Posted in Duncan, Obama, Public Ed, Race to the Top, Testing

An Open Reply to President Obama

I write to President Obama regularly. I’ve been speaking out to him against his destructive privatization scheme labeled Race to the Top run by the Broad-trained Arne Duncan, his Secretary of Education with no public school teaching experience. The response I get is usually canned, scripted, filled with meaningless references to “improving schools,” “global competition,” “world class education” and “strengthening the teaching profession.” His administration has set forth a plan which promotes privatization and guarantees a weakened teaching profession, and the continued achievement gap between rich and poor.

I have decided that it’s time to respond to the administration’s canned answers and to the damage their Race to the Top is doing to public education. So here, then, is my response. The President’s letter, which will be included in its entirety, is in italics. My responses and quotes from others will be in unitalicized print.

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Dear President Obama,

HIGH EXPECTATIONS AND SUCCESS

Thank you for writing. My Administration is working to ensure America’s young people have educational opportunities worthy of their potential, and I appreciate hearing from you.

There is no stronger foundation for success than a great education. We must provide our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy. Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy.

Have our classrooms become places of high expectations?

If you believe that standardized tests increase expectations then I suppose that’s correct. However, your use of the phrase high expectations reminds me of President Bush’s (43) use of the phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

In Bush’s case I would respond that the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is compounded by the hard bigotry of poor opportunities. Public schools for students living in poverty need more support, not what they usually get, which is less. Teaching to the tests, and scripted instruction don’t improve learning. Dilapidated physical environs, rapid teacher and administrator turnaround, and lack of supplies aren’t enough to help students fight off the detrimental effects of poverty.

In 2000 Alfie Kohn wrote,

Fact 2. Noninstructional factors explain most of the variance among test scores when schools or districts are compared. A study of math results on the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that the combination of four such variables (number of parents living at home, parents’ educational background, type of community, and poverty rate) accounted for a whopping 89 percent of the differences in state scores. To the best of my knowledge, all such analyses of state tests have found comparable results, with the numbers varying only slightly as a function of which socioeconomic variables were considered.

Apparently we haven’t learned his lesson of 13 years ago…and the definition of high expectations continues to be “the responsibility for improving achievement falls 100% to public schools and public school teachers. None of the responsibility seems to belong to policy makers…or to parents…or to students…or to anyone else.”

High expectations should include the attempt by policy makers to end all the other societal gaps as well as the achievement gap — the income gap, the nutrition gap, the health care gap, the incarceration gap, the homeowner gap, the poverty gap, and the unemployment gap. Schools can’t do it alone.

Martin Luther King Jr. said,

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income…. We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.

Mr. President, you say that our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success. I’m afraid that the success will be difficult to find without high expectations of our policy makers for the other problems of our nation.

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION

Equipping young Americans with the tools for success must start at the earliest possible age. Today, fewer than 3 in 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program—and for many children, this lack of access to preschool can leave a shadow that lasts a lifetime. That is why I have proposed working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, and reducing crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own. So we must do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life behind.

I agree. NEAToday wrote

Under the president’s plan, states will be eligible to receive new federal dollars in return for investing their own dollars. And while the federal government will ensure that state programs meet high quality standards, states will continue to run their own programs.

This state-federal partnership would cover all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. The federal resources would also free up state dollars to reach 3-year-olds and children from higher-income families and to provide full-day kindergarten.

High quality early childhood education represents one of the best investments our country can make, and the National Education Association believes it’s a common sense investment we can’t afford to pass up.

RACE TO THE TOP

My Administration continues to make historic investments to strengthen our public education system, including our Race to the Top program—a competition that spurred states to make comprehensive reforms of their public school systems to prepare all students for college and career. Race to the Top focuses on what is best for our students by engaging state and local leaders and educators in adopting better standards that prepare students for college and career, turning around our lowest-performing schools, developing and rewarding effective teachers and leaders, and implementing meaningful assessments to track the progress of our students. Building on this ambitious program, I announced a new initiative to provide high school students with challenging and relevant academic and career-related learning experiences that prepare them for success in higher education and the workforce. With funding I have proposed in my FY2014 budget, we will reward schools that redesign teaching and learning in high schools to foster new partnerships with colleges and employers and strengthen classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math—the skills students need to thrive in a high-tech world.

