Published Online: April 6, 2009
Published in Print: April 8, 2009, as Obama Echoes Bush On Education Ideas

Obama Echoes Bush on Education Ideas

President Barack Obama campaigned on a message of change, but when it comes to K-12 education, he appears to be walking in the policy footsteps of his recent predecessors, including George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama is sounding themes of accountability based on standards and assessments. He’s delivering tough talk on teacher quality, including a call for performance-based pay. And he’s promoting an expanded charter school sector.

To be sure, his economic-stimulus package shows he is ready to pump far more money into education than Mr. Bush did. And Mr. Obama says he opposes private school vouchers, a consistent Bush agenda item.

Still, some observers see little difference between the two so far—and aren’t happy at the similarities.

“He is operating almost in a straight line from President Bush,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, who co-writes a blog for edweek.org. She has criticized core elements of Mr. Obama’s K-12 agenda, such as his enthusiasm for the charter sector and what she worries is an overreliance on standardized testing to judge schools and teachers.

Sound Familiar?

The four most recent occupants of the White House have sounded similar themes on education.

—Marcy Nighswander/AP-File

"Accountability, flexibility, tougher standards, a results-oriented system—all of these have got to be out there on the table."
President George H.W. Bush
(Remarks at the education summit in Charlottesville, Va., Sept. 27, 1989)

—J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File

"All successful schools have followed the same formula: higher standards, more accountability, so all children can reach those standards."
President Bill Clinton
(State of the Union Address, Jan. 27, 2000)

—Matt Rourke/AP-File

"We will insist on high standards and accountability because we believe that every schools should teach and every child can learn."
President George W. Bush
(Presidential radio address, Jan. 3, 2004)

—Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images-File

"We're seeing what children from all walks of life can and will achieve when we set high standards, have high expectations, when we do a good job preparing them. ... [W]e will cultivate a new culture of accountability in schools."
President Barack Obama
(Address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, in Washington, March 10, 2009)

“Obama is, in effect, giving George W. Bush a third term in education,” said Ms. Ravitch, who served as an assistant secretary of education under the first President Bush.

Alfie Kohn, an education author and longtime critic of standardized testing, echoes that assessment.

“This is what passes for quote-unquote ‘reform’: an intensification of the status quo that reflects the sensibility of politicians and corporate executives rather than educators,” Mr. Kohn said.

He warns that if Mr. Obama holds to that pattern, his agenda may pose a challenge for some of his natural constituencies.

“A lot of liberals and those on the left desperately want to believe that Obama represents a qualitative change, not just in education, but in all kinds of domestic and foreign-policy issues,” Mr. Kohn said. “And even as many of them become slowly disenchanted, the political issue becomes: How hard do we push?”

But Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-director of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, argues that the president is sending the right signals, from promoting charter schools to pushing on teacher quality and “improving accountability, not jettisoning it.”

He said that even while he believes Mr. Obama’s critics are wrong to suggest there is little difference between him and Mr. Bush on education, those hoping for a “radical departure” will be disappointed.

“There was a lot of overlap between Bush I and Clinton, and between Clinton and Bush II,” said Mr. Rotherham, a former aide to President Bill Clinton. “Not surprisingly, there’s going to be a lot of overlap between Bush II and Obama.

“That says less about any of them per se than the direction education reform has been going for well over a decade.”

Charting a Course

Analysts caution that it’s still too soon to know exactly where President Obama will come down on education. The key, they say, is how the Obama administration translates its rhetoric into action and detailed policy prescriptions.

For instance, how serious will the administration be in enforcing the education accountability demands in the recently enacted stimulus plan? How will it seek to define performance pay? And what specific changes does Mr. Obama have in mind for the upcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act?

Leading teachers’ union officials, at least publicly, sound receptive to most of the president’s ideas.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said Mr. Obama has laid out a “very broad, comprehensive, and thoughtful agenda.”

The president is wading into touchy territory for the unions with his advocacy of expanding charter schools and promoting performance-based pay, themes he sounded on the campaign trail.

“I know that these conversations sometimes are uncomfortable for us to have, but we’re willing to have them,” Ms. Weingarten said when asked about Mr. Obama’s discussion of performance pay.

She and other union officials say that Mr. Obama’s election brought about a critical change that isn’t about policy or money. It’s a belief—reinforced by the president’s public statements—that teachers and their unions will have a seat at the table in policy discussions.

“He’s going to listen,” said Anne T. Wass, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association. “There wasn’t very much trust in President Bush as far as our issues, and very little access.”

‘The Same Old Debate’

The considerable attention President Obama has paid to education since taking office has surprised many observers, especially given the relatively minor role the issue played in the 2008 campaign and the focus on the economic crisis.

The president and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made clear that they view the economic-stimulus law, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—with some $115 billion in aid for precollegiate and higher education—as a means to launch education plans from improvements in standards and data-collection systems to performance pay. The unprecedented, one-time infusion of federal aid is being touted not only as a lifeline for schools but also a bargain of more money in exchange for substantive changes. ("Stimulus Scale Seen as Issue," Feb. 11, 2009, and "First Education Stimulus Aid Flows to States," April 8, 2009.)

Last month, Mr. Obama outlined his education agenda in broad strokes during an address to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, setting the stage with a fairly stark portrait.

