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Obama Knows Best, Part 2: "Too Often we are Using These Tests to Punish Students or Schools."

Last Monday, President Obama went off script at a town hall meeting, and in response to a question from student Luis Zelaya, offered us a vision for education. In 338 words, he made it clear that current Department of Education policy is way out of line with what he knows is best for his own daughters, and for students across the nation.

After I expressed this view in my blog Monday night, Justin Hamilton, a press secretary for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, wrote to me and requested that I correct my post, providing me with his official interpretation of what the President meant to say. I then sent him four questions. He has answered three of them, and in this post I offer my thoughts on his response to my second question.

Here is the question I asked on Wednesday, followed by the answer provided by the Department of Education:

Question 2: President Obama said:

Too often what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we've said is let's find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let's apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let's figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let's make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well.

The Department of Education's Blueprint for a new NCLB calls for the continuation of the practice of labeling schools as failures, although it will impose this crushing status on only the bottom 5% of our schools. If punishing schools has not worked - as the President acknowledges in this remark, (and was not shown to work in Chicago under then CEO Arne Duncan) why is it being continued for any schools at all?

Press Secretary Justin Hamilton's response:

The biggest problem with AYP is that it gives schools the same label, whether they're missing their targets by a little or a lot. Under NCLB, chronically low-performing schools are already identified as being schools in need of reconstitution. However, NCLB provided almost no resources for improving schools that, by any measure, are chronically low-performing or have persistent achievement gaps. Interventions in these schools typically have involved little more than cosmetic change. By contrast, the administration has invested $4 billion to support the transformation of the lowest-achieving schools and required more meaningful interventions in schools with persistent achievement gaps.

It is not "punishing" a school that has does a poor job, year after year, and sometimes for decades, to support dramatic change in that school. Children get only one chance at an education. To fail to forcefully intervene in a school that cheats children out of the opportunity to receive a quality education punishes children. As Secretary Duncan has said, for far too long, adults, educators, and leaders have passively observed educational failure in these schools with a complacency that is deeply disturbing. States and districts have largely tinkered in chronically low-achieving schools--many of which serve low-income minority students--instead of treating them as educational emergencies. Secretary Duncan does not support maintaining the status quo in these schools or continued tinkering.

For a moment I thought he was talking about the United States action in Libya, instead of our neighborhood schools. In both cases, the Federal Government has decided "forceful intervention" is the only solution. . The "meaningful interventions" to which Mr. Hamilton refers are the four very limited alternatives "chronically underperforming" schools have been offered:

  • Turnaround: Fire the principal and at least half the staff.
  • Restart: Close the school and reopen as a charter.
  • Closure: Simply close the school and ship students elsewhere.
  • Transformation: Fire the principal and engage in extensive restructuring.


Unfortunately we have seen the results of "forceful intervention" in our nation's impoverished schools. At Fremont High School in Los Angeles, where the administration ran roughshod over teachers and students, to Central Falls High in Rhode Island.

Dana Goldstein visited Central Falls High and, a year after the controversy, offers us a window on the aftermath of this sort of forceful intervention, which was officially endorsed at the time by Secretary Duncan. Here is what she reports from her conversations with teachers there:

Despite their clear pleasure in working with the students, [teachers] Kulla and Cherko said teacher morale throughout the building remains low, in part because of last year's termination crisis and the resulting high-turnover among staff, and in part because student discipline remains a major problem.
"The kids, when they're here, need to know this is a place of learning," Kulla said. "Right now they don't." Cherko added that the layoff crisis was interpreted by many students as a sign that their teachers were incompetent. "I'm not sure they realize how nationally-driven what happened last year was," he said. "They say, 'The teachers got fired because they're bad at their jobs.'"

There are multiple problems with the Department of Education's strategy here.

Problem One.
The process to determine which schools are "chronically underperforming" relies primarily on test score data - these same tests that the President asserts we should not be teaching to. How can we continue to make such high stakes decisions using such flawed sources of data? Won't this continue to force the poorest schools to focus on test preparation to avoid this undesirable status?

Problem Two: Communities are systematically disempowered by these forceful interventions, which disrupt or destroy local schools. As was reported in Education Week recently, urban activists from around the country are beginning to take notice and organize around this issue.

Problem Three: The accountability system ignores external factors that affect student performance, such as levels of poverty, homelessness, hunger and violence, each of which have huge impacts on student achievement. Under this policy, it is the teachers and administrators alone at these schools who are held accountable. This narrow focus only provides us with scapegoats, rather than long-term solutions.

Problem Four: The schools targeted for these interventions are all afflicted by poverty, and mostly attended by students of color. These students already experience a high degree of disruption in their lives due to their economic circumstances and the often violent environments in which they live. Subjecting them to disruptive "forceful interventions" is a very bad idea. Labeling their schools failures, and stigmatizing the teachers and administrators who work with them is a poor way to foster respect for learning. As was revealed by research on school closures in Chicago, this does not yield improved outcomes for students.

We need to move away from the test-and-punish regime that is the hallmark of No Child Left Behind.
President Obama is correct when he suggests that we need to move away from the high-stakes attached to standardized tests. For struggling schools, we need strategies that build on their strengths, and provide support in the least disruptive and most constructive manner possible. Congresswoman Judy Chu offered such an approach last summer, and the Forum of Educational Accountability has likewise offered a comprehensive alternative based on strengthening schools.

Once again, I believe it is Department of Education policy that is out of step with President Obama. We are organizing the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action, with a march and rally on July 30th in Washington, DC, in order to suggest that our schools be guided by President Obama's vision, as expressed in his honest statement Monday. Please join us.

What do you think? Is the Department of Education carrying out President Obama's vision? Or are they still using high-stakes tests to punish schools?

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