On July 29, 2010, President Obama gave an hour long speech at the National Urban League’s 100th anniversary convention in which he laid out his education reform blueprint for the nation and responded to criticisms of his plan from civil rights groups and teachers’ unions.
The centerpiece of Obama’s reform effort is Race to the Top, a national competition between states fighting for limited federal education funding. In order to be eligible to receive Race to the Top funds, states must submit proposals demonstrating adherence to the Obama education agenda of universal standards and assessments, test-based accountability schemes for schools and teachers, and plans to “turn around” under-performing schools. So far, Delaware and Tennessee are the big winners from phase 1 of the competition with rewards of $100 million and $500 million respectively. $3.4 billion remains up for grabs in phase 2 with over 40 states submitting proposals. The Obama blueprint itself is little more than a repackaging of the previous NCLB initiative with a renewed emphasis on test-based accountability and privatization through charter schools and voucher programs.
The federally initiated educational reform efforts of the past twenty years had their roots in the efficiency movement of the early twentieth century. At that time, business was the ideal model for education and schools were viewed as assembly line factories, mass producing compliant workers to achieve maximum productivity. America 2000, George H.W. Bush’s initiative, its predecessor the “No Child Left Behind “Act, and now Obama’s blueprint have resurrected this business/industrial model with an almost fanatical devotion to standardization and accountability. The results have been a dramatic decline in teacher autonomy, curricular creativity and innovation, and substantive critical engagement within the classroom as schools are forced to teach to the test in order to receive desperately needed funds and avoid takeovers by the state. If teacher pay becomes contingent on student performance on standardized tests, as the Obama plan calls for, the teach to the test culture will become even more ingrained in American schools and teachers’ livelihoods will become dependent on unreliable test scores which do not accurately reflect student learning.
Along with test-based accountability schemes, the Obama blueprint would direct more federal dollars towards charter schools and voucher programs, both of which are designed to use public tax dollars to subsidize the profits of private educational institutions, thereby undermining public education while enriching the private sector. A recent (2009) nationwide study by education researchers at Stanford University compared learning outcomes of charter schools with those of traditional public schools. The study found that 50% of charter schools nationwide have results no different from the local public school, and 37% of charter schools deliver results that are significantly worse than the student would have realized at the traditional public school. If this is the reality, why does Obama continue to champion charter schools as the solution to America’s perceived education crisis while siphoning desperately needed funds away from traditional public schools? Ever since Reagan proposed the abolition of the Department of Education in the 80’s, successive administrations have searched for ways to remove education from the public sphere and transfer it into private hands. Education is simply one front in the larger battle for privatization alongside social security, health care, prisons, law enforcement, national security, etc.
Privatization and test-based accountability go hand in hand. When under-resourced schools, particularly those in inner cities serving low-income and minority populations, struggle to meet the standards forced on them by the state, politicians point to this as evidence of the failure of public schools to educate America’s youth and offer privatization as the only logical remedy. In contrast, true reform would increase funding to America’s most vulnerable public schools in order to reduce class sizes, retain essential support staff and attract the most effective teachers. Rather than allow bureaucrats and businesspeople to draft standards and design curricula and assessments, true reform would place teachers, parents and community members at the center of the decision making process. Finally, true educational reform aimed at closing the achievement gap would address the basic, underlying causes of this schism in American schools. Reformers would focus on closing, for example, the poverty gap, or the health care gap, or the nutrition gap, or the gender gap, or the myriad other socioeconomic related gaps which, when taken together, account for the overwhelming disparity of academic achievement in the U.S.