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Obama calls for Richer Assessments, Teacher Involvement

This week President Obama held a town hall meeting in Nashua, New Hampshire. His main focus was jobs and the economy, but one of the six questions he took was from a woman named Judy Loftus, who is a teacher at Nashua South High School, Nashua, New Hampshire. Ms. Loftus asked the question that has been on our minds for months. She got a very intriguing response. (Click here to watch the exchange.)

Judy Loftus:
What are you going to do about No Child Left Behind? We have a lot of legacies from the last administration, and as an educator, I've seen the impact in my school, and it hasn't been a positive impact. We're focused more on testing and worrying about test scores than what's right for kids.

President Obama:
We used to have the best, and now we have pockets of the best, and then we have mediocrity, and then we schools that are just terrible. We've got to make sure EVERY child is getting a good solid education. And what that means is, we continue to invest in early childhood education, as my budget does, so our kids are prepared when they start school. It means we help schools with their basic budget, and the Recovery Act prevented a lot of layoffs, and really patched holes in a lot of budgets. It's not sexy, it doesn't get a lot of credit, but it made a huge difference. We've got to make sure though that the single most important factor in an elementary or secondary school education is fulfilled, and that is that we have got excellent teachers in the classroom, and that they are getting a good salary and the support that they need.

Traditionally, the debate between the right and the left over the schools has said, the Left just says "We just need more money in the schools, and everything will be ok." You know, for new equipment, new computers, smaller class sizes - that's been the argument on the liberal side. The conservative side says "The whole problem is bureaucracy, teachers unions, you gotta blow up the system." What my administration believes is, it's not an either or proposition - it's both-and. We need more money, but we need to spend the money wisely and we need to institute reforms that raise standards that push everybody in a school - principal, teacher, student, parent - to pursue excellence.

So last year we started with something called Race to the Top. It's a pretty simple proposition. We carved out a little bit of money that doesn't just go to general revenue - you know, Title 1, the general federal support for schools. And we said, "this money, this Race to the Top money, you get it only if you are working to make for excellent teachers, you're collecting good data, to make sure your students are actually making progress at the schools, you're dealing with the lowest-performing schools in the district, you've got ideas that are showing concrete results - in improvement - not in absolute test scores, but in the progress that that school is making, we're going to fund those improvements." And we've already seen reforms across 48 states, just because we incentivized reform. That's a good thing.

This year is when reauthorization for what's called No Child Left Behind would be coming up - as part of the broader education legislation that's up for reauthorization. And what we're saying there is, on the one hand, we don't want teachers just teaching to the test, on the other hand, we also want to keep high standards for our kids. And I think the best way to do that is to combine high standards, measurable outcomes, but have an assessment system that you work with teachers on, so that its not just a matter of who's fillin' out a bubble and you're also taking into account where do kid start, because not every kid is going to start at the same place, so you want to see where do they end up (applause) at the end of the year.

I just had a meeting with my team this week about this, trying to find ways that we can improve the assessment system, so we're still holding schools accountable, we're still holding teachers accountable, but we're not JUST holding them accountable for a score on a standardized test, but we have a richer way of assessing whether these schools are making progress. So that's the answer on the No Child Left Behind front.

Here is what I think: I think we are seeing the first sliver of hope for change. President Obama is calling for more authentic assessments of student learning, and he appears to be beginning to act on his promise to shift us away from standardized tests. He says teachers need to be involved in the process of developing these assessments. I think we need to take him up on this challenge and develop some clear proposals for the kind of assessments that would, in fact, be richer and more meaningful than our current tests. We will need to continue to organize and put pressure on every level and in every state, but there may be some room for our ideas to be heard.

Note: Our Facebook group, Teachers' Letters to Obama, now has 850 members, and active discussions are underway focused on our ideas about authentic assessment and other aspects of school change. Come join us!

Update: Arne Duncan warned 200 educators in North Carolina yesterday that they should not teach to the test! According to this story in the Charlotte News Observer, he said:

"We want to give every child a chance to discover their genius, what they're best at."
Otherwise, Duncan said, the nation won't be able to keep up with technology advances being made in other countries. He also took aim at the emphasis on standardized testing as part of President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program.

This is the strong evidence that we are beginning to be heard! Of course this has HUGE implications for the many policies Duncan has been pursuing -- pay for test scores, closing down schools with low test scores, etc. So we will have to see how this plays out in terms of these actual practices. But this feels like a potentially significant shift from our leaders.



What do you think? Do the President's words offer us some hope? What sorts of assessments would you like to see used in place of the current tests?

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