Are the President's Education Policies Helping Our Kids?

Election '16

When Barack Obama ran for office in 2008, he did so on an education platform that was “ambitious” to say the least. Then-candidate Obama was clear that he aimed to reform America’s entire education system, from preschool on up through higher education -- and during his first term as president, his administration has indeed made significant changes to educational policy. But have those changes been for the better? Have schools, and their students, benefited from the Obama administration’s educational maneuvers over this first term? As it turns out, the answer is: not necessarily.

Herewith, a look at five critical education issues in America today, and how the president and his team have handled them so far: 

1. Funding for Early Childhood Education

It is well-established that early childhood education is a crucial means of improving school readiness and performance among at-risk children. Studies show that preschool reduces high school dropout rates while increasing the likelihood that students will go on to higher education. Furthermore, early childhood education is a great investment: a 2005 MIT study found that every dollar spent on early childhood education reduces future social services expenditures by $13.

Given all that, Obama’s 2008 campaign promises to invest extensively in early childhood education seemed like a no-brainer. And on the surface, he seems to have delivered: the administration’s 2011 Race to the Top Early-Learning Challenge -- a $500 million grant competition that funds preschool programs like Head Start -- allocates a whopping 71 percent of 2011’s $700 million Race to the Top funds to early education. 

But the devil, as always, is in the details. Of the 37 states that submitted applications for assistance, only nine won funding: California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington. The winning states were required to make a number of corporate-based reforms in order to compete for the preschool funding – including committing to a set of accountability procedures provided by a privately managed preschool assessment agency called Quality Rating and Improvement Systems. QRIS heavily emphasizes things like classroom décor, teacher assessment and parent participation – but even corporate reformer Sarah Mead of Bellwether Education Partners says, “[T]here’s not much evidence that creating QRIS will produce any significant improvements in children’s readiness to learn… The research that does exist is not encouraging: A study…by researchers at the RAND Corporation found little to no evidence of a relationship between childcare programs’….ratings and…outcomes.” 

Ultimately, the states with preschool facilities most in need of money and support – those that could not afford to introduce the new QRIS standards in time – were shut out of the competition. States had just three months to prepare extensive applications, and most did not have the time or resources to introduce comprehensive QRIS accountability measures in that short amount of time. For the states that won, this is clearly a financial boon – but in 41 other states, preschoolers are still wanting.

So has the Obama administration invested in early childhood education? Yes -- but in a way that, as yet, has done little to improve early education in the majority of states.

2. Primary and Secondary Education Reform

There is little doubt that President Obama is a strong supporter of the corporate “reforms” that have crept into American education policy over the past three decades – and he appears to be a particular supporter of charter schools. As Ken Saltman, professor of educational policy studies and research at DePaul University, tells AlterNet:

[Obama] has pushed charter schools and other radical market-based turnarounds, like closing schools and firing all the teachers and staff… In some states, like Michigan, the chartering is heavily for-profit. In other states, like Illinois, chartering is predominantly non-profit, but the non-profits still contract with for-profit corporations. In any case, the key issue is that the model that has won is one of market competition and choice.

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.]

4. Supporting Teachers

The country’s two largest teachers unions, the National Association of Educators (NEA) and AFL-CIO affiliate the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), endorsed President Obama in July 2011 and February 2012, respectively. They did this in spite of the fact that the Obama administration makes no secret of its disdain for both organizations. On May 25, Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for Obama 2012, tweeted the following off-the-cuff rebuttal of Romney’s insistence that the unions and the Obama administration are close:  

FACT CHECK: Romney off on Obama’s relationship with teachers’ unions; it’s anything but cozy:

It may have been the most honest take on Obama’s relationship with the unions yet. The administration has indeed displayed very little “coziness” with teachers unions, consistently backing policies they oppose. Most importantly, the administration has expanded punitive teacher accountability measures beyond those set by NCLB. As noted above, Obama’s RTTT offers millions of dollars to school systems that tie teacher evaluations to student test performance, undermining job security protections like tenure. The result, Professor Ken Saltman says, is to “transform teaching into a low-skilled, low-paid workforce.”

Obama’s policies have also weakened the collective bargaining rights teachers still hold in some states.Though Obama claims to oppose mass teacher layoffs, and has introduced legislative measures to stop them, his support has been inconsistent: in February, Obama supported a Rhode Island school district’s plan to lay off all of its schoolteachers, and he has religiously supported so-called merit-based teacher layoffs for teachers whose students score poorly on standardized tests. 

