I woke up this morning from a strange dream in which my students were participating in a presentation on “Obama’s Approach to Education.” I was upset because I had planned to teach classes that day, only to find my students had gone to this bizarre assembly—and I had not been invited.

I was also upset because what valuable messages could possibly be imparted to students at this assembly? The presentation was not about the importance of education in students’ lives, something the President has done a good job speaking about to students and parents in the past. This was specifically about his education policy initiatives.

Students are the primary recipients of education policies, but I’m having trouble seeing how recent education policies benefit students at all. What is Obama’s approach to education? Based on the last four years, I can point to Race to the Top, an initiative based on competition for public funds (our tax money), with a requirement that a significant component of teacher evaluations are based on value added measures of standardized testing data. I know what my students think of that! (See this post: Student thoughts on accountability for teachers).

In Teacher Incentive Fund grants, another policy initative of the last four years, all over the country districts are experimenting with creating hybrid roles that pay lead teachers more (which could be good moves), but the government controls the definition of a great teacher and the focus of the lead teacher’s work: again through value added measures of standardized test data. President Obama, do you really think tests measure what a good teacher is? Apparently, you do not actually think so!

Yet, these heavy hitting policies—that gift and deny public funding to kids and families who have no voice in the matter—have the entire country chasing test scores and a huge, publicly funded industry growing around the endeavor. Meanwhile, students are losing out on authentic learning experiences, which they absolutely must have to be prepared for the dramatically shifting professional world they’ll enter. And with so much money supporting the new testing and data infrastructures, there is apparently not enough money for the essential elements of our children’s education: foreign language classes, the arts, programs to support and retain teachers in high-needs schools, small class sizes, etc. How can we allow this to continue?

I’ve been nearly silent with my thoughts on these policies and how they reflect on President Obama’s leadership when it comes to education. I’ve had my reasons—mainly, I didn’t want to weaken Obama’s chances of reelection, since I saw no better choice. I figured a negative blog post probably equals at least as much as a vote, so I kept my concerns to myself. I hope you know that was a big comprimise for me. I am a small voice in this debate, but I value my integrity. Now I will speak up.

President Obama, you are a person of such intelligence, capable of the highest levels of leadership. You called on a highly articulate and experienced educator in Linda Darling-Hammond to lead your education campaign in 2008, and you got my vote that year in large part because of that smart choice. I did not know enough about your leadership at that point to be certain you were the best person to lead our country, but I did know enough about Linda Darling-Hammond’s work to make a decision I knew would benefit children across America. Then you got elected and made a hard turn in a different direction. You have been nearly silent about this as well. It’s as if you just handed “education” off to someone else. I know you have so many issues to take care of, but I implore you to stand closer to our country’s public schools.

Secretary Duncan said last month, “We came out of the gates flying in the first term…” and he plans to “replicate that as much as we can” in the next term (Ed Week, Duncan sketches out second term agenda). Are you sure you’re going in the right direction? The stakes for our country could not be higher. Education is becoming a support for big money at the expense of children’s experiences, present and future, and you have the opportunity to turn that around.

My education policy wish for 2013 is that President Obama will change his “approach to education.” For a great variety of thoughtful recommendations on how this might look, check out my colleagues at Teaching Ahead: Teachers’ advice to President Obama in his second term. These are voices of teachers, who’ve committed their lives to our nation’s youth, and their ideas deserve a chance.


[image credit: 5forcesofchange.com]

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