Obama Won, But Did Educators Lose In the Process?

For three decades, one block of American voters and workers has lost politically regardless of which party or candidate has won: educators.

That was again likely the case in 2012 despite the re-election of Barack Obama and despite a few positive political victories vis a vis education ballot initiatives and the election of state-level education leaders. Since the rise of Ronald Reagan and the release of “A Nation at Risk” -- a politically biased report under Reagan that characterized public education as a failed institution -- educators have had no political party, because both major political parties have dedicated their entire education agenda and policies to the accountability movement, founded on a laughable "our standards and tests are better than your standards and tests” ideology.

With Obama’s 2008 election, educators and advocates for the public good were filled with hope that change was coming after eight years of the George W. Bush administration, which championed a bipartisan education agenda built on the self-defeating No Child Left Behind. But Obama’s first four years have only perpetuated and even intensified the worst aspects of the Bush era led by Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings—specifically with the appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and through policy such as Race to the Top and opting out of NCLB.

The evidence teaches us that with the re-election of Obama, educators may have lost again.

Grading Obama’s Education Agenda: F

Education scholars and practitioners have concluded that Obama’s education agenda has been a failure—for the quality of education all children receive, for the status of the profession of teaching, and for the sanctity of universal public education as an essential part of a free people and their democracy.

Education policy, since “A Nation at Risk” and the rise of state accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing, has become bi-partisan—or, more accurately, monolithic. Both Republicans and Democrats at local, state and federal levels work within the accountability paradigm, sharing one call for improving the quality of education to increase America’s economic competitiveness internationally.

The Obama administration is no different. In fact, many policies under Obama are intensified commitments to competition (Race to the Top) and to accountability elements (opting out of NCLB)—such as the focus on “standards” (Common Core State Standards, or CCSS) and high-stakes testing (new tests aligned with CCSS and connected to teacher evaluation, retention and pay).

Secretary Duncan’s Orwellian role in the Obama education agenda is central to how it functions and why the policies are failing education and educators.

For example, speaking in the fall of 2009, Duncan wrapped his vision of the Obama education agenda in civil rights rhetoric: “More than any other issue, education is the civil rights issue of our generation and it can't wait—because tomorrow won't wait—the world won't wait—and our children won't wait.” He then simultaneously denounced the test-based failures of NCLB while calling for policy-driven different and better standards and tests: “Until states develop better assessments, which we will support and fund through Race to the Top, we must rely on standardized tests to monitor progress, but this is an important area for reform and an important conversation to have.”

Mirroring and intensifying the ineffective patterns over three decades of accountability-based education reform, the Obama education agenda has failed in the following ways:

  • Appointing Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, and reinforcing the “naïve expert” problem whereby non-educators control public education. Duncan embodies and perpetuates neo-liberal, corporate-based perceptions of school quality and education reform that are shared between both political parties.
  • Implementing top-down education policy that misrepresents goals and outcomes. Race to the Top and opting out of NCLB increase federal mandates and control over state and local governments while embedding those mandates in rhetoric suggesting that state and local officials have choices, although the initiatives require states to embrace policies in order to receive funding (linked to adopting CCSS or value-added methods [VAM] of teacher evaluation and pay, for example). Further, the policies are inherently inequitable, creating competition dynamics between states and localities that are affluent and state and localities that are overburdened with poverty.
  • Focusing on and failing to close the achievement gap while ignoring equity and opportunity gaps. Obama and Duncan in their discourse and policies have intensified NCLB’s focus on achievement gaps while failing to recognize 30 years of data proving that accountability based on standards and high-stakes tests either have no positive impact on those gaps, or actually increase the inequity causing those gaps.
  • Ignoring and contributing to the de-professionalization of teaching. Teachers’ rights have been dismantled more under the Obama administration than at any time in recent history. Tenure, academic freedom, due process, and unionization have eroded due to Obama and Duncan either avoiding the challenges entirely or due to policies under Obama that directly and indirectly erase teachers’ autonomy—such as adopting the Common Core, linking teacher evaluations and pay to student test scores (VAM), supporting Teach for America (TFA), and encouraging the expansion of corporate charter schools that disproportionately hire TFA recruits and seek to circumvent unionized faculty, as well as dismiss certified and experienced teachers.
  • Abandoning America’s commitment to public institutions, specifically public education. As noted above, endorsements of charter schools have intensified under Obama, exposing that competition (aka, school choice) has become a bipartisan commitment among politicians.
  • Perpetuating the contradictory call under NCLB to base education policy on existing and robust research and evidence while simultaneously endorsing and funding policies that research and evidence refute (charter schools, TFA, merit pay, VAM). The weight of research has refuted virtually every initiative endorsed under Obama, thereby discrediting the policies as well as the claimed commitment to evidence-based reform. These commitments suggest Obama’s policies are not evidence driven, they are ideologically agenda-driven.

The failure of the Obama education agenda is an extension of the failures begun under Reagan, endorsed under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton and then codified under George W. Bush—the accountability era of education reform. The only change that would return a political victory to educators is a shift away from an accountability paradigm, and toward an education reform agenda driven by the quest for equity and opportunity.

From Accountability to Equity and Opportunity

Ultimately, educators and the U.S. public must acknowledge that political leaders and parties are not the problem in education reform. Accountability is the problem.

As long as political leaders continue to seek better standards, better tests, better teacher evaluations, and better student outcomes in order to creating a workforce that is internationally competitive, education reform will remain mired in failure.

First, we must admit—and Obama must admit—that decades of data show there exists no clear causational relationship between student outcomes/education quality and any country’s international economic competitiveness. Some countries experience fluctuations in their educational ranking that have neither a positive nor negative correlation with their economic standing.

Note: the U.S. has remained an economic superpower for a century while having never ranked at the top internationally in student test scores, primarily because our standardized test scores more directly reflect the relative poverty of our children than our school quality.

Next, we must confront that social conditions of children are the primary factors impacting measurable student learning outcomes. School, curriculum, and teacher quality matter, but all are dwarfed by the relative impact of affluence or poverty on any child’s learning.

Broadly then, President Obama, in his second term, could restore hope for educators if he would change the following:

  • Remove Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, and appoint a respected and credible lifelong educator to the post.
  • Frame education reform within social reform that includes addressing the inequity of children’s and families’ opportunities in the U.S.—access to healthcare, food security, working poor and working-class job and home stability.
  • Recommit to public education as an institution and public teaching as a profession by reversing commitments to charter schools, school choice and VAM-based teacher evaluations and merit pay.
  • Recognize and reevaluate the importance and purposes of teachers unions and American workers in the public good.
  • Engage and empower the education community—practitioners and scholars—in the primary education debates about reform.
  • Revise and significantly decrease our use of and dependence on high-stakes testing, so that test data support instruction and inform policy but have no high-stakes purposes and no longer lead to the labeling, sorting and ranking of children, teachers and schools.
  • Frame education reform debate and policy in terms of the pursuit of equity and opportunity—not accountability.

The election of Mitt Romney might have completely closed the door on hope for educators, but the re-election of Obama offers similarly little room for optimism if education discourse and policy remain two sides of the same coin: the current false tension between the status quo of schooling and the “no excuses” model of reform.

Thirty years of political losses for educators is 30 years of political losses for America’s children. In order for real education reform to begin, the Obama administration must reshape its agenda by committing to policies that are informed by equity and opportunity. Let us hope that Obama can learn from his first-term failures, and at long last help move the next generation of America’s students forward.


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