Obama and Duncan: Making AYP?

I’ve been trying to wait until the spin dust from the State of the Union message settled, before I did my own end-of-the-year evaluation of the Administration’s work thus far on education issues.

In all fairness, the President has had quite a few major issues to juggle in his freshman year, and I, for one, did not expect education to race to the top of that list. I did hope to see signs that groundwork for some meaningful and significant change would be forthcoming.

Craig A. Cunningham at the Education Policy Blog approached this assessment with a thoughtful and open reflection on his Dec. 2008 predictions on then Education Secretary-in-Waiting, Arne Duncan. Sort of a pre-and post-test. In it, Cunningham reaches a somber conclusion about the person charged with leading change public education: “The primary group that Arne does not appear to be listening to (much) are education professionals.” Sounds distressingly like most of Duncan’s recent predecessors. Craig also notes, as I have, that “Duncan’s closest advisors are also not education professionals.” Not spelling relief, so far (pun absolutely intended). Some of my teacher colleagues distress over this continuing marginalization of teacher voice at the federal level led to a public letter writing campaign to the President spearheaded by  fellow TLN member Anthony Cody.

So far, the most noticeable change in education policy has been to remove Bush’s NCLB nameplate from ESEA, and to distill some of the worst aspects of it into a high-profiled sprint for desperately needed funding, Race-to-the Top.  One of the concerns here, is that RttT gives budget-axe wielding state authorities more incentive to close struggling schools, than to do the work of correcting why they were low-performing in the first place. This poses a special threat to poor rural students for whom multiple school options do not exist. But this Administration has a decidedly urban tilt. Still, it’s curious why Duncan appears to be putting more stock in the policies that produced only questionable results in Chicago’s public schools, as opposed to pushing for a wider range of options, including one of the few truly effective turnaround strategies in the country also found in Chicago, the Strategic Learning Initiative. In this interview with Public School Insights, John Simmons shares this tasty bit of advice:

[School improvement] is like baking a cake. If you include all of the essential supports, you get a great cake. But if you leave out one ingredient, like the salt or the eggs, you are not going to get anything that tastes like a cake. That is what we found as we put together the best strategies from education research and the best strategies from high-performance systems research. So now we have a systemic approach to school improvement. But it is not a silver bullet.

Unfortunately, silver bullets still appear to be Washington’s tool of choice for school reform. There is growing concern that NCLB reliance on flawed standardized testing and weak data systems will become even more entrenched through RttT criteria and incentives. Among those wondering about the potential for misuse of test data is Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute who recently told EdWeek:

He worries that the Obama administration’s ambitious goals for the assessment funding—which include generating information about both school and student performance as well as data about teacher effectiveness—could prove to be irreconcilable. “If all the glitterati…remains in the grant competition, anyone that wants to win the competition is going to have to pretend they can do all those things….but since we know that they can’t all be done by the same assessment, in the same period of time at a finite price, something will get left in the dust.

That same Edweek article also revisits the ongoing concerns about the inaccuracies and inadequacies of current standardized tests, especially the flawed attempts to make them more authentic raised by people like former testing industry insider, Todd Farley, which he also shared via Edutopia. Farley supports, as I do, that assessment, particularly high-stakes, is better handled by classroom teachers. I also agree with CyberEnglish teacher, Ted Nellen, that “fixing” the tests is the very least we could do if we are going to continue to use them or expand their use for high stakes decisions. Better, as Nellen and others suggest, is to reduce our dependence on them in favor of more comprehensive evaluations of student growth and performance. But both these options presume we actually care more about the students than those who are profiting from the tests.

Of course, there are those, like Andy Rotherham, who think NCLB deserves credit for “making school performance more transparent.” More transparent, I suppose, to those who actually didn’t know that minority students have consistently received an inferior quality of education. Those would be the same people who for years have refused to listen to the parents or teachers of poor and minority students as we have complained loud and long trying to get Federal policymakers to end inequities in allocation of resources, assignment of teachers, and application of policies by state and local officials (and that’s not just here in Mississippi). Incredibly, Rotherham wants to see NCLB strengthened by among other things “giving [more] political cover to state and local elected officials…”

Still, the optimist in me would like to think that there is yet time for the President and his team to rethink some of these issues, and to engage us all in more thoughtful discussion before and during the reauthorization of ESEA (formerly known as NCLB). I thank another TLN friend, Mary Tedrow, for reminding us that so often learning is a messy and recursive process, not a linear one.  She suggests that the raucous and revealing debate around healthcare reform may be a preview and a omen of what the ESEA process may hold. When a healthcare bill finally arrives on Mr. Obama’s desk, I’m waiting to see how closely he will hold the lawmakers and himself to the promises he made about what such a bill would and would not contain. Yet, I respect him for allowing the democratic process to run its course (unseemly as it may have been along the way).

If he and the Secretary do as much with ESEA and other education issues, then I’ll be ready to pull out my own scoring criteria from just before the election and give them a passing grade.

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