Obama Thinks Too Narrowly in Overhauling No Child Left Behind

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Over the past few years, I have noticed in my undergraduates -— and even in a few of my younger graduate students -— a shift away from critical and creative thought and a greater desire for black-and-white answers, for lectures instead of discussion and for assignments that feature short answers rather than sustained argument. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this shift, but one of them is likely the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) educational reforms implemented during the Bush administration.


President Obama visits elementary school in Virgina

You can imagine my delight, then, in hearing that President Obama is proposing to move beyond NCLB. You can read Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act at the Department of Education's Web site. While the proposal in itself doesn't strike me as being revolutionary or even slightly inspired, it's worth considering for the political and cultural firestorm it has sparked -— and will continue to fan.

In the introduction to his administration's proposal, Obama writes,

A world-class education is also a moral imperative –- the key to securing a more equal, fair, and just society. We will not remain true to our highest ideals unless we do a far better job of educating each one of our sons and daughters. We will not be able to keep the American promise of equal opportunity if we fail to provide a world-class education to every child.

It's difficult to disagree with such a goal -— or with Obama's call for "great" teachers and principals. What's difficult is, of course, determining what constitutes a "world-class education." Recently in Texas, for example, in an illustration of phenomenal cultural illiteracy and a complete disregard for historical events, school board members revised the curriculum to meet their own very narrow "understanding" of American history and world civilization. Alas, because Texas is such a huge purchaser of social science textbooks, the curriculum that gets adopted there almost inevitably makes its way into texts sold outside of the Lone Star State as well.  Small-minded people can make big ripples on the curricular landscape.

Accordingly, Obama's challenge will be to balance a desire of many Americans for a "world-class education" recognized as such by America's partners in cultural and economic exchange and the desire of another group of Americans to educate their children in a way that makes sense to them locally. Take health education, for example. Parents in progressive communities might want to educate their children about the benefits of eating produce from small, organic, family-owned farms, while parents who work for ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, or Monsanto have an economic stake in preserving factory farming and thus might not want their children exposed to evangelism about, say, urban horticulture, slow food and 30-mile diets. In addition to economic repercussions, there are cultural traditions at stake.

The current discussion around standards doesn't take into account these issues -— and it should -— but it does remediate to some extent -— or at least slow -— the havoc being wreaked on classroom learning by No Child Left Behind.

Writing at Politico, Nia-Malika Henderson encapsulates the typical criticism of NCLB and the liabilities Obama sees in the law as it currently exists:

Obama’s proposal would toss out the core of the Bush-era law, which calls for across-the-board proficiency from all students in reading and math by 2014, and instead emphasize revamped assessment tools that link teacher evaluations to student progress, and a goal of having students career and college ready upon graduation.

Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have called the 2014 goal unreasonable and have said that it led to watered-down standards. Instead, his blueprint calls for a new goal of career and college readiness for all graduating high school students by 2020.

While the Obama proposal definitely improves upon NCLB, I don't like the vagueness of "college readiness" and "career readiness." Which colleges? Which careers? I'm not just talking in terms of college ranking, either. Different kinds of colleges -— from second-tier research universities to elite liberal arts colleges to community colleges to colleges based in religious doctrines -— expect different levels and kinds of preparation from students. I have friends who attended colleges that did not expect a particularly high level of critical thinking, for example; the students were expected instead to learn a particular body of knowledge -— and certain majors at some universities are structured in similar ways.

I've always been uneasy with the language of standards in K-12 education and even more uncomfortable with curricula prescribed from on high. I'd like to see a greater focus on broad-based cultural and scientific literacies, on critical and creative thinking and on creative production than on memorization of facts outlined in standards or the development of a narrow skill set that can be assessed by a standardized, multiple-choice exam. Undergraduates need to show up in my classroom ready to think critically and creatively, and they need to already have developed an impatience with black-and-white answers.  The Obama Blueprint takes only very tentative steps in that direction at a time when we need to be taking more revolutionary action. 

The Provisions

Obama is defining a world-class education a bit too narrowly for my tastes. The reforms are wide-reaching but unimaginative; they should have been implemented during the Republican administrations under which I attended grades 1 through 12, if not earlier. The 41-page Blueprint calls for:

