Obama’s testing plan: A real change or more of the same?

On October 24, 2015, the U.S. Department of Education released their Testing Action Plan as a response to the increasing concern of parents, teachers, and students that standardized testing is, in their words, “unnecessary,” consumes “too much instructional time” and creates “undue stress for educators and students.” On first reading, Obama and Duncan seem to be saying that they want to decrease both the amount to time spent on testing and the high-stakes nature of tests in evaluating students, teachers, and schools. However, a closer reading suggests that they are only calling for the federal government to provide “clear assistance…for how to thoughtfully approach testing and assessment,” that is, more federal control. So, the actual goal is more of the same, implemented more carefully so as to blunt resistance.

The rest of the action plan’s goals are worded to suggest more than they deliver. For example, they assert that “no standardized test should be given solely for educator evaluation,” which makes it acceptable, as in New York, to use the Common Core exam to count as 50% of teachers’ evaluations and to determine whether a school is failing and should be placed in receivership.

It seems that the federal Testing Action Plan, like Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force, is not meant to respond to the concerns of parents that led to 220,000 students opting out of the Common Core exams in April 2015 but, rather, to convince the media that they are going to fine tune it to make it more palatable to the public. However, what is needed is not fine-tuning but a decrease in standardized testing. The Council of the Great City Schools reported earlier this month that students in their 66 membership districts take, from pre-K to grade 12, an average of 112 standardized tests, most of which are required under NCLB and Race to the Top.

In sum, the Obama administration, outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and incoming secretary John King — who single-handedly made high-stakes testing the single most important educational issue in New York — want to do more of the same, only sell it better.


The Department of Education press release:



Response by the NYS Allies for Public Education



A smart and snarky response from Peter Green, a teacher



Anthony Cody (co-founder of the Network for Public Education): Obama (Again) blasts all the tests his administration has sponsored



Council of the Great City Schools



Addressing the nation’s schoolchildren: What is the real message?

Amidst all of the thoughtful conversations about the President’s recent address to the Nation’s schoolchildren, I have felt a strange sense of isolation and alienation.  While folks are making cogent and important arguments about whether the speech went too far or not far enough, or whether parents are justified in demanding that their children be shielded from the potential indoctrination hiding in the dark corners of the speech, I find myself fighting a sense of rage that takes my thoughts away from the discussion at hand.  Why rage?  Because in spite of the intellectual interest I might have in these discussions, I am led to a deeper emotional dimension. I am anticipating the crushing disappointment and internalized powerlessness that may be experienced by brown and black skinned schoolchildren who saw in the election of Barack Obama a shining, liberatory moment in a history of oppression.  I have other questions I would like answered.

What are these children thinking as they see their democratically elected symbol of hope and transformation scrutinized, vilified, publicly humiliated, and systematically disempowered?  What can they be thinking when they see, as I did, a mother on television openly weeping because she feared that her children would be damaged by the words of a man intent on indoctrinating her children with ideas that fall short of her notion of ethical or moral integrity?  What is the message being sent by another television clip of an enraged man intent on pulling his child out of school to shield the child from hateful propaganda being spread by this frightening man we call “President”?

What does it mean for children when someone in their own image is elected to the most powerful office in the land but is still not able to garner the admiration, respect and support of the Nation?  What does it mean that even after making the impossible possible with the election of Barack Obama, that justice, mutual respect, and a sense of common good is once again eclipsed with politically-motivated tools of distrust and scorn?  

I think that pondering the content of the speech and the appropriateness of the presidential address for schoolchildren is taking our eye off the ball.  I think it is more important for us to understand how children and young adults who feel a strong sense of kinship with Mr. Obama will internalize the wrath directed at our President.  Will they feel like they are not entitled to respect, that their voice does not deserve to be heard, or that hope is hollow?

