Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Non-Existent Education Problem

Little drives me more crazy in current political discourse than the idea that our schools are failing and that we need to completely revamp our education system.

No one buys into this more than President Obama. His commitment to cliches about public education failure is one of the worst aspects of his presidency. Thus I was thrilled to read Yong Zhao's piece in the Washington Post ripping Obama's education policy to shreds. There are many excellent quotes to choose from, but I particularly like the section on Race to the Top, which I reprint here:

Is it true that Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of public education in a generation?

Again, it depends. It depends on how one defines “meaningful.” If defined as the scale of impact without questioning whether the impact is beneficial or not, it may be true but considering the actual consequences, Race to the Top is neither meaningful nor flexible. It does not focus on “what’s best for our kids” nor spark “creativity and imagination of our people.”

I wonder if Obama knows what Race to the Top actually does because it is just the opposite of what he asks for. He says:

What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea -– the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny…It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like 'What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?' ”

“Our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world” -- perhaps this explains why American students scored poorly on tests but have been able to build a strong economy with innovations.

But Race to the Top is about killing ideas and forcing students to memorize equations by imposing common standards and testing in only two subjects on students all over the nation; by forcing schools and teachers to teach to the tests; and by forcing states to narrow educational experiences for all students to a prescribed narrowed defined curriculum.

Race to the Top is precisely what he said it is not: “We know what’s possible from our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities.”

Rather, it is nothing but a top-down mandate. Race to the Top applications required states and schools to be innovative in meeting the top-down mandates: adopting common standards and assessment, linking teacher evaluation/compensation with student test scores, offering more math and science learning, and allowing more charter schools.

In the first round of competition, Massachusetts was penalized for not wanting to rush to adopt the Common Core Standards. Pennsylvania was penalized for proposing innovative practices in early childhood education (Source: Let’s Do the Numbers: Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” Program Offers Only a Muddled Path to the Finish Lin By William Peterson and Richard Rothstein)

Race to the Top is anything but... “the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities” States that were desperate for cash had to use all means to coerce teachers, principals, and school boards to sign on to the application because participation of local schools was a heavily weighted criterion. And if teachers and school leaders did not agree, they risked being accused of not supporting children’s education.
And with regard to common standards, while it is true that they were not developed by Washington, Washington definitely helped with billions of dollars to make them adopted nationwide.

Today, our public schools work as well if not better than they ever have. We produce competitive people with great ideas. If anything, the emphasis on rote learning and test taking, attacking teachers unions, and equating financial success with valuable education have the potential to severely undermine our education system. What problems our schools do have result from poverty and de facto segregation much more than teachers who don't care.

Yet Obama doesn't get this. Rather, he hires Arne Duncan as his Secretary of Education and doesn't take a strong stand in favor of teachers unions. Barack Obama may prove to be one of the worst presidents on education policy in recent history.