April 3, 2010

Barack Obama: the Education President?

The President’s Blueprint for Education: well-intentioned but misguided rhetoric?

Part V in a series on Education in the 21st century.

I voted for President Obama.

Filled with the excitement and hope represented by his progressive ideas, I looked forward to what he had to offer the American people. Tempering that enthusiasm, however, was the realization that campaign promises often run into that nefarious obstacle called “governing.” Our leaders exist withing a system of checks and balances, and can only do what their popularity and relationships allow them to push through.

I did not expect Mr. Obama to reveal red and blue tights under his suit come Inauguration Day, and I realized that many of his goals would take time to accomplish. I was a bit disappointed in his choice for Tom Vilsack to lead the Department of Agriculture,  and was struck by the irony of that appointment when juxtaposed with the organic garden in the White House lawn.

I became less enthusiastic when Arne Duncan took the reigns as Secretary of Education. Once again, the person who was given the responsibility for education in our country had never spent a day in the classroom as an educator. (The very fact that his Department of Education biography describes his position with the Chicago Public Schools as “CEO” instead of “superintendent” is…telling.)

Teacher-bashing is a popular sport in this country, and it’s disappointing to see our president and education secretary jumping on the bandwagon, particularly when President Obama has generally demonstrated a wonderful “let’s get all the facts before making a statement” style of leadership. The firings of the teachers in Rhode Island, which President Obama and Arne Duncan supported, further revealed the naiveté of both men when it comes to the dynamics surrounding the education process in schools.

I can’t help but wonder who they are going to think will staff these low-performing schools, knowing that no matter how good an educator they may be, their careers could be at an end in a system where too often teachers are the only ones held accountable even for things beyond their control, another idea that Ravitch (and 99.9% of educators) oppose: “The Obama administration wants states to evaluate teachers by their students’ test scores, a truly bad idea. The tests that students take are intended to gauge student progress, not to judge teacher quality,” she wrote in her book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”

A recent New York Times article detailed some of the president’s plans for revision of the No Child Left Behind act, the unintended consequences of which have resulted in an educational system that is failing our students. Full of rhetoric but short on substance and seeming to lack evidence of either conversations with classroom teachers or valid educational research, the proposed plan seems more directed at getting politicians re-elected to office than affecting real change.

Even former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, who worked with the first President Bush and was a proponent of testing and charter schools, has come out against standardized testing in schools, recently posting on her Twitter account: “Test-test-test is not improving education, but dumbing it down. Kids know how to take tests but they are not better educated.”  The Denver Post noted the impact and pressure felt even at the elementary level around standardized testing: “Two students vomited. A few cried at their desks. Another imagined goblins might get him if he failed. It was the day the third-graders took their first Colorado Student Assessment Program exams, and the 8- and 9-year-olds were all nerves. Students rubbed lucky “Zap CSAP” lapel pins. They repeated mantras of test-taking techniques and practiced positive self-talk taught to them by their teacher, Dawn Romero.” The article further goes on to note the emphasis placed on test taking skills… time that perhaps could have and should have been better spent giving the students academic skills rather than test taking skills.

The problem is, on a general scale, one of perception. There is a perception that students in Europe and Asia are outperforming American students in nearly every subject area, and at first glance, they are. However, at a closer look, things become a little less dire. The reality of it is that American and European and Asian cannot truly be compared. The American educational system, based on a 19th century, assembly line model, has changed little over the years, and gives every child the right to “a free and appropriate” public education through the age of 21 (legally, though the vast majority of students finish high school around 18). Other countries structure their systems very differently. The most common system involves some sort of combination of student choice and aptitude test around the age of 16 at which point the student is either directed or is able to choose one of several paths, including vocational training or further study in preparation for four year university schooling. The students who continue on towards the four year university track are often “honors” students, and it is those students who take the exit exams. In other words, in the United States, we test everybody, regardless of aptitude or motivation. In other countries, they only test their upper end students. The reality is that there is no comparison.

I’m not opposed to standards in education. In fact, I’m in favor of them, and I do feel that there needs to be accountability in education. However, that accountability needs to extend beyond the individual in the front of the room. I’m not in favor of multiple choice or true/false assessments of those standards. Nearly every teacher training course dealing with testing will tell you that the only thing multiple choice and true/false choice tests assess is the ability of a student to guess.  I am in favor of assessments that make sense and truly demonstrate the skills a student has learned. “We need assessments that gauge students’ understanding and require them to demonstrate what they know, not tests that allow students to rely solely on guessing and picking one among four canned answers.” (Ravitch) The International Baccalaureate program does an outstanding job of this and students who earn an IB diploma are regarded as some of the top students graduating from any high school worldwide.There are a host of people involved in the education of a child: teachers, administrators, parents, and the student him/herself. What is unfortunate is that the ones who often have the greatest impact are those with the least experience in the classroom: the politicians whose “expertise” in the field of education generally is limited only to their time as a student in education. They draft lofty sounding plans meant to impress the average voter without thought to what is considered best practice nor to the full consequences of their choices. As Ms. Ravitch notes about the latest proposal of attaching graduation rates to federal funding: “If I am a high school principal and you tell me that I’m fired if I don’t get a 100 percent graduation rate,  I will get 100 percent and you will get kids coming out of school who won’t be able to read and write,” she says. “But I will still hand them a diploma.” And who would be held accountable for this? Not the administrator who made that decision, not the parents, often not even the student. As Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers remarked in the WSJ article: “From everything that we’ve seen, this blueprint places 100 percent of the responsibility on teachers and gives them zero percent of the authority.”

So where does this leave us? Is it an all-or-nothing, either we have standards and fire all of the teachers of low performing schools versus chaos and diplomas that mean nothing proposition? Hardly. As with most things, there is a middle way. As with most things that become politicized and polarized, the ones most affected by things and the ones most able to make the greatest impact are the ones least likely to be asked. The answer is there, but drowned out by the cacophony and din of political noise, no one is listening.

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