Obama’s education policies: More of the same

I should have known better. While I admire Obama’s ability to communicate with the public (especially as compared to his predecessor), I’m not sure whom he is listening to. I keep being disappointed that we seem to be getting more of the same, particularly when it comes to education policy. While Obama promised that he would not judge students, teachers, and schools only on test-scores, so far we haven’t seen anything different. And where the Bush administration pushed for the privatization of pubic schools, especially as charter schools, the Obama administration has used the fiscal emergency and executive discretionary funds to bludgeon states into expanding the number of charter schools.

Of course, as soon as Obama chose Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education, I feared the worst. As I explained in chapter six of my book, High-Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning: The Real Crisis in Education, as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Duncan implemented Renaissance 2010, which sought to shift control over the public schools away from parents and the public, and towards the corporate elite. And first as CEO and now as Secretary of Education, Duncan has falsely claimed that schools have improved when, in most cases, schools’ test scores improved because they were able to enroll more middle-class students and the tests have become easier.

Diane Ravitch, who until recently was a strong supporter of high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind, now realizes that Bush’s and Obama’s reforms have lowered standards and diminished learning. What is astonishing about Ravitch’s critique is not only the ferocity of it, but the disappointment given that she was initially a staunch advocate of more standardized exams and in an interview on Only a Teacher, a video I show in class, criticizes schools like the Urban Academy in New York City and the School Without Walls in Rochester for their resistance to requiring for graduation passing the Regents exams. Ravitch’s views can be accessed in Education Week (“Time to Kill ‘No Child Left Behind’” in the June 10th issue) and the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diane-ravitch/obamas-awful-education-pl_b_266412.html.

Thinking beyond the spectacle

After watching the inauguration on the Internet, I thought to myself that I just felt like a cheerleader for the State. The jingoism of flag waving, empty symbolism, demonstration of military might and the worship of celebrity demonstrated how the inauguration contained seemingly incompatible ideologies that still coexisted with each other and maintained ideological hegemony.  In other words, U.S. State power appeared permanent, fixed and “real”, as well as, a place to locate social change.  This idea comes despite the historical and primary source data that highlights imperialist States, like England and the U.S. for example, have been the biggest perpetrators of violence against people of color, indigenous societies, women, people categorized and labeled “disabled,” working class communities, homosexuals, etc. over the past 350 years.  This last part is important, as social and progressive change cannot be realized within a hierarchical, racist, sexist, classist, ableist, colonialist, and an inherently oppressive institution like a State as I hope this blog will demonstrate.  I know that I refer to the United States, but by no means am I trying to paint “villains” or “evil-doers” and other nation-states have just as much to answer for as the United States does.  Instead, as you will see, power is reproduced much more sophisticatedly than just top-down or through simplistic binaries of Us vs. Them, but also through what we consider knowledge or how we understand the world around us.  States are merely one piece to a much larger puzzle.

However, I am quite aware of the historical significance of the election of Obama.  It effectively demonstrates what radicals have argued all along: that political hope can amass people out of complacency into action. I am also aware that an election of an African American man speaks volumes that people are willing to adapt their beliefs about race and ethnicity, which points to the possibility of social change occurring in the future which should sustain hope for all of us. I am not critiquing the President per se, but more his symbolic and representational existence and the political frameworks we are given that are deemed appropriate, real, or possible.  I am not concerned with Obama the individual, then, but Obama as representational of a larger system of meanings, discourses, ontological frameworks, epistemologies, and ideologies.  The individual, as it has been constructed in the West, is more of a testament to the emergence and rise of mercantile capitalism rather than some empirical reality of us overcoming odds, persevering, and working hard to master and tame our world. Continue reading “Thinking beyond the spectacle”

Obama and the continued framing of educators as the problem

Throughout the history of public schooling in the US, teachers have more often than not been blamed for the failures of our public schools. Under the Bush administration, for example, the teachers’ unions were marginalized during the writing of the No Child Left Behind Act, and Bush’s education department’s distain for teachers was exemplified by Secretary of Education Rodney Paige referring to the teachers unions as “terrorist organizations.”

