Posted on Politico.com On Sat, Feb 21, 2009 by Diane Ravitch, Historian of education, NYU, Hoover and Brookings:
In education, the new administration is as ruinous as the old
Education was not a big issue in the campaign, but it is a big issue for our society. Our future depends on having a strong and effective public education system, as well as excellent institutions of higher education and a variety of successful private institutions of education.
When President Obama ran for office, he promised sweeping change, and educators understood him to mean that he would reverse the Bush administration's ruinous No Child Left Behind legislation. I say "ruinous," because NCLB has been a costly failure. On national tests, given by the U.S. Department of Education, student achievement is either flat (as in 8th grade reading) or has improved less than in the days prior to NCLB (as in every other grade and subject tested). I say "ruinous" because NCLB is punitive, has caused nearly 40% of the nation's schools to be labeled "failing," and has set the nation on a course in which nearly all of our schools will be declared "failures" within the next five years.
NCLB's remedy for "failing" schools is harshly punitive. When a school is struggling, there is no help on the way, just punishment: Fire the staff; close the school; turn the school over to private entrepreneurs, etc.
So it was reasonable to expect that the Obama administration would throw out this harsh regime and replace it with a program intended to improve, help, support, and strengthen our schools.
But along comes Arne Duncan, our new Secretary of Education, and everything he has said to date might have just as well been said by Bush's Secretary Margaret Spellings. Duncan paid his visit to New York City and toured a charter school, not a regular public school. He declared that the nation's schools need more testing, as though we don't have enough information already to act on our problems. He declared his support for charter schools, where only 2% of the nation's children are enrolled.
The one educator close to Obama who actually has experience in the schools--his chief policy advisor Linda Darling-Hammond--was demonized by the new breed of non-educators and their media flacks, and she has returned to Stanford University. There was no room apparently in this administration for someone who had been deeply involved in school reform for many years, not as an entrepreneur or a think-tank expert, but as an educator.
It looks like Obama's education policy will be a third term for President George W. Bush. This is not change I can believe in.
From Gary Orfield:
Diane Ravitch and I come from very different positions on the spectrum of educational and social thought but I have to agree with some of the points she makes. In its early days of discussion of elementary and secondary education policy this administration is adopting rhetoric and making some key appointments that make those who want to continue or even intensity the NCLB status quo happy and those who thought that there was going to be a progressive education policy based on what research and experience show can actually produce educational progress, very concerned. This is puzzling since there is a definite move toward a more progressive stance in higher education and the stimulus bill provided rapid and substantial financial help to schools facing disastrous cuts.
Regardless of ideology, I'm convinced that the vast majority of those who seriously study reform of schools or seriously dedicate their lives to working in public schools see some basic structural flaws in NCLB which are often ruining the potential positive impacts of some other parts of federal education law. They also see very serious problems, such as dropouts, narrowed curriculum, increased segregation by race and poverty, and real high school reform, that have not been addressed at all. The administration risks seriously alienating education leaders and organizations that strongly supported its campaign and feel now that they are being played by a small group of Washington lawyers and advocates who think that they can drop the mandate for change and that the administration should continue emphasizing a Bush-like agenda that sounded good but has accomplished very little once press releases are put aside and the data is seriously analyzed.
This agenda has left the U.S. falling further and further behind almost all of our major competitors in high school and college completion. and has deeply demoralized and discouraged the people most essential to any successful turnaround of schools. Linda's was a voice inside the campaign that many people saw as a great sign of hope for a policy that would positively work with educators, take research seriously, end the attacks on teachers, and reinvigorate the schools and educational professionals.
The Republicans could afford to ram though a policy that attacked schools and their teachers as a wedge issue. For the Democrats, however, educators are a central part of their coalition and the campaign was full of promises to fix the policy failures of the Bush era, not to do more of the same. Educators have heard the same slogans and sound bites since the Reagan Nation at Risk report a generation ago and those will not work again.
Someone with the kind of wisdom and knowledge and experience working with schools, and deeply aware of the profound inequalities across lines of race and ethnicity that Linda represents is very badly needed near the center of this administration if it is to have the kind of accomplishments in education the country urgently needs and to avoid disillusioning large number of its very strong supporters.
Professor of Education, Law, Political Science and Urban Planning
Co-Director, Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles
Univ. of California, Los Angeles