On March 28, President Obama did a Town Hall Meeting on Education from Bell Multicultural High School in DC televised on Univision. In his answers to a question from one student, the President made some remarks that seemed somewhat in contradiction to the policies of his Department of Education as demonstrated in Race to the Top and the Blue Print for Education that is the administration's plan for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the most recent version of which is commonly called No Child Left Behind.
Among those focusing on the apparent contradiction was Anthony Cody, a science education coach in Oakland who is also a regular blogger at the Teacher Magazine Website, his blog called Living in Dialogue. The following day Anthony (who is a friend and professional colleague) posted Obama Blasts His Own Education Policies. Anthony was not the only one to notice the discrepancy - the Bolder Broader Approach to education sent out a remarkably similar sounding email cosigned by among others Tom Payzant and Pedro Noguera on Friday. Meanwhile, on March 30, Valerie Strauss used her Answer Sheet Blog at the Washington Post to crosspost Anthony's blog.
It would be an understatement to say the Department of Education was not happy. Please keep reading to see more, and for some of my observations.
Anthony has given me permission to quote as much as I need to in this posting.
In the exchanges back and forth between Anthony and the Department, they asked to be able to explain why the President's remarks were not in conflict with the policies of the Department of Education. Anthony posed four questions for which he thought answers were necessary. The Department requested that he not post the questions until they had a chance to respond, and both sides agreed to a time of 12 Noon on Friday, April 1, although Anthony did share the questions in private communications with several of us.
When he had not heard back from the Department of Education by the agreed upon deadline of Noon, at 12:15 or so he posted this diary in which he made public these four question:
Question 1: The original question from the student expressed the view that students have too many tests. President Obama replied:"we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids," and suggested perhaps we might move to a system that tests less frequently.
Isn't the Department of Education proposing a significant expansion in the frequency of tests, in order to capture growth? Is it not possible we will have tests in the fall and spring both for this purpose? And isn't the Department also proposing to greatly increase the subjects that are tested, beyond reading and math? Won't this have the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the number and frequency of tests?
Question 2: President Obama said:Too often what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we've said is let's find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let's apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let's figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let's make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well.
The Department of Education's Blueprint for a new NCLB calls for the continuation of the practice of labeling schools as failures, although it will impose this crushing status on only the bottom 5% of our schools. If punishing schools has not worked - as the President acknowledges in this remark, (and was not shown to work in Chicago under then CEO Arne Duncan) why is it being continued for any schools at all?
Question 3: President Obama also said this:Because there are other criteria: What's the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.
As a proponent of project-based learning, I am happy to hear the president acknowledge that this form of learning is not measured by current forms of assessment. Will project based learning be included in the assessments used for accountability purposes? If so, how will this be done?
Question 4: President Obama also said:So what I want to do is--one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you're not learning about the world; you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math. All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that's not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they're interested in. They're not going to do as well if it's boring.
Many of the core elements of Race to the Top and the Blueprint are related to test scores. Department of Ed policy calls for the linking of teacher evaluations and pay to student test scores. The Blueprint calls for tracking of student test scores of teachers according to the place they were prepared. We still have the threat of reconstitution hanging over the bottom tier of schools, attended exclusively by children in poverty. All based on test scores. The President described the tests that Sasha and Malia took as "low stakes." All these changes RAISE the stakes on the tests, for teachers and schools. How does this move us towards the "less pressure-packed environment" the President is advocating?
Within the hour, the Department responded with a message that they were giving serious consideration to Anthony's questions and would respond, and Anthony promised to post the answers when received. More than 5 hours later He received a messsaged with answers to only the first 3 questions, which he posted, and then asked:
What do you think? Who has been misinterpreting President Obama? Me - or the Department of Education?
My reaction is similar to that of many I know, that Obama however unintentionally spoke what he really believes, which is far more in tune with what he said during the campaign than have been the policies formally proposed by his administration. That said, that does not mean he is backing away from his education policy as espoused by the Department. In prepared remarks he never seems to stray from the policies pushed in Race to the Top and the Blue Print. The remarks that caught the attention of Anthony Cody and others were in dialog with students, and that may account for their candor.
As of my writing this post, midday on Sunday April 3, the response to the 4th question is still pending, and expected tomorrow. Meanwhile, Anthony Cody has made two additional posts that are relevant to this thread.
The journalist Michael Kinsley once said "a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth." A week ago, President Obama opened his mouth in an unscripted town hall, and the truth accidentally fell out. By now, you have read his words.Cody's focus is one part of the President's remarks, specifically these words:
President Obama was responding as a father, and reflecting on how he sees his own daughters, Sasha and Malia, experience tests at their exclusive private school. This is an excellent model for the way student learning should be assessed.
Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn't a high-stakes test. It wasn't a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn't even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn't study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.
That I might note is a PROPER use of standardized tests - diagnostic.
That posting was part 1 of 2, the second of which was Obama Knows Best, Part 2: "Too Often we are Using These Tests to Punish Students or Schools." This is an absolute must-read. Cody takes the response offered by Justin Hamilton on behalf of the Department of Education which justifies "forceful intervention" then, after noting the 4 strategies allowed in Race to the Top:
* Turnaround: Fire the principal and at least half the staff.
* Restart: Close the school and reopen as a charter.
* Closure: Simply close the school and ship students elsewhere.
* Transformation: Fire the principal and engage in extensive restructuring.
takes readers through how this has been applied in the real world, which does not speak well for these as strategies that will make a real difference for students.
Here I note that Diane Ravitch has written that there is NO research base demonstrating the success of any of these, that what evidence exists for where they have been applied, for example in Chicago, should give real pause to anyone considering using them.
The administration is still committed to what many in education believe is a misuse if not an abusive use of tests. Spokesmen point to the $350 million committed to the two consortia making "improved" tests as a recognition that the current tests are flawed, and Secretary Duncan has recently noted that the moving clock on Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB may find as many as 82% of American public schools failing to make AYP THIS YEAR! If the administration knows the tests are flawed, why does it let the clock run, why does it not ask Congress to suspend the punitive sanctions, or act through executive order? Why is it continuing to use the scores on such tests as the measure by which the four strategies noted above - which I remind you lack a research base as to their effectiveness - have to be imposed?
Not only that, the administration is still committed to tying teacher evaluation to student performance. Here is is worth noting that neither Sidewell Friends, where the Obama girls attend, nor Arlington Virginia Public Schools, attended by the Duncan children, evaluate teachers in this fashion. Those on the likes of the Fairtest email list or who read Jim Horn's School Matters Blog, where he reproduced what Monty Neill of Fairtest recently sent out, would have encountered this:
From Monty Neill:Bill Schechter here in MA, noting Obama's talk on testing and that the MA board of elementary and secondary education will soon be debating use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, wondered if the schools that Obama (Sidwell Friends) and Duncan (Arlington,VA public schools) send their children to evaluate their teachers based on student test scores.
The responses, which Bill said I could share, are:
"We do not tie teacher evaluations to scores in the Arlington public school system." (Arlington school district teacher, March 31, 2011)
"We don't tie teacher pay to test scores because we don't believe them to be a reliable indicator of teacher effectiveness." (Sidwell Friends faculty member, April 1, 2011)
The entire idea of Merit Pay for teachers tied to student performance is an idea far older than most people realize. As Walt Gardner wrote in this piece in The Guardian, which appeared last Sunday,
Pay-for-performance began in England in about 1710, when salaries were based on test scores in reading, writing and arithmetic. The rationale was that it would help keep students from poor families in school, where they could learn the basics. The plan became part of the Revised Education Code in 1862, and remained on the books for more than 30 years.It keeps coming up here in the US, but the most recent studies, including that by Roland Fryer of Harvard of the current New York City plan (pdf), about which Gardner writes
The trouble was that the strategy sucked the creative life out of classrooms, as teachers became obsessed with the code. When it became apparent that the approach demeaned education, it was dropped in the 1890s. Pay-for-performance re-emerged briefly in Canada in 1876, but it ran into similar difficulties and was terminated in 1883.
found "no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance or graduation". On the contrary, Fryer reported that teacher incentives may actually decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools
So what DOES Obama believe about education, what his department espouses or what in a moment of candor he said to some students at a Town Hall? I don't know. I do know that were he to spend time unannounced in a school being forced to follow the prescriptions of his education department I would hope he would be appalled. I know he would not allow his daughters to be subjected to such an education.
Which is one reason why Anthony Cody and I are among those on the organizing committee for the forthcoming Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action in DC in July. Diane Ravitch is supporting us, as are many other notables in education who are absolutely dedicated to the well being of our school children. So are parents organizations like Parents Across America.
Anthony Cody's most recent posting ends with an invitation, which I'd like to repeat:
Once again, I believe it is Department of Education policy that is out of step with President Obama. We are organizing the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action, with a march and rally on July 30th in Washington, DC, in order to suggest that our schools be guided by President Obama's vision, as expressed in his honest statement Monday. Please join us.
Mr. President, Secretary Duncan, perhaps you might consider the words the President offered to the the students, and realize what we organizing the March and Call to Action already recognize - that what we are seeking is in conformity with the vision expressed in those words.
In fact, perhaps either or both of you would like to join us in July?