“[W]e’ve let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us,” he said.

Some critics say Mr. Obama was unfairly negative and used flawed information to make his case.

For instance, he said that U.S. 8th graders have “fallen to ninth place” in math. Although the 2007 results for the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMMS, do confirm that ranking, it was an improvement from the 2003 U.S. ranking of 15th place. In 1999, the United States ranked 19th out of 38 nations.

The president appeared to be on solid statistical ground in some other areas, however. He said that “just a third of our 13- and 14-year-olds can read as well as they should,” which seems to refer to the 31 percent of 8th graders rated “proficient” in the 2007 results for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

He also lamented the “stubborn”—and widely recognized—achievement gap between African-American and Hispanic students and their white peers.

Mr. Obama has been generally consistent in his stated education agenda since taking office, reiterating much that he said during the campaign. That includes improvement proposals touching on every aspect of the U.S. education system, from early childhood to college and the workplace.

He has trumpeted his goals repeatedly, from his address to Congress in February to a virtual town-hall meeting on March 26. But he articulated his vision most extensively in his March 10 speech in the nation’s capital to Hispanic business leaders.

“[W]hat we get here in Washington is the same old debate ... more money versus more reform, vouchers versus the status quo,” Mr. Obama said. “What’s required is not simply new investments, but new reforms. It’s time to expect more from our students. It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones. It’s time to demand results from government at every level.”

On the K-12 front, Mr. Obama called on states to develop stronger academic standards and better student assessments, and urged a move toward common standards across states—a point he did not make on the campaign trail. He talked of extending the school day and year, and increasing assistance for dropouts. He promoted efforts to recruit, prepare, and reward teachers.

In addition, Mr. Obama called for more innovation in schools, and pointed to some charter schools as exemplars. Going beyond his campaign plan to increase federal aid for charters, he also urged states with charter caps to lift them, provided those states ensure “greater accountability” and have plans to “close charters that are not working.”

The president carefully couched his rhetoric in ways that make it akin to a Rorschach test, with something for almost everyone.

He said he wants “tougher, clearer” standards, but also assessments that “don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble.” He wants more “effective” charters, but also tougher action to close those that fall short. He wants not only to hold teachers accountable, he said, but also to treat them like professionals.

Political Balancing Act

“Obama has been very artful with this from the very beginning,” Christopher T. Cross, a veteran education expert who was an assistant education secretary under the first President Bush, said of his ability to deliver multiple messages. “There’s enough in there that, depending on where you sit, you can see something you stand for.”

As a result, his education vision has managed to appeal to a wide range of education policymakers and analysts.

“He is saying a lot of things that sound all too familiar to me,” said former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, pointing to Mr. Obama’s backing of teacher incentive pay, charter schools, and high standards to help close achievement gaps. “I want to sing right along.”

John P. Bailey, a former aide to President George W. Bush on education and labor issues, said that while he has been encouraged, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear familiar themes coming from the new president.

“What it shows, to me, is there is an emerging consensus around some real bipartisan, center-oriented reforms,” Mr. Bailey said.

Indeed, leading congressional Democrats on education, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California, were partners with the Bush administration in drafting the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act eight years ago, though they later complained bitterly that Mr. Bush was not willing to fund it adequately.

President Clinton—the previous Democrat to hold the office—was also a champion of standards and accountability, and signed into law major changes to federal policy that helped pave the way for NCLB. In addition, he was an early and vocal proponent of charter schools, and pushed for new demands on states and districts to improve teacher quality.

For his part, President George H.W. Bush offered an agenda that included advocating national goals and standards across states and providing seed money for “break the mold” schools.

Still, the ideas Mr. Obama is embracing don’t sit well with everyone.

Alex Molnar, an education professor at Arizona State University, said that while he finds merit in some of Mr. Obama’s plans for early-childhood and higher education, he sees little to like in the current administration’s K-12 agenda, whether it’s the “fascination with standards and assessments” or the embrace of charter schools.

“He’s just served up a plate of leftovers: leftover ideas, leftover ideology, and I must say, he’s serving leftovers of food that wasn’t very good to begin with,” Mr. Molnar said.

Ms. Wass of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said that while she supports many of Mr. Obama’s plans, she is “less enthusiastic” about performance pay.

“If it means paying individual teachers based on student test scores, ... we would have a hard time ever compromising on that,” she said.

Secretary Duncan has said test data would be one component of performance-pay plans.

Bruce Reed, the president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and formerly President Clinton’s chief domestic-policy adviser, argues that the vast sums President Obama has secured for education through the stimulus package will help build the political leverage he needs with unions and others to achieve his agenda. The administration estimates that the stimulus money will help avert hundreds of thousands of teacher layoffs. ("As Stimulus Tap Turns On, Districts Can't Escape Cuts," April 8, 2009.)

“Don’t underestimate the value of money, especially in these hard times,” Mr. Reed said. “A leader’s job is to push the envelope and bring everybody along, and that’s what Obama’s trying to do.”

But Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, isn’t so sure what the president will get for all the money being committed.

“What I see is lots of new money,” he said, “and I see a whole lot of ambiguity when it comes to which of these changes are actually going to be anything meaningful.”

Vol. 28, Issue 28, Pages 1,18-19

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