It’s been one helluva week on the education front, and I’m sure Jeff will have plenty to say in his Left Ed column this Sunday (new time, for those not paying quite enough attention: 1 PM, EST). It began on Monday, when Jeff noted in a quick hit that a coalition of civil rights groups had issued a document critical of Obama’s education policies. Although there would be a somewhat confusing walk-back of criticism afterwards–particularly as Arne Duncan and President Obama both addressed the Urban League–it seems clear that the cat’s out of the bag, and it’s going to be a whole lot harder going forward for Obama and Duncan to pretend there aren’t problems. On Wednesday, data was released showing in the reform showcase NYC schools, the racial and ethnic achievement has shot back up to 2002 levels. Links to a number of related stories can be found here, including one by Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzales. And speaking of Democracy Now!, today its first half-hour was devoted to a renewed look at Obama’s initiative and the mounting criticisms. To start things off, here’s what Jeff wrote on Monday:
From Valerie Strauss at WaPo:
“a 17-page framework for education reform being released Monday by a coalition of civil rights groups amounts to a thrashing of President Obama’s education policies and it offers a prescription for how to set things right”
Excerpts from the report highlighted by Strauss . . .
on Race to the Top:
“By emphasizing competitive incentives in this economic climate, the majority of low-income and minority students will be left behind and, as a result, the United States will be left behind as a global leader.”
on charter schools:
“while some charter schools can and do work for some students, they are not a universal solution for systemic change for all students, especially those with the highest needs.”
on so-called reform:
“”Rather than addressing inequitable access to research-proven methodologies like high-quality early childhood education and a stable supply of experienced, highly effective teachers, recent education reform proposals have favored “stop gap” quick fixes that may look new on the surface but offer no real long-term strategy for effective systemic change.”
An update to the blog post that Jeff linked to explained the first shift of the week:
Now we know why civil rights leaders suddenly cancelled today’s press conference at which they were going to talk about their new powerful framework for education reform, which includes a withering critique of the Obama administration’s education policies.
They met instead with Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., head of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said in an interview that he and other leaders felt that meeting with Duncan to discuss policy differences was “a better use of our time” than holding a public press conference.
Considering that most press conferences are a waste of time, Jackson makes a point.
But in this case, the postponement — or, perhaps, cancellation — left the impression among some that the civil rights leaders chose not to publicly criticize President Obama’s education policies any more than the framework already does.
Later, on Wednesday, Edweek coverage of Duncan’s speech began:
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the Obama administration’s education reform agenda before the National Urban League today, declaring that some of the arguments being made to justify a new framework that several civil rights groups released on Monday were flat out wrong.
The Urban League, which joined at least six other civil rights groups in calling for Duncan to reverse course on Race to the Top, charter schools, and turnaround models for low-performing schools, welcomed him with open arms. They interrupted his 30-minute speech several times with applause. Hugh B. Price, the former president of the Urban League, even called the Obama-Duncan education agenda the “most muscular federal education policy I’ve ever seen,” adding, “We’ve got your back.”
This is a fairly dramatic about-face from the run-up to Monday’s release of the highly critical framework, which was supposed to be unleashed with a public relations boom-complete with a press conference featuring prominent black leaders such as the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson calling for a new education direction. Instead, the whole thing fizzled, and left this blogger puzzled as to how strongly the groups still support their own framework.
After reporting on more confusion, particularly on the part of Al Sharpton, the account continued:
In answer to the group’s call that he forgo competitions like Race to the Top and concentrate on increasing spending on all students, Duncan said: “Some people say that grant programs like Race to the Top are bad for low-income and minority students. … But the fact is, Race to the Top has done more to dismantle the barriers to education reform … than any federal law in history.”
He said those who think the Education Department isn’t investing heavily in formula programs, too, are either “intentionally misleading or profoundly misinformed.”
And to answer their charge that he back off from his enthusiasm for charter schools, Duncan said: “Should we stifle the growth of high-quality public charter schools? … Absolutely not. Tens of thousands of minority parents are on waiting lists for these schools. … To suggest that charters are bad for low-income and minority students is absolutely wrong.”
