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Obama's Vision for Education

Dear Deborah,

I have been trying to ascertain what President Obama plans to do to reshape the federal role in education, and the outlines of his policy are becoming clear. So far, we have not heard much about what he will do to fix the No Child Left Behind approach, but the signs are not encouraging.

One point is clear: He prefers charter schools to regular public schools. After his election, he first visited a charter school, not a regular public school. The day after the 2009 election, he and Secretary Arne Duncan visited the Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, which caps its class sizes at 20. That is a class size, by the way, that is out of reach in most urban public schools. The president seems eager to turn over as many public schools as possible to private management. I find it laughable that so many of his critics call him a socialist and a man of the left, when in education, he is quite obviously a force for privatization of public education.

The president is a strong supporter of performance pay. In his visit to the charter school in Madison, the president took the opportunity to remind the nation that teachers should be evaluated in relation to their students' test scores. The funny part of this was that he "went off script" to tell everyone that his daughter Malia came home from school with a 73 on a science test. Logic should have compelled the president to demand an immediate investigation of Malia's teacher, who had obviously failed in her responsibility to make Malia an A student. But, no, the president said that Malia, apparently upset by her low grade, had "started wanting it [the higher score] more than us," and on her next science test, she got a 95. The president did not seem to realize that his little family story had undermined his campaign to blame teachers if students did not score well. Malia got a low score initially because she didn't try hard enough, not because her teacher was ineffective.

Too bad that no one in the U.S. Department of Education briefed the president and the secretary on the latest merit pay evaluation. This one, produced by the National Center on Performance Incentives at the request of the Texas Education Agency, reviewed the results of the nation's largest merit pay program (PDF). Called the Governor's Educator Excellence Grant (GEEG) program, it handed out some $300 million over three years to teachers in 99 high-poverty schools. The plan relied on test scores, and the performance of individual teachers.

The good news: The teachers liked the extra pay; they collaborated to get extra pay. Teachers had positive attitudes about the program, whether they got the bonuses or not.

The bad news: The program had an "inconclusive" impact on student achievement, which the evaluation characterizes as "weakly positive, negative or negligible effect" on gains.

So, having seen little return from its sizable investment, Texas plans to expand the program, and of course, President Obama wants every state to pump federal dollars into pay-for-performance, even though we have yet to see any evidence that this is a sensible investment of scarce public funds.

Two things are becoming clear to me: One, people who have an agenda will pursue that agenda regardless of evidence. They will tell you that conditions weren't exactly right, that the bonus should have been larger, that the program should have been tweaked this way or that way. But the bottom line is that teachers got bonuses, and the impact on student achievement (using those same lousy measures that we complain about) was hard to quantify.

The other is that the Obama administration has an education plan that was written by corporate-style ideologues. They are determined to fasten a business plan on the schools and will not be deterred by arguments or evidence. If incentives and sanctions work in the business world, then by gum, they will work in education. If deregulation is what the corporate sector wants, then why not foist it on the schools as well.

So, the outline of the Obama education vision is emerging. It is a business plan, designed by people who know nothing about schools and care nothing about evidence.

The nation's public schools are in for a rough ride.


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