Public Schools: Bush Era Revisited?

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 1:45 PM EDT

On Monday, as bruising battles over health care, financial regulation, and climate change dominate the news cycle, the Obama administration's ambitious—yet often troubling—public education agenda made a rare A1 appearance in the New York Times. The story concerned the Department of Education's "Race to the Top Fund," a multi-billion-dollar initiative that doles out stimulus funds to encourage innovation, boost student and teacher performance, and close acheivement gaps among different student populations. At first glance, the initiative—usually a second-fiddle subject to sexier topics—seems a laudable, sorely needed program.

Yet just how the Education Department and its secretary, long-time Obama buddy Arne Duncan, plan to use those billions raises some serious questions about their vision for U.S. public schools. Indeed, the Obama administration's education-related announcements to date, which emphasize test-focused and charter-heavy reforms, is painfully reminiscent of the Bush administration's top-down, data-driven approach to education reform. It is exactly what a good many educators and administrators did not want to see from Duncan and Co.

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Receiving a chunk of Race to the Top's $4.3 billion in funding, The Times' Sam Dillion reports, requires schools to ramp up their abilities to collect and analyze student testing data, to make that data more readily available, and—here's the kicker—to retool education guidelines so that that testing data is used far more to determine teachers' competence—potentially even more so than the Bush administration's policies. For instance, California lawmakers, fearing they'll miss out on some of that $4 billion, are working to rewrite state education laws that prohibit using student test scores to evaluate teachers' abilities; multiple other states are taking similar steps to line up with the administration's test-centric soft mandate.

Of course, the Bush administration's largely flawed No Child Left Behind—which requires that all students meet federal "proficiency" levels in math and reading by 2014, and penalizes schools whose students do not—placed an overwhelming emphasis on standardized testing. The hope with the new administration was that a move away from make-or-break, all-or-nothing testing policies would soon follow. But that's not what's happening.

More broadly speaking, the creation of No Child Left Behind signalled a new era of federal control over public schools, a shift many teachers and administrators disdained. And the Race to the Top Fund appears to amplify the federal government's one-size-fits-all education policies for schools of all stripes—an naively unrealistic strategy given the sheer diversity of public schools in the U.S. After all, should a low-income, predominantly white elementary school in southwest Michigan, like the one where my mother teaches, be assessed in the same manner as an affluent high school in Chicago's suburbs or an experimental charter school in Los Angeles? Of course not. But that's what a federal-based, top-down plan—like Obama's—aims to do.

But with public school districts scrambling for funds due to anemic state budgets, plenty are racing to align with whatever plan the Obama administration has in mind. They literally can't afford to do otherwise. Yet to see Obama and Duncan and their deputies leveraging education funding to force schools into test-driven reforms is deeply troubling. "I am a public school teacher who vehemently wanted to vote for a president who would save us from No Child Left Behind," a teacher from Hawaii, Diane Aoki, wrote to the Education Dept. Instead, she continued, "the potential is there for the test frenzy to get worse than it is under No Child Left Behind."