One might hope that teachers and teacher educators would fare better under an Obama administration. However, early indications are not auspicious. During the media debate over who should be the Secretary of Education designate, Linda Darling-Hammond, who served as Obama’s education advisor during the campaign, and as a Stanford professor is one of the more well known and respected educators who has worked in the nitty-gritty of school reform, was cast by most of the media as a defender of the status quo. For example, the New Republic called her “Obama’s old-school, pro-union education guru.”

Instead, the media and political conservatives argued that Obama should choose from those who have landed leadership positions in school districts not because of their education but corporate background, such as Joel Klein, Michelle Rhees, and, the eventual choice, Arne Duncan, the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. In my book, High-stakes testing and the decline of teaching and learning: The real crisis in education, Pauline Lipman and I devote a chapter to dissecting how, under Duncan, the Chicago Public Schools have become increasingly privatized, decision-making power shifted away from the elected school board and parents and teachers, and towards an unelected corporate board, and students subjected to even more high stakes standardized testing.

While Obama’s education platform contained much with which I agreed, since his election the rhetoric has once again turned to blaming teachers and teacher educators as defenders of the status quo, many of whom have worked hard at developing successful schools, and, instead, corporate executives have been hailed as the “true” educational reformers.

Gerald Bracey, in an excellent blog at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gerald-bracey/the-hatchet-job-on-linda_b_155104.html, describes how once again the corporate and media elite succeeded in framing the problem in education as caused by teachers and teacher educators. The debate over the Secretary of Education designate and the eventual appointment of Arne Duncan does not bode well. In response, we need to figure out how to get parents’ and educators’ voices heard.

The Presidential Election

by David Hursh

No matter whether McCain or Obama wins the election, the incoming president and congress will need to sit down and develop a new federal education policy. Given that congress is very likely to be controlled by the Democrats and even Republicans are dissatisfied with the No Child Left Behind Act, we will be presented with an opportunity to change federal education policies. Therefore, in this blog I would like to begin a discussion of Obama’s and McCain’s policies and how educators might best influence upcoming policy decisions.

Based on a review of their websites, speeches, and analyses (Fairtest, Education Week) McCain’s and Obama’s education proposals differ significantly. McCain continues the Bush administration’s focus on creating educational markets so that schools will compete for students. Furthermore, he wants to further privatize education by funding voucher programs (what he calls “opportunity scholarships”) and “virtual learning communities,” or for-profit on-line courses and schools. He aims to give public funds to private corporations to provide tutoring, test preparation, and home schooling (see www.johnmccain.com).

In contrast, Obama has developed an extensive list of proposals that would substantially transform how we assess students; increase funding for zero-five childhood education; recruit, prepare, retain, and reward teachers; reorganize schools into smaller innovative units; and increase funding for education research and development. He has pledged an additional $30 billion per year for education. (See www.barackobama.com/issues/education.)

However, among the questions to be asked of Obama is his support for charter schools — he wants to double federal aid to charter schools to $400 million per year — and what he specifically means by stating that he wants to reward good teachers. Is he proposing a form of merit pay, and, if so, how would merit be decided?

Moreover, we need to know more about who is advising Obama, who has developed close connections to corporate and political leaders from his work with the Chicago schools. Many of the leaders with whom he is close have pushed a corporate reform agenda. Pauline Lipman, in her book High Stakes Education: Inequality, Globalization, and Urban School Reform and in a chapter co-authored with me in my book, has criticized recent Chicago reforms for exacerbating inequality and creating a dual unequal city. On the other hand, Linda Darling-Hammond, well-known Stanford University professor and contributor to the proposal Democracy at Risk: The Need for a New Federal Policy in Education, has had a more progressive influence on Obama’s policies and has recently written a blog on why educators should support Obama: http://edwize.org/why-educators-should-support-barack-obama.

While other issues, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic crisis created by Wall Street, push debates about education to the side, we need to discuss and push for reforms that make sense to us as educators. Furthermore, the recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll shows that the tide has turned against NCLB, high-stakes standardized testing, and the increasing centralization of power in state capitals and in Washington DC. It’s time that educators and the public work together to make sensible education policy.