A Future Obama Education Program

The presidential contest between President Obama and Mitt Romney has been largely devoid of specific policy proposals for the future; therefore, it becomes necessary to get a reading on Obama’s future performance on how he has perfromed in his first term. Thus, the next few blogs will focus on how Obama might govern on a few major issues.

I. Obama’s Educational Focus on NCLB and Charter Schools

In his renomination acceptance speech, President Barack Obama spoke about the important role of education in building a better society. Obama’s sentiments are good but his basic policies are not. He has proposed some changes in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) but continues to support high stakes testing. The major problems with high stakes testing, exemplified by NCLB, are that it provides a strong incentive for teachers to teach to the test and it takes away time and resources from instruction devoted to the full educational development of the child.

The Chicago Tribune did a study on how NCLB has impacted Illinois public school districts. What the Tribune found was that some districts had lengthened the school day to be able to devote more preparation time to test taking; other school districts had dropped a course for more test preparation time; one school district had added a course on test-taking; and one school district was giving TVs, stereos and other electronic gadgetry to students who had done well on standardized tests. The Tribune also found that teachers were giving their students test problems closely modeled on what they would find on standardized tests. 

The biggest scandal of all fostered by NCLB, reported in July 2011, was that over 70 teachers and principals in the Atlanta, Georgia school system were complicit in changing answers on students’ standardized test papers. 

A study of high-performing public schools by the National Center for Educational Achievement shows that ongoing teacher collaboration and mentoring for diagnostic, rather than evaluative purposes, produces better outcomes than the high stakes testing way of determining teacher and student performance.

President Obama is a champion of charter schools; yet charter schools are proving to be another educational reform that is failing. A study by the Stanford University Center for Research on Educational Outcomes shows that of the 2,403 charter schools tracked from 2006 to 2008, only 17 percent had better math test results than the traditional public schools in their area; while 37 percent had results that were “significantly below” those of the traditional public schools; and 46 percent had results that were “statistically indistinguishable” from results in the area traditional public schools. 

A University of Chicago study found that charter schools have not brought about the improvements they were created to bring; also, they have performed poorly in meeting the non-academic needs of the children. A September 2010 report described charter schools as floundering in Ohio, Arizona and California.

The Civil Rights Project reported in January 2010 that its study found that 70 percent of black students were enrolled in charter schools that were 90 to 100 percent black.

Charges of fraud have become rampant in charter schools, in part because of a lack of accountability and in part because non-public funding is often involved — charter schools in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania have been the subject of several fraud investigations.

What should concern President Obama, both as president and standard bearer of his party, is that only about five percent of charter schools employ unionized teachers. Unionized teachers have been a bastion of Democratic Party strength, and as standard bearer, Obama is hurting his own party by supporting policies that reduce unionized teacher ranks. Looked at in the broader perspective of the national interest, any movement in reducing the number of unionized workers also reduces the demand for goods and services from a poorly paid workforce.

Race to the Top is President Obama’s major educational initiative. School districts that qualify to participate must not have caps on the number of charter schools allowed; must make student test scores a major part of teacher evaluation; and must agree to confrom to national teacher certification standards.

There have been several studies on what has the most impact on student educational performance. All of the studies have reached the same conclusion: the home and family have the greatest impact. Thus, to base teacher evaluation to a considerable extent on student test scores penalizes teachers who have a large number of students who come from poverty-stricken, dysfunctional or broken homes. Why would teachers want to teach in a school where they start with a big handicap to getting a satisfactory or outstanding rating?

The recent teachers’ strike in Chicago has brought forth a potential problem that either Obama of Romney could face if elected as the new president: since teaching, at least in major cities, is a profession in which minorities are heavily represented, when erstwhile reformers say we need to take down teacher unions to give more opportunity to minority youth, they come close to saying that we need to destroy the black middle class in order to save it. The opposition to the Chicago teachers’ strike was led by parents with children in private schools and whites, while Latinos and blacks strongly supported the strike.

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