  • College- and career-ready students whose education meets upgraded standards in English language arts and mathematics. Their knowledge and skills in these subjects must be evaluated in assessments that "better capture higher-order skills, provide more accurate measures of student growth and better inform classroom instruction to respond to academic needs."
  • A broader range of subjects taught in the schools: "literacy to mathematics, science and technology to history, civics, foreign languages, the arts, financial literacy and other subjects."
  • More effective ways to educate, evaluate, promote and continue the professional development of teachers and school administrators.
  • Placement of the best teachers where they are most needed: in the "high-poverty, high-minority schools" where students are most in need of remediation
  • A system of accountability that rewards successful districts and schools and holds responsible those that fail to provide a quality education for students, sufficient support for teachers and administrators or equity of resources among low -- and high-poverty schools. Schools whose students fall in the lowest five percent of academic performance will be especially closely monitored: "In these schools, states and districts will be required to implement one of four school turnaround models to support better outcomes for students. Reward districts will receive flexibility to implement a different research-based intervention model, beyond the scope of the four school turnaround models." The four models are the transformation, turnaround, restart and school closure models, all of which are defined briefly on page 12 of the Blueprint. The Blueprint continues, "The next five percent of low-performing schools will be identified in a warning category, and states and districts will implement research-based, locally-determined strategies to help them improve." The administration calls the lowest-performing schools "challenge schools."
  • The establishment of a special category of institutions that make significant improvement or sustain high achievement. Obama is calling these "rewards" schools, districts and states. The Blueprint proposes providing funds to states so that they may "design innovative programs to reward high-poverty reward schools and reward districts." Rewards may include financial rewards for students and staff, the establishment of communities of practice for sharing successful strategies across schools and districts and flexibility in the use of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) funds.
  • A renewed emphasis on students who have traditionally been underserved by American educational institutions: "From English learners and students with disabilities to Native American students, homeless students, migrant students, rural students and neglected or delinquent students, our proposal will continue to support and strengthen programs for these students and ensure that schools are helping them meet college- and career-ready standards."
  • An expansion of initiatives that foster choice within the public school system through the establishment of charter schools and other "autonomous public schools."
  • A more flexible, but still rigorous, definition of who can be designated a "highly qualified teacher" under ESEA.
  • A "cradle through college and career continuum" for students in high-poverty communities that emphasizes not only effective schools, but also comprehensive services and support for families.
  • Redesigned and expanded school schedules, including high-quality after-school programs.
  • A redoubled focus on data-driven programs "to improve students’ safety, health and well-being, and increasing the capacity of states, districts and schools to create safe, healthy, and drug-free environments."
  • Databases at the state level "that link information on teacher and principal preparation programs to the job placement, student growth and retention outcomes of their graduates."

This last provision is key. Having a central database that school districts and states can access to determine student outcomes over the long term is essential, particularly in regions where students tend to switch schools or districts. Too often, no one school or district is held accountable for specific students who drop out. If a student has attended three elementary schools, two junior high schools, and two high schools in three school districts before dropping out in eleventh grade, there needs to be some way to designate at which points that student failed to receive the support -— from parents, schools, school districts or the community.

Response From the Blogosphere

Many bloggers are skeptical that Blueprint is simply a recasting of NCLB. Maureen Downey observes,

The president and Ed Secretary Arne Duncan have clearly heard the cries from the classrooms where teachers complained that they were teaching to the tests in a futile attempt to meet impossible and overly rigid standards. Details are few right now, but the president did outline a new direction that is supposed to be kinder, fairer and more realistic. I am not sure that teachers will agree that the plan is more realistic and fairer as it still seems to have high expectations that schools will make strides with all students. While the changes suggest a broadening of the definition of a good school, Obama clearly intends to maintain a strong federal role in education and in prodding schools to improve. He is tightening the definition of an effective teacher, requiring that student performance become part of the equation. And he is measuring how well schools diminish the achievement gap between poor children and their more affluent peers.

Reality-Based Educator isn't impressed, seeing in the plan only

More testing, more school closures, more fear-based policy-making, and more fear-based teaching. That's doubling down on NCLB, not changing the law for the better.

The Ed Skeptic sees things differently. Citing Andy Smarnick, the skeptic writes,

Instead of back-end accountability -- using Annual Yearly Progress as an algorithm to measure whether failing schools have made sufficient improvement upon the previous year's test scores -- the move is towards front-end accountability, requiring states to adopt "college and career-ready" standards.  And, Smarick seems to analyze the situation well when he writes that the re-authorization proposal is a move away from federalism and towards state educational autonomy.

Writing at the Houston Chronicle blog on education, Jennifer Radcliff quotes American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten:

"This blueprint places 100% of the responsibility on teachers and gives them zero percent authority."

I'm not sure I agree with Weingarten. The Blueprint repeatedly mentions holding principals and school districts accountable, and it allows for a good deal more flexibility than NCLB when it comes to developing standards and assessment protocols. I do agree that we need to better recognize the talents teachers may have outside of the sometimes narrow subject areas in which they are considered "highly qualified" under NCLB, and we need as well to help creative and innovative teachers help their colleagues gain skill sets beyond those they are taught in credentialing or subject-specific programs.

Over at Black Agenda Report, Glen Ford sounds the alarm:

Obama takes Bush's No Child Left Behind scheme to its logical, blood on the floor conclusion: corporate education without the encumbrances of organized teachers. Obama's anti-union vision is more ambitious than that of the old arch-reactionary, Ronald Reagan, who destroyed a union of only 13,000 members. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have combined memberships of over 4 million. They have the capacity to fight back, to make this president back off. But, like so many others who drank the Obama Kool Aid, they are in denial, refusing to believe that they backed a union-buster who is making teachers the scapegoat for America's historical failure to serve the educational needs of all its children.

I think we've come to a historic moment in which those of us on the left and on the right need to understand that teachers' unions are neither an unqualified benefit to education nor inevitably evil. Nor are all attempts to use vendors or consultants -— even those who run schools -— inherently marked by poor planning or motivated purely by profits. Those who see in Obama's plan a corporatization or privatization of education have muzzy vision, and those who perceive it as only an uncalled-for intrusion from the federal government are being similarly myopic.

I suppose it's not surprising that I'm finding much criticism of the Blueprint unmarked by critical thinking.  Too many of us have fallen into the narrow kinds of thinking engendered by political polarization, curricular imperatives, and high-stakes assessments.

What are your thoughts on Obama's proposal?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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