Obama, the education president

Obama’s Education Record includes some success stories — and soft spots, write Mike Petrilli and Tyson Eberhardt in Education Next.

His Race to the Top (RttT) initiative catalyzed a chain reaction of legislative action at the state level, securing key reforms on issues ranging from charter schools to teacher evaluations to rigorous standards. His stimulus and “edujobs” bills seemed to maintain a critical level of investment in the public schools during a time of difficult budget cuts and financial strain. His administrative action to provide flexibility on No Child Left Behind’s most onerous provisions bypassed a paralyzed Congress and partially fulfilled his campaign promise to lift the law’s yoke off the backs of decent but maligned schools. . . .

. . . both the Common Core State Standards effort and the move toward rigorous teacher evaluations could lead to dramatic increases in student achievement, if implemented faithfully by states and school districts. Neither of these reforms would have been adopted so quickly, in so many places, were it not for the president’s leadership.

But the stimulus wasted a lot of money, they write. Race to the Top states have back-pedaled on reforms.

And Washington keeps tightening the screws on the states, while promising flexibility. Race to the Top required states to “develop plans that complied with federal guidelines set forth in excruciating detail.”  No Child Left Behind waivers required more hoop jumping. Now the Education Department has declared that “a disproportionate percentage of white students in Advanced Placement (AP) classes constitutes evidence of racial discrimination.”

“Obama and Duncan have been good on education reform” compared to their Democratic predecessors, write Petrilli and Eberhardt.  But “the administration deserves to be pressed on the cost-effectiveness of its education system bailouts, on the results of its Race to the Top initiative, and on the wisdom of its approach to federalism and separation of powers.”


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  1. Let me say that I voted for Obama and I’ll likely do so again, because the alternative is unacceptable. However, Obama is as far from an education leader as Bush was, and this is saying a lot.

    Obama started in the wrong direction when he appointed Duncan — another bureaucrat, who knows little about what goes on in any classroom on a daily basis. Neither Duncan nor his assistant director have a track record as teachers. All they and Obama have done is continue to trumpet accountability and merit pay — two ideas that every noteworthy researcher on the planet has vilified since their inception.

    Suggesting that Common Core standards and teacher evaluations could lead to “dramatic increases in student achievement. . .” is hypothetical, at best, and completely wrong, at worst.

    It’s people like Petrilli and Eberhardt that influence parents and ignorant community leaders into thinking that the Common Core and rigorous teacher evaluations are magic pills that will reform American education. There is no research that even hints that this is true.

    In fact, what we have is over a decade of standardized test results that tell us absolutely nothing about student achievement.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    I completely agree that Duncan and his deputy know little about what goes on in a classroom on a daily basis. Of course, the same could be said for most any education administrator, bureaucrat, or ed school professor.

    I think you are wrong that “every noteworthy researcher” has vilified “accountability and merit pay.” Unless you define “noteworthy” as “agreeing with me.” You would hardly be the only person in education (or a lot of other fields) who did that–but it would be wrong.

    There are magic bullets in education, nothing that will lead to “dramatic increases in student achievement,” but that is because we do our “backwards design” in a way that leads to failure. We do not honestly ask ourselves, “What should adults know and be able to do?”

    Instead, we say, “What will make young people do well in college?” But doing well in college means doing well in courses that prepare the student for a life in academia. That is hardly the life goal of most people, and for many it is quite the opposite. Most public school students don’t do well because they aren’t inherently interested in the material, and they don’t see it preparing them for where they want to go. We try to force them to be interested by saying (thought hardly in these words), “If you don’t do well in school, you’ll have crappy jobs and won’t make a lot of money–and you will deserve that outcome.”

    • Roger, I think for the most part we agree. In terms of the research, I have not seen any legitimate studies that say that merit pay or standardized tests have a positive effect on learning. I’ve seen plenty that says the opposite. For example, Stephen Krashen, a respected professor and researcher, who has studied language acquisition, poverty and testing for decades, notes that the real problem with learning has nothing to do with poor test scores. Krashen’s research indicates that if you remove the scores of poor students, America compares to the top achieving nations in the world — at least where testing is concerned. Most impoverished students lack resources at home and, often, at school to be successful.

      I couldn’t agree more with what you say about what we ask ourselves. Many ed. thought leaders, Will Daggett for one, say that we are not preparing students for the jobs that will need people 10 and 20 years from now. This is why I’m in favor of a paradigm shift. Rather than teach from workbooks, worksheets and multiple-choice tests, I want to show students how to learn for themselves.

      If we produce learners, rather than receptacles, the world will be a better place.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Mark, Thanks for your thoughtful reply. After I read it, I had the heretical thought, “If we teach students to learn, aren’t we destroying our jobs?” Or to be more precise, “if we succeed at ‘produc[ing] learners,’ wouldn’t this result in a drastic shrinking of the present education industry?”

        After a certain amount of time or achievement, young people would be able to make their own decisions about what they wanted to learn–and would be trusted to do it. They would also, of course, be allowed to decide, “I don’t want to learn any more academics.” Perhaps, “I want to learn how to fix an engine.” Or perhaps, “I want to get a job, and I’ll decide later what I want to learn to get better at it, or what I want to learn to be qualified for some other job I find out about.”

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    “There are NO magic bullets in education,” the third paragraph should begin.