Where do I being with this paragraph? There are so many untruths, errors and misrepresentations in one paragraph that choosing which one to rebut first is a challenge. I don’t want to take the time and space to reproduce all the information included in the following links, but I hope you’ll take the time to read some of them so you can understand how your Race to the Top is hurting America’s public schools.

1. My Administration continues to make historic investments to strengthen our public education system…

Your administration hasn’t strengthened our public education system. If anything, you’ve weakened it…significantly…in what seems to be an attempt at privatization.

2. …Race to the Top program—a competition that spurred states…

Race to the Top is a competition and it did spur states on to make reforms, but the reforms are damaging public education. We know that schools can’t change the out-of-school factors which contribute in a large part to the achievement of students. Since schools can’t change those factors, competition, with its winners and losers, is not appropriate to public education.

3. …adopting better standards that prepare students for college and career…

There is no basis to the belief that the “better standards” will prepare students for college and career. I think you’re referring to the so-called “Common Core State Standards.” These standards have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia without any field test. No one knows how they will affect students, teachers, or schools.

4. Your method of turning around our lowest performing schools seems to consist in closing them, or having states close them, and opening charter schools which, as research has shown, don’t do any better than traditional public schools.

5. Your method of rewarding effective teachers is by using test scores as the basis for merit pay for teachers. We know from research that this doesn’t work. We know that test scores are closely tied to family income and rewarding effective teachers means that teachers who teach the most educationally needy students will not be rated as “effective.” This is just one more way to undervalue and under support schools in poor communities.

6. I’m sorry, Mr. President, but the standardized tests now being used in my state and many others cannot be called meaningful assessments. They’re being used because you can get a number from them with which to grade students, teachers, schools and school districts. The number, while convenient, doesn’t always reflect what a student knows or what a teacher and school have taught.

7. Your plan to reward schools that redesign teaching and learning sounds suspiciously like rewarding schools for high test scores. I hope that isn’t true.


REFORMING NCLB

Mr. President, I applaud your desire to reform No Child Left Behind. The Bush (43) education law has carried the test and punishment plan to privatize public schools and deprofessionalize the teaching profession for the last decade. The insane obsession with testing and subsequent punishment for low test scores is the status quo, not the cries for rational assessment, for a reduction in child poverty and for support of public school teachers and public schools by public school advocates. Beginning with the first Bush (41) administration and the response to A Nation At Risk, followed by the Clinton administration and Goals 2000, standardized testing became the method most used to evaluate schools in America. With No Child Left Behind, the goal of grading, ranking and punishing students, teachers, schools and school districts became entrenched. It is now the status quo.

Has your education policy eliminated the most damaging impact of No Child Left Behind?

To further reshape our educational system, we also need to reform the No Child Left Behind Act—a law that has helped advance accountability and expose disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes, but has labeled too many schools as failing and imposed too many unworkable remedies. Because America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer for Congress to act to fix No Child Left Behind, my Administration launched a new Federal-State partnership to provide states with flexibility to advance needed educational reforms in exchange for a commitment to raise standards for all students, improve accountability for low-performing schools, and help teachers and school leaders become more effective. A majority of states has now been granted flexibility from No Child Left Behind, and while states are required to maintain a focus on underserved students, they can move away from one-size-fits-all interventions and mandates to advance locally tailored solutions to do what is best for students.

I’m glad that you understand why No Child Left Behind needs to be reformed. It has an unreachable goal — 100% proficiency by 2014 — and it has the consequence of forcing schools and their teachers to teach to the test.

Unfortunately, Mr. President, your waivers which free schools from the Annual Yearly Progress aspect of NCLB will cause standardized testing to be even more important…more pervasive. Read Federal Action and Inaction Produce Testing Deluge.

To earn “waivers” from Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), win Race to the Top grants, and receive Teacher Improvement Program grants, the federal government is requiring states to use standardized test scores as “a significant part” of all teacher evaluations.

