I spent the early part of the day at the Books not Bombs action with about 250 others and then went home to watch President Obama’s speech at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison on television (transcript, here). Here are some reactions.
The inspirational message, especially the words directed at students and parents was very good. He was utterly right about the need to seize opportunities, value and support leaning and the importance teachers and parents working to have children internalize pride in academic achievement. One of the best teachers my children have had moved our son from racing to get his work done as fast as possible to completing assignments in a way that he could be proud of. Thanks Mr. Waters and thanks President Obama for this message.
He was also very good about the need to make education central to our national agenda. A little too much about the economic aspects and too little about building an engaged citizenry for my taste, but good to hear.
As many speakers at the Books not Bombs made clear, this is not happening and as I observed in an earlier post the desperation of states for Race to the Top funds is ample evidence that we are not investing in education as we should.
This raises a basic contradiction between the rhetoric in the policies: If education is as essential to our nation’s present strength and future well being as President Obama says it is, why must states compete for one-time grants to fund only a portion of the needed investments? What about the states that don’t get grants, are their futures less crucial, are their children less deserving of educational opportunities.?
If we can spend $4 billion a week to keep the military in distant countries we should be able to fully fund the education of every child in every state. When we spend billions on bombs, we shouldn’t have to ask for Pennies for Kids.
There were also some contradictions within the four core ideas behind Race to the Top that the President delineated. Again, he was absolutely correct about the need for better assessments (I have doubts about the role of national standards in this process, but that is another issue), however Race to the Top is built expanded use of the inadequate assessments we have now. Linking teacher pay to flawed tests doesn’t make sense. Let’s work to create real, balanced and useful assessments first and then discuss what we should do with them. Prioritizing data collection has similar problems. We can have the best system for collecting and analyzing data, but if the data is bad to begin with, what is the point? The old computer programmer phrase comes to mind: Garbage In, Garbage Out. Obama is right that our current state assessments are near garbage; I just don’t understand how he can know that and still want to expand their use as the basis for decision-making.
It also bothered me that the President seemed to paint a picture of teacher’s currently making no use of assessments or feedback in shaping their teaching. Every teacher uses many forms of feedback everyday; they see the looks on children’s faces and change their mode of explanation or offer words of encouragement; they grade homework and know what they did well and what they need to do differently; they evaluate exams and decide how to move forward. This is basic to teaching and happened long before there was any talk of standardized tests and longitudinal data systems and will continue to happen whether the Race to the Top agenda is enacted or not.
President Obama is also correct about the need to attract to and keep the best in our classrooms. My opinion is that the way to do this is to respect them as professionals, listen to them and not dictate reforms from above. Recognize that perhaps the teacher who spends hours with students every day might have a better grasp of what is needed and a deeper understanding student progress than anything that will show up in a Value Added Analysis. It isn’t that I think the data and analysis is useless, it is that I fear that by elevating data above humans we will shut our ears to those whose voices need to be heard and we will make teaching a less attractive vocation. I’m looking for a better balance.
In his confident words about expanding the use of data and other things, I believe that President Obama grossly overstated and in places mis-stated what the research indicates. A good example of this is the idea of school turnarounds. In Chicago, now Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pursued an aggressive school shutdown and turnaround policy. Through Race to the Top he is trying to nationalize it. Well, the first research is in and it doesn’t look good. Here is what the New York Times said:
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan presided over the closing of dozens of failing schools when he was chief executive of the Chicago public schools from 2001 until last December. In his new post, he has drawn on those experiences, putting school turnaround efforts at the center of the nation’s education reform agenda.
“Most students who transferred out of closing schools re-enrolled in schools that were academically weak,” says the report, which was done by the university’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.
Furthermore, the disruptions of routines in schools scheduled to be closed appeared to hurt student learning in the months after the closing was announced, the researchers found.
On this and many other aspects of Race to the Top, from linking teacher pay to test scores to charter school expansion, solid research often contradicts the claims of this administration. At best the jury is still out on the reforms they are pushing; at worst the evidence is that enacting much of their program will make things worse.
I share the President’s desire for every child to have access to full and rich educational opportunities, to move the United States toward a culture that values teaching and learning. I worry his plan for making this happen will move us further from realizing these ideals.
Time to go help our younger son with his homework.
Thomas J. Mertz