Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Low Marks for Obama’s Education Reform Plan

“A race to the top has begun in our schools,” President Obama declared in a speech about education reform at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, last week. The President acknowledged that the strength of our education system will “determine the quality of our future as a nation.” I agree with his assessment, and I applaud his efforts to invest in education.

However, the reform plan he outlined has the following basic flaws:

* Turns education into a political football.

* Advocates performance pay for teachers.

* Renews the inappropriate focus on testing.

* Neglects to incorporate parental involvement.

Playing Politics With Education

Since the Obama administration first announced the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” fund in July, state governments have been scrambling to position themselves as worthy recipients of grant money. It makes you wonder whether it will all come down to politics. The states that somehow demonstrate they’re the most committed to the Obama administration’s policies will be rewarded.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to give schools, teachers and students the resources they need to succeed before we question their abilities? We know that many schools, particularly those in low-income areas, lack basic instructional supplies and materials. I’ve heard too many stories about teachers purchasing their own classroom supplies, such as readers, textbooks and paper. They also buy school supplies for students who can’t afford them.

Many schools are also under-staffed. Let’s hire more teachers, teaching assistants, special education instructors and support staff so that we can reduce class size and give students the attention they deserve.

But before schools, teachers and students can receive the funds they need to operate effectively, state governments will have to prove they’re making an effort to reform based on the government’s criteria. This likely means teachers will have to devote more time to onerous, unnecessary and distracting bureaucratic red tape and less time to lesson preparation and instruction.

The Trouble With Performance Pay

To be eligible to apply for grant money, states have to repeal laws that prevent schools from evaluating teachers based on student performance. While linking student performance to teacher quality seems logical, it’s not that simple:

* Even the most dedicated and talented teachers may miss the mark if they are faced with unmotivated students, uncooperative parents or unsupportive administrators—all of which create obstacles to success.

* Many educators contend that standardized test scores are not a valid measure of student knowledge.

* A merit pay program launched in Texas in 2006 failed to generate the academic improvements anticipated, according to a recent study.

* The recent focus on testing, driven by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), has led to significant growth in spending on materials used for test preparation and assessments. Spending on testing and assessment has increased faster than spending on basal or supplemental instructional materials for the last five years.

* Teachers are forced to devote too much time to test preparation.

NCLB Reincarnated

Basically, the President’s education reform plan consists of four goals that our school system is already striving to meet: setting high standards, hiring good teachers, tracking student performance, and improving low-performing schools. There’s really nothing new here. In fact, the plan seems to reflect the NCLB’s emphasis on testing. But the new plan goes a step farther: we won’t just be evaluating students based on standardized tests, we’ll be evaluating teachers as well.

Following are the four measures states will have to meet:

* Setting high standards and creating better assessments.

Although president Obama said, “This is not just about more tests” and he doesn’t want “young people being taught to the test,” this component of the reform plan rejuvenates the focus on testing.

* Hiring effective teachers and principals.

The president said this means doing a better job of recruiting and preparing new teachers, rewarding outstanding teachers, and removing bad teachers. But how are we going to distinguish the outstanding teachers from the bad teachers? Again, the Obama administration seems to value student test scores as a key measure.

* Tracking the progress of students and teachers.

This means collecting information about each student’s performance during the year and over the course of the student’s academic career, and providing it to teachers “so they can use it to improve the way they teach.” I was surprised at this component of the plan because I thought this effort was already taking place.

* Transforming low-performing schools.

For states to meet this requirement, they have to be willing to replace a school’s leadership and at least half its staff. But new administrators and teachers will likely face the same challenges and obstacles to success the previous staff faced, such as a lack of resources and parent support.

Parent Involvement Is Key

I wholeheartedly agree with one thing the President said toward the end of his speech: to improve America’s education system, parents need to get more involved in their child’s education.

I believe this is the key to success, not a focus on testing and assessments. We need to concentrate more on encouraging parents to communicate high expectations to their children and to support their children’s teachers. Teachers must also reach out to parents in an effective and positive way, and view parents as resources and partners.

Although the President acknowledged the importance of parent involvement, parent outreach is not officially part of the reform plan.

If we’re engaged in a “Race to the Top,” each student needs his or her own team, consisting of the child’s parent (or another supportive adult) and the child’s teacher or teachers. For any team to operate effectively, every member must make a commitment. But they need the proper equipment to truly succeed.

1 comment:

  1. Good blog. Timely post. First, I like the title of your book! Best wishes with it's continued success.

    Second, I agree with you that each student deserves a "team" and that team needs "proper equipment." At the same time, a single teacher must ultimately deal with the student who walks into the classroom or logs onto an instructional website, not with her or his "team". As certified teachers know, pedagogy exists for almost all students to exceed state minimum academic performance standards. Most teachers do not use that pedagogy. I use Jamie Escalante (as depicted in the movie "Stand and Deliver") as an example of how this pedagogy works. (I know, it's not PC to say this.)

    You bring up several interesting points about "flaws" in the proposed Obama program. That label seems definitive.

    I'd argue that these points may generate controversy, but that's the nature of politics, the mother of public policy, including about education (really about public schooling).