School Beat: Post-Election Federal Education Priorities

by Lisa Schiff, 2012-11-29

Re-electing President Obama may have felt like a huge accomplishment, but it was really just the beginning of the work to come. With the rather low-key confirmation that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be continuing on into the second term, the President gave the clear signal that federal education policies and strategies will remain essentially the same, meaning a continued emphasis on competitive grants, further support for privatization via charter schools, and a focus on formulaic assessment of students, teachers and the overall quality and outcomes of our educational system. Arne Duncan was a troubling choice from the outset and his actions as Secretary proved those worries to be well-founded. In other words, we have nothing to be excited about and much to be gravely concerned over.

The post-election mantra is that progressives working in all areas will have to aggressively push on the Obama administration where his policies are out of touch with the goals of grassroots activists. Education is certainly no exception to this, as it is one of the areas where that gap is incredibly large. Where education advocates across the country are mobilizing for essential changes, such as small class sizes and a rich, holistic curriculum, the Obama/Duncan model, emblemized by the now swept-under-the rug “Blueprint” and the never-ending Race To The Top (RTTT) competition, both hyper-forms of George Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy.

Many of us have been arguing since the early days when the Obama/Duncan agenda became clear that these policies simply are not good for kids, and many of us continue to make that assessment. Some national parent groups, like Parents Across America have been actively tackling these federal positions and one parent organization has even started a petition attempting to get Congress to reject RTTT. The Duncan/Obama rhetoric, in keeping with that of the Bush era, consistently invokes the concept of data driven decision making, meaning, typically, the use of standardized test scores to determine all things, from how well a child is learning a given topic to how well a school is performing.

Standardized test scores have received a tremendous amount of attention in the last several years in the area of teacher evaluation, the lynchpin component in RTTT competitive applications and is an area where unsurprisingly teachers unions are fighting back. The criticisms of the gross ineffectualness of these kinds of evaluations are numerous and powerful (see examples here, here, here, and here just to cite a few), but are largely ignored, including in parts of the parent community. Parents are concerned with the real difficulties of addressing teachers who should no longer be teaching--but these statistical evaluation models are the wrong tool for that job; to push the limits of the metaphor a bit, they are like using a sledgehammer when a screwdriver is wanted instead.

Effective teacher evaluation--of both current and entering teachers--is much needed and significant work has been underway for quite some time to develop meaningful assessments. One interesting strategy has come from Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford, which focuses on evaluating the teacher in the classroom from multiple angles, by multiple experienced educators. This type of evaluation can serve myriad purposes, from helping a teacher improve his or her practice, to making it clear when someone really needs to leave the profession. The challenges of the latter, moving individuals out of a school, is an entrenched bureaucratic mess that needs reworking, but it will not be addressed by the use of test scores. Instead, this over-employment of quantified student performance has landed us in a situation where we are straddling two significant political gaps, one between education activists and the Whitehouse and the other between different sectors of education advocates. Bridging that latter gap has proven to be incredibly difficult when significant amounts of money are tied to the Obama/Duncan teacher evaluation model (i.e. Race To The Top money), but without reaching across that chasm, it will be impossible to pressure policy makers to support more meaningful methods of evaluation.

And money, of course, is so critical to this entire situation, but not always in the way we think. We know our schools are underfunded (that’s why we passed Proposition 30) and we know that there are huge funding and resources disparities between schools in the same district, between districts in the same state and between states themselves. This could, and should, be a mantle that the Department of Education takes up. Schools are under the purview of the states, and though states rights still rule the day, the view from the Whitehouse is across the entire nation and should encompass all the nation’s children. That vantage point should not only make clear the huge budgetary discrepancies that result in educational inequities, but should offer a unique position from which to begin to tackle this fundamental problem. How education activists begin to raise this as a priority when by necessity we are so consumed by the challenges of our own schools is a huge question.

The problem of money is not just how much is making its way into the classroom, but how it is circulating through the arena of public education and in particular, its sources and the influence of those sources. The public education world is becoming increasingly privatized, both in the direct provision of education and in the production of what might soon only be a quaint term, public policy. Major donors such as the Gates Foundation are increasingly driving education agendas and that influence just continues to grow. These entities have no public accountability, but they have captured the attention of policy makers from local school boards to the halls of Congress, despite their legacy of disruption and lack of programmatic success.

Identifying, evaluating, revealing and where necessary resisting the tremendous influence of these wealthy individuals on the trajectory of federal public education programs will be a critical task for public education activists going forward--we won’t be able to rely on the Department of Education to do it for us. Obama’s re-election brings no particular sign of hope or change to the public education world, but at least the work cut out for us is very clear.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.