Obama on Education

We have at least two things we can look at for Obama’s policy on education: what he says, and what he’s done. That’s the kicker of running of a second term; your record speaks what your words don’t necessarily say.

For many years, administrators, teachers and parents have been hating No Child Left Behind, and it was a day of celebration when Obama stood up and announced that it would no longer be in play. Then he weakened the announcement by adding that NCLB would remain in place unless states opted out. This left a mushy field of confusion where states have felt continuing pressure to somehow evaluate teachers and to document student progress while stepping out of the iron yoke of NCLB. The transition has often been unclear and ineffective.

Politicians have a stake in education because they fund it (and Obama has included it in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) but this becomes problematic when politicians don’t understand what’s really going on in schools. There is a kneejerk cranky declamation that American students score so much lower than students in other nations, but analysts point out that our scores are not as bad as people say, though of course we can improve. If you look at scores delineated by populations, you will see that the majority of American students are scoring pretty well. International comparisons become meaningless if you compare a monocultural, monolingual nation such as Japan or Finland against a huge, multicultural, multilingual nation like ours.

The stimulus funds intended for education could have made a big difference, and in some areas they did help retain jobs for teachers and educational staff, but in other areas, the funds were applied to bonuses and other expenditures such as movie tickets, fast food, and a water park visit for students.

Race to the Top provides funds for states to devise evaluation systems that will “prove” superior student learning and to incorporate more STEM classes (science, technology, engineering and math). Results have been varied because there’s always the question whether evaluation methods really work. Commentators point this out: “We still have corporate-style accountability procedures, the employment of divisive market mechanisms, the closing of schools, an uncritical approach to what counts as important curricular knowledge…”

Obama’s policy has emphasized charter schools, which is a mixed bag. In urban centers, charter schools have provided a safe, humane and more personalized approach to education, often much better than their public counterparts. In other areas, such as in our rural areas, charter schools often become a drain on public-school funds without proving any particular excellence.

My take on Obama’s education policy? It’s the same as my response to our state legislature on education. Politicians want proof that their education dollars are properly spent and the only way they can do that is by standardized testing. Politicians from Obama down to rural representatives all buy this idea. However, education excellence is so much more than test scores, especially in low-income areas with high concentrations of non-English-speakers and kids at risk. If we are to use assessments to determine funding, these should be formative assessments rather than high-stakes, end-of-year assessments. I would say that Obama’s education stance still buys the old beliefs about assessment, and that has included a soft-waffling approach to ending NCLB.

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