The waivers don’t help…they make things worse. Diane Ravitch, in an interview with Anthony Cody, said,

One of the many problems with NCLB is that it came packaged with unrealistic, expensive and heavy-handed federal mandates. It put too much emphasis on testing and punishment for failure to reach impossible goals. The waivers now offered by the US Department of Education require the states to comply with other mandates, still tied to the NCLB-style accountability framework. The emphasis on testing under the waiver plan is as heavy-handed as it has been under NCLB. Many schools with high numbers of low-scoring students will be subject to firings and closings. They need help, not punishment. One of the lessons of NCLB is that the federal government does not know how to improve schools.

If you had wanted to help you should have lessened the importance of standardized tests, not increased it. You know that…you’ve said that is what you want to do.

If you want to learn about the damage caused by high stakes testing you should read one or both of the following…

AMERICA’S GLOBAL FUTURE

Your words as a candidate and as the President have suggested that you’re against too much testing in our schools, yet your actions as the President say just the opposite.

The future of America’s economic strength is determined each day in classrooms across our Nation. To remain a global leader, we must cultivate a learning environment with an effective teacher in every classroom and an effective principal in every school. Supporting a strong teaching workforce and inspiring school leadership is a top priority for my Administration. In these challenging financial times for state and local budgets, we have worked to help schools keep teachers in the classroom, preserve or extend the regular school day and year, and maintain important afterschool activities. My Administration has also put forward robust plans to strengthen and transform the teaching profession through a series of investments to help states and districts pursue bold reforms at every stage of the profession. This includes attracting top-tier talent and preparing educators for success, creating career ladders with opportunities for advancement and competitive compensation, providing meaningful evaluation and support for the development of teachers and principals, and getting the best educators into the classrooms of the students who need them most.

The learning environment of Race to the Top is one in which states are coerced into using student test scores to evaluate their teachers. I admit though, that some states, like my own, extremely “reformy” Indiana, don’t need coercion. The last four years of Indiana’s “Mitch and Tony Show” followed by the supermajorities in the house and senate along with a friend in the governor’s mansion have provided everything that the “reformers” want; vouchers, an independent charter board, no more collective bargaining for teachers…all the good stuff that Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee have been saying is so important for our children.

However even though you, Mr. President, have said that we have too much testing, your Race to the Top program requires teachers to be evaluated using student test scores. Standardized tests used to evaluate student achievement were not made to evaluated teaching and learning. I don’t know if you learned anything about tests and measurements when you were in law school, but if you did you would know that tests should only be used for that for which they were developed. If you develop a test for use as a measure of student achievement, then that’s what it should be used for…and only that.

There are other things included in the teacher evaluations…and in some places around the country the Value Added Model (VAM) is used. Unfortunately, using VAM to evaluate teachers is unreliable and invalid…just like the tests themselves. Alfie Kohn wrote,

Question 1: Does [VAM] provide valid and reliable information about teachers (and schools)? Most experts in the field of educational assessment say, Good heavens, no. This year’s sterling teacher may well look like crud next year, and vice versa. Too many variables affect a cohort’s test scores; statistically speaking, we just can’t credit or blame any individual teacher.

Take some time and read the research.

Leading experts caution against reliance on test scores in teacher evaluations

Student test scores are not reliable indicators of teacher effectiveness, even with the addition of value-added modeling (VAM), a new Economic Policy Institute report by leading testing experts finds. Though VAM methods have allowed for more sophisticated comparisons of teachers than were possible in the past, they are still inaccurate, so test scores should not dominate the information used by school officials in making high-stakes decisions about the evaluation, discipline and compensation of teachers.

You have said that we shouldn’t do too much testing, yet Race to the Top requires that the testing continue unabated. We know that using test scores for teacher evaluations (and schools and school districts) is invalid, yet Race to the Top coerces states to use test scores for teacher evaluations.

Do you see the problem here, Mr. President? Your words don’t match your actions.

I know that you want to fill schools with effective teachers. Here are some articles about what makes effective teachers…and none of them include anything about teaching to the test or using test scores to evaluate teachers.

