hard they work. They stay up late grading your assignments. That’s why you got all those marks all over your papers. They pull sometimes money out of their own pockets to make that lesson extra special. And I promise you, the teachers here and the teachers around the country, they’re not doing it for the pay — because teachers, unfortunately, still aren’t paid as much as they should be. They’re not doing it for the glory. They’re doing it because they love you, and they believe in you, and they want to help you succeed.

Actually, teachers who use their own money for their classrooms usually aren’t doing it “to make that lesson extra special.” They are doing it because without it, their kids might not have paper or books or other essentials. Equitable school funding, however, wasn’t a priority of the administration in a country where funding is largely based on property taxes, leaving school systems in wealthy areas with more to spend on education than districts in poor areas, where kids need more support. For that matter, Obama did take note of the administration’s interest in early childhood education — though he didn’t mention that it became a priority only in his second administration, by which time there was little surplus money to spend on it.

When Obama first took office, many of the people who voted for him had hoped he would make educational equity the focus of school reform policy. His selection of Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, an expert on equity and teacher preparation, as the education leader of his transition team was a hopeful sign.

Then, instead of naming her as education secretary, as many believed would happen, he instead selected Duncan, a friend from Chicago who was deeply steeped in the corporate reform movement that embraced the Core standards, tests, data and school “choice” as the way to close the achievement gap. Darling-Hammond wrote a book, “The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future,” about authentic educational equity and had two copies printed in hardback, one for her and one sent to President Obama, an effort to try to steer his reform policies toward equity.

The White House did not answer a query about whether he ever read it.

Corporate reform didn’t work as planned, and perhaps that is why Obama’s speech meant to talk about his education accomplishments didn’t mention it in a substantive way. His major educational initiatives were around standards, testing and charter schools — not the kind of broad-based school reform that attempts to meet the most basic needs of students, many of whom come to school hungry, exhausted and sick. What happens in classrooms is indeed important, but reform critics argued that schools cannot systemically overcome the effects that poverty have on children.

Obama summed up his legacy this way:

So bottom line is: higher graduation rates, higher college attendance rates, more money for Pell grants and work to make sure that the interest rate on student loans haven’t gone up; working to expand early childhood education and preschool; continuing to watch and work with states as they try to implement reforms to make K-12 better; holding colleges more accountable for giving information so that students can make good decisions. We’ve made a lot of progress. We have made a lot of progress in terms of making sure that young people across the country get the kind of great education that you’re getting here at Banneker.

That’s not the important education legacy many Obama supporters had hoped he would leave.