Readers of Open Left know very well who is “intentionally misleading or profoundly misinformed.” And it’s highly doubtful that this sort of empty bluster will prove successful over the long haul.
The Edweek report on Obama’s speech began:
President Barack Obama offered a forceful defense today of his signature education initiative, the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, which rewards states for making progress on raising standards, improving teacher quality, establishing data systems, and turning around low-performing schools.
The program-and Mr. Obama’s prescription for turning around those low-performing schools-has come under sharp criticism lately from civil rights groups, who say distributing funds through competitive grants hinders poor and minority students, whose schools may not have the resources to compete for the dollars. His speech to the National Urban League this morning offered a rebuttal to such criticism and echoed much of what U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan said to the same group yesterday.
Mr. Obama argued that the steps that Race to the Top encourages states to take, including lifting the cap on charter schools and using student data to inform teacher evaluation, are the right ones.
“None of this should be controversial. There should be a fuss if we weren’t doing these things,” Mr. Obama said.
In an end-of-the-week roundup, Valerie Strauss wrote:
It’s a little hard to make sense of what happened this week in the world of education, but, let’s give it a fast try:
*President Obama gave a speech to the Urban League convention in which he joked about the Jersey Shore’s Snooki and also said the following: “Now, over the past 18 months … I think the single most important thing we’ve done is to launch an initiative called Race to the Top.”
Yes, that’s what he said: His terribly misguided $4.35 billion competitive grant program is, apparently, more important than health care reform, the economic recovery program, improving the student loan program, increasing Pell Grant payouts, and, well, anything else he has accomplished since becoming president.
Does he read this stuff carefully before he says it?
Yes, folks, I’m not the only one who talks like this by this point in time. The incoherence is getting to be positively Bushian.
*The administration did its best to mute the power of a scathing critique of Obama’s education policies issued by a coalition of civil rights organizations, who also offered presciptive ways out of the mess.
According to several sources involved in the drama, the “Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn” was actually ready to be released about a month ago, but the administration has been holding meetings with civil rights leaders in an effort to ease the criticism.
A decision was made to finally release it on Monday, the same week as the Urban League convention, and a press conference was scheduled for leaders of the groups to discuss it publicly. The groups were: Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Schott Foundation for Public Education, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Coalition for Educating Black Children, National Urban League, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
But pressure from the administration — including, apparently, a threat that Obama would not speak, as scheduled, to the convention — prompted the cancellation of the press conference and a hastily scheduled meeting between the civil rights leaders and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Monday.
That became news in our education world, along with a few statements released by some of the civil rights groups that talked about working cooperatively with Duncan.
What was missed in the coverage is that none of the civil rights leaders walked away from the powerful framework, except, that is, Rev. Al Sharpton, who was expected to sign onto the framework, but then didn’t at the last minute.
So, Obama intimidated his black critics, but only in the short run. (Sharpton is actually more of a booster when it comes to charter schools.) Forget what does or doesn’t want to do. It’s increasingly hard to see how this “no carrot, all stick” approach to his one-time base can be a winning strategy over any sort of long run. More and more I’m beginning to think that a primary challenge really could emerge. And it doesn’t have to come anywhere close to winning in order to fatally wound the President. Two dates for him to look up: 1952 and 1968.
Finally, from Democracy Now!
JUAN GONZALEZ: …. In his address, Obama said his plan for education is working, but he acknowledged it has come under criticism.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But I think the single most important thing we’ve done is to launch an initiative called Race to the Top. We said-we said to states, if you are committed to outstanding teaching, to successful schools, to higher standards, to better assessments, if you’re committed to excellence for all children, you will be eligible for a grant to help you attain that goal. And so far the results have been promising, and they have been powerful.
I know there’s also been some controversy about Race to the Top. Part of it, I believe, reflects a general resistance to change. We get comfortable with the status quo, even when the status quo isn’t good. We make excuses for why things have to be the way they are. And when you try to shake things up, some people aren’t happy.