The bold reforms you’re putting into place with Race to the Top are not reliable, aren’t supported by research and are damaging schools. It’s time to stop.

DREAMS

Across our country, young people are dreaming of their futures and of the ideas that will chart the course of our unwritten history. A world-class education system will equip our Nation to advance economic growth, encourage new investment and hiring, spark innovation, and ensure the success of the middle class. Preparing our students for higher education and rewarding careers fulfills our promise to our Nation’s youth and strengthens America for generations to come.

You say you want our children to have a world-class education. If so, we have some models to follow because there are many countries which do a better job than ours…Finland, for example. What do the Finns do that makes their education system so much better? Keep in mind children in Finland don’t start school till age 7, and they don’t spend money to administer standardized tests until the children are in their teens.

For one thing, they have a much lower level of childhood poverty — about 5% compared to ours of nearly 25%. They keep the poverty level low and this helps to increase achievement…not the other way around.

Second, teachers in Finland are chosen from the highest levels of academic success. Once they have been accepted into the teaching field at the university — something which is not easy — they are trained well…and are required to get masters degrees. You won’t find any math-major-who-decided-he-wanted-to-be-a-teacher getting a temporary license to teach. Teacher education is serious…and you have to be educated as a teacher (Indiana legislators and state school board members take note!). How are teachers selected, trained and motivated in the US?

Third, the Finns have free schooling from preschool through the university. No college loan debt hanging over your head for 20 years after you graduate. Preschools are universally available and teach no academics…they teach children social skills and how to play.

Fourth, and this is an important one. Competition is not only not a part of education, it’s actively avoided. The Finns know that learning is helped by collaboration not competition. Schools, students and teachers aren’t ranked. There’s no Race to get funding. Schools are fully funded.

There are more…I urge you to read, Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg.

Here’s a video if you think that will help, too. It’s long…but it explains very well how a nation has changed their society in order to increase learning and improve education.

Now I know that Finland is a small country, with little diversity which makes it unlike the large and diverse USA. Still, we can learn from them. We should learn from them.

IN CLOSING

Thank you, again, for writing. To learn more about my Administration’s work, please visit http://www.WhiteHouse.gov/issues/education.

Sincerely,

Barack Obama

Mr. President, I don’t disagree with everything your administration has done in the area of education policy. I applaud your call for universal preschools. I support your effort to reduce student loan costs. However, Your Race to the Top is a path which supports the privatization of public education through corporate charters, furthers the test and punish aspects of No Child Left Behind, doesn’t provide the most money where it’s most needed, and coerces states to introduce policies unsupported by research.

Here are some things which I think will go along way to improving our school system. I understand that you can’t do this alone, and need the congress, as well as state legislatures to cooperate, however, you can use the position of the President as a moral leader to convince the country of the wisdom of these actions.

Diane Ravitch listed these steps to improve public education in a speech to National Opportunity to Learn Summit in 2011. She wrote,

  • Every pregnant woman should have good pre-natal care and nutrition so that her child is born healthy. One of three children born to women who do not get good prenatal care will have disabilities that are preventable. That will cost society far more than providing these women with prenatal care.
  • Every child should have the medical attention and nutrition that they need to grow up healthy.
  • Every child should have high-quality early childhood education.
  • Every school should have experienced teachers who are prepared to help all children learn.
  • Every teacher should have at least a masters degree.
  • Every principal should be a master teacher, not a recruit from industry, the military, or the sports world.
  • Every superintendent should be an experienced educator who understand teaching and learning and the needs of children.
  • Every school should have a health clinic.
  • Schools should collaborate with parents, the local community, civic leaders, and local business leaders to support the needs of children.
  • Every school should have a full and balanced curriculum, with the arts, sciences, history, civics, geography, mathematics, foreign languages, and physical education.
  • Every child should have time and space to play.
  • We must stop investing in testing, accountability, and consultants and start investing in children.

Let’s end the Race to the Top and collaborate to create a strong public school system.

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All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.

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Stop the Testing Insanity!
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Author:

Retired after 35 years in public education.