Does President Obama really care about improving the nation’s public schools as much as he claims? Apparently, the answer depends on whether he can find a way to get credit for any improvement. How else can one explain Obama’s muddled approach to education reform and his back-and-forth on accountability and maintaining national standards?
It’s not that I believe Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan aren’t sincere in their desire to hold schools accountable for student performance. Whether they’re talking about reforming teachers colleges or making sure that schools provide all students with a quality education, they say all the right things. And the administration’s Race to the Top initiative has real potential to revolutionize how we evaluate teachers. Allotted $4.3 billion in stimulus funds, Duncan decided to use the cash to try to pressure states and school districts to increase accountability, foster innovation in the classroom, administer regular tests and collect data on student performance, improve academic achievement, and turn around failing schools.
In other words, just about everything that Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, set out to do with his signature education reform law — No Child Left Behind. This being the case, you would think that Obama and his administration would be delighted to find so much of the accountability apparatus already in place. In fact, you might think that they would even try to incorporate some of Bush’s ideas into their reform plan going forward.
But sharing credit requires something that Obama seems to have in short supply: humility. Besides, during the presidential campaign, in an effort to get support from teachers’ unions, Obama frequently blasted NCLB. That could make it difficult for him to now reverse course and acknowledge the law’s attributes.
So, unable to get beyond partisanship and his own ego, Obama has instead gone in the other direction and tried to water down NCLB. It seems that he intends to replace the law with his version of education reform. Recently, administration officials announced that they intend to conduct an extensive rewrite of NCLB. One of the first items to be replaced is the law’s controversial and much-criticized provision for rating schools based on student test scores.