That sounded pretty damn clueless, arrogant and out of touch to me. Downright Bushian, like I said before. One Edweek commentator put it this way:
I watched on TV President Obama’s speech before the Urban League. As much as I still admire him, his defense of Arne Duncan and RttT was hard for me to take.
His dismisses legitimate concerns about his administration’s agenda as resistance to change or defense of the status quo. He is so insultingly wrong. Critics of RttT want to improve education just as much or more as he and the tycoons who pull Duncan’s strings.
Finally, here’s an extended comment from Diane Ravitch on Democracy Now!
AMY GOODMAN: …. Let’s begin with you, Diane Ravitch. Your response to President Obama’s major address yesterday on education?
DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I think that what happened in New York City is-shows that the direction he’s taking is wrong, because everything he is proposing in Race to the Top and also in his blueprint will rely on exactly the kinds of methods that led to a massive fraud in New York state-that is, that Race to the Top is requiring states to judge teachers by the student test scores, and we now know, based on this immense fraud in the city and in the state of New York, that the test scores are not reliable. So teachers will be judged by unreliable data, and we’re going to dismantle the teaching profession in pursuit of this mechanical fix that won’t work.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Diane Ravitch, one of the reasons President Obama gave that particular speech was that he’s coming under increasing fire even from civil rights organizations who are questioning not only the emphasis on testing, but the push for more and more charter schools regardless of the quality of those schools. And your sense of how the ground is shifting around the country, among parent groups, among civil rights groups, around the whole issue of school reform?
DIANE RAVITCH: Well, you know, I think this week, in the last week of July of 2010, turns out to be a pretty momentous week. First of all, six civil rights groups came together and issued a joint statement that blasted Race to the Top and also the blueprint, the Obama blueprint, because he is building-although he doesn’t admit it, he’s building his education agenda right on top of the Bush education agenda, which is to test and punish, to close schools, to evaluate teachers in ways that are unfair and unsound from a research point of view, to increase the number of privately managed charter schools. All this is going to be immensely destabilizing, and it’s going to hit hardest on minority communities, because most of the schools that will be identified as the lowest-performing schools will be in poor Hispanic and black communities. And there will be massive-excuse me, massive destabilization. This is not good. And the civil rights groups recognize this.
There was a second report out that came out this week from a group of community-from an organization of community groups from across the country, echoing the same complaints: we don’t want more community schools, we don’t want more charter schools, we want better public schools-help our public schools get better, not by more testing, not by more charters, but by sensible approaches like more pre-kindergarten, smaller class size, more support for the people who are teaching in those schools-commonsense approaches, which this administration seems to be avoiding and looking for the quick fix that George Bush pursued and that Mayor Bloomberg pursued, and it didn’t work. So I think there are immense implications here.
And we also saw in the Congress where Congressman Obey tried to strip money away from Race to the Top, away from merit pay and away from charter schools. And the administration’s response was, “Don’t take money from Race to the Top. Take it away from food stamps.” And Joel Klein said to take it away from Title I. These are all programs that benefit the neediest families in our society, and there were prepared to harm people who are in need of help in order to preserve the President’s favorite program.
So I think that the implications of this week, with the test score explosion, the blowup of the fraud in New York City, and these two grassroots groups saying, “This is not working, and take a more commonsense approach, and stop this destructive test and measurement and punishment approach,” this is big, because up ’til now everybody seems to have gone along with the rhetoric of President Obama. But you have to separate his rhetoric, which is always very elegant, from what his administration is actually doing, which is just more Bush, more No Child Left Behind.
What we’re seeing is still well below the radar of the braindead Versailles media. But the push-back against Obama’s Bush-lite agenda is clearly growing at an ever-increasing rate, and things came to a sort of head this week. With the mid-terms looming, there’s no telling what the short-term dynamic is going to be. But it seems virtually certain that opposition is only going to grow stronger and stronger.
Just like with Afghanistan, tweaking a fundamentally flawed policy that the Democratic base despises is simly not a viable strategy. And the more you think about it, the more you just have doubt whether Obama is really anywhere near ready for the office he now holds. He’s a great campaigner, there’s no doubting that. But when it comes to governing, he just doesn’t seem to get it.