The only issue on which Obama and unions appear to see eye to eye is on school vouchers -- that is, the use of public money for funding private and religious school tuition. Like the teachers unions, the president has vocal and consistent in his opposition to vouchers -- but praise from far-right governors is at least one indication of how far to the right the president's education policies lie overall. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who has just pushed an extensive voucher program through the state legislature, publicly praised Obama’s privatization measures in March. He joined a number of other pro-voucher, anti-union Republican governors who have supported Obama’s education policies, from Bob McDonnell of Virginia to Mitch Daniels of Indiana. 

5. Advancing Equity

Corporate reformers like to dismiss calls for equitable school funding by claiming that “throwing money at the problem” of inequality in education doesn’t solve the problem. Yet in 2010, a Rutgers study found that, 

"Student poverty -- especially concentrated student poverty -- is the most critical variable affecting funding levels. Student and school poverty correlates with, and is a proxy for, a multitude of factors that impact upon the costs of providing equal education opportunity -- most notably, gaps in educational achievement, school district racial composition, English language proficiency, and student mobility.”

In other words, student poverty and under-funded schools are the most important predictors of, among other things, low student achievement. As New York University professor Pedro Noguera points out, 

"The achievement gap is first and foremost an educational manifestation of social inequality... In cities where the economy has collapsed and there is a shortage of good jobs -- as in Detroit; Cleveland; St. Louis; Buffalo, New York; and Erie, Pennsylvania -- schools lack the resources to improve and students increasingly lack the will to achieve… If educators fail to understand or fail to address the numerous ways in which other inequities -- in income, health, housing, etc. -- interact with learning outcomes, then much of what is done to ameliorate the problem will simply not work."

But despite much evidence that inequality is the defining educational issue of our day, the Obama team has largely chosen to skirt this thornier set of problems, focusing instead on teacher and student accountability -- and improving test scores. The president’s selection of Chicago-area corporate reformer Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education was an early indication of how little educational equity would feature in the Obama administration; true to form, Duncan quickly shaped the expansions of NCLB to mirror those already in place in Chicago public schools, where growing funding inequality and an increasing achievement gap have followed fast on the heels of Duncan’s market-based reforms. 

As education scholars Pauline Lipman and Nathan Haines explain, the Chicago system masterminded by Duncan created,

"…an accountability system that institutionalized a simplistic, one-size-fits-all practice of demarcating students, teachers, and schools into those deemed ‘failing’ or ‘successful’ and then meted out penalties without regard for inequities in resources, opportunities to learn, teacher’s ideologies, cultural disconnections in curriculum and instruction, social contexts of the school, or strengths children bring to the school setting."

Duncan’s means of treating the dozens of schools deemed “failing” in Chicago under his watch was to shutter them, and to encourage charter schools to spring up in their place. But just as there is no real proof charter schools boost academic achievement, there is also little evidence that they ameliorate inequality -- in fact, they may actually promote it. As Chandra Nerissa Larsen of Sonoma State University points out, Chicago charters now “serve 6-7% fewer low-income students, half as many limited-English-proficient students, and statistically significant fewer students with special needs than regular public neighborhood schools” – prime examples of how charters exclude students most likely to bring down scores and abandon them to increasingly underfunded traditional publics as resources are shifted to charters. 

Though few politicians can find it within themselves to admit it, there is no doubt that without treating the equity issue, we will forever fall short of resolving the real problems plaguing our education system. Paul Thomas, associate professor of education at Furman University, writes, “If leaders and policy makers are willing to confront the evidence of social and educational inequity, this hope may lead to the changes promised by the current president now trapped in ‘no excuses’ reform commitments that offer no hope or change.”

Educators alone simply cannot fix such entrenched social problems. But they might make better progress with equitable school funding to ensure that schools needing the most help get more money. Unfortunately, President Obama’s corporate reform measures do just the opposite.

It is widely understood that unfettered capitalist economic policies led to the financial collapse of 2008; we should not be surprised that they are also disastrous when applied to public goods like education. Without a renewed investment in the pro-equity educational tradition in America that spans from John Dewey to bell hooks, poor children and poor schools will continue to be left behind by the US education system. And our whole nation may pay the price.

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