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Are the President's Education Policies Helping Our Kids?

An end-of-term report card assesses how the Obama administration has performed on five critical education issues.

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Yet there is scant evidence that replacing traditional public schools with charter schools improves learning outcomes – even conservative pro-charter think tanks like the Hoover Institute and Mathematica have found little, if any, proof that charter schools fare better than traditional publics overall: A 2009 report from Hoover found that “charter schools performed worse than public schools 36 percent of the time, performed better 17 percent of the time, and performed no differently the rest of the time. The… study suggests that charter schools are twice as likely to make student achievement worse as they are to improve it.” 

The report also goes on to point out that subsequent research “on charter schools in New York City, California, Idaho, Indiana, Minnesota and New Jersey, among others, are all consistent with both the Mathematica and CREDO studies: Charters do not increase student achievement compared to regular public schools.”  

Beyond charters, the Obama administration has pushed corporate reform in at least two other ways: 1) through the executive initiative called Race to the Top (RTTT); and 2) through continued enforcement of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). 

Launched in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, RTTT rewards a handful of states with large sums of money in return for implementing far-reaching corporate initiatives -- like replacing public schools with privately managed charters, introducing school choice, tying high-stakes test scores to teacher evaluations and promoting corporate partnerships through computerization (i.e., online coursework). The program is, as its name implies, a contest, or “race”: States compete for a slice of the $4.35 billion in federal funding, winning or losing dollars based on how comprehensively they are able (or willing) to introduce these “reforms.”

In addition, the administration has continued to enforce NCLB mandates, even expanding the focus on high-stakes testing. (The administration has begun offering one-year NCLB waivers to states – but only in exchange for more consistent implementation of corporate reforms.) For example, in March of 2010, the administration released a blueprint for revising NCLB that encouraged states to adopt federal guidelines called the Common Core State Standards Initiative. These “high quality statewide assessments” in reading and math aim to streamline curricula across states, and RTTT funding is tied to their adoption. The Common Core will also eventually result in students from states with poor educational funding being tested using rubrics nearly identical  to those used to asses students in very wealthy states -- a huge red flag for anyone who understands that quality of education closely follows school funding, which is uneven at best across this nation.

Yet, ultimately, there is little substantive research that shows that corporate reforms of these kinds improve academic achievement overall. In March 2012, professor and public school advocate Gary Rubinstein’s released an analysis showing almost no correlation between high-stakes testing and student achievement over multiple years. These findings were consistent with a 2005 University of Arizona study that found “no convincing evidence” that testing improves student performance. 

Still, the focus on test scores and “accountability” continues to grow, with solid policy backing from the Obama administration.

3. Access to Higher Education and Student Debt

President Obama’s record on higher education is mixed, but has more to recommend it than the rest of his education agenda. On the positive side, the administration has made real gains when it comes to expanding college accessibility and the treatment of student loans. It has doubled the amount of money provided for Pell Grants by cutting private companies out of federal grade exchanges, bringing the number of eligible recipients up to nine million -- a three million student increase during this first term in office. And administration has also promoted price controls to rein in tuition increases, though these have not yet been instituted in policy (such controls may actually be very susceptible to loopholes that allow universities to “revise their calculations of what families can afford to pay – and raise their tuitions accordingly.”)

In addition, the Obama team has made progress in making some student loans more manageable. Students who graduate in 2012 or later will not be required to make federal education loan repayments that exceed 10 percent of their income. Plus, if these graduates cannot repay the loans within 20 years, they will be forgiven.

But while this loan repayment program is clearly a step forward, it still doesn’t go nearly as far as it should. Though it will provided much needed help to the 1.6 million students who graduated or will graduate this year, there are another 34.4 million graduates with student loans who are not eligible to receive this benefit. Additionally, the program does nothing to rein in predatory private student loan companies like Sallie Mae that are hitting graduates with severe credit penalties, targeting them for harassment and leveling lawsuits against them. And students who have defaulted on student loans in the past cannot get help through this new program – even though student loans remain the only kind of debt not dischargeable through bankruptcy in the US. 

Finally, the administration has made mixed progress in standing up to predatory for-profit universities like Strayer and the University of Phoenix. Encouragingly, the administration did issue an executive order banning these universities from recruiting among veterans and troops. But while veterans are now receiving protection from these institutions, there has been no move on the administration’s part to stop them from recruiting at, for example, high schools with large numbers of poor students -- leaving millions of young students terribly at-risk.

[Note: Last week, the administration announced a plan to grant legal work status – not a path to citizenship – to up to a million undocumented young people who would have been eligible for the DREAM Act. The memo removes the threat of deportation for these individuals and allows legal work status in the US. It is unclear whether the memo will have any impact on access to higher education at this time.]

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