School & District Management Commentary

Obama-Era Education Policy

By Ronald E. Chennault — May 18, 2010 6 min read

One of the education innovations President Barack Obama seems to be enamored of is the extension of the school day or school year (or both). Whether he means providing more after-school programs, creating more learning opportunities during the traditional summer break, or literally adding hours to the school day and days to the academic year is not clear, though he appears to be in support of all of the above.

But what the president actually means matters, because requiring students to spend more time in school—even more than was envisioned over 25 years ago when A Nation at Risk promoted the idea—is a policy we in fact know very little about. And what we do know suggests that adding more time is not worth the effort.

Among Mr. Obama’s promises to the nation was that, under his administration, science would be brought back into the White House, and the primacy of decisionmaking supported by evidence would return to government. When it comes to education policy, though, my reading of what has emerged during his first year in office suggests that he didn’t really mean what he said.

Large-scale experimentation requires caution and needs to be informed by theory and practice, not just promoted by strong rhetoric."

For starters, he selected a former chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, Arne Duncan, to lead the way. This was a disappointing though not surprising choice, given that the president’s relationship with Duncan predated the election, and was based in part on bonding around a favored American sport. Duncan’s experience as the head of the country’s third-largest school district was surely a major factor as well. In that capacity, he oversaw for seven years one of the most dynamic, intricate, and challenging districts in the nation.

What disappoints, however, is that Duncan doesn’t seem to have developed much wisdom from that experience. There is no indication of a broad or deep understanding, or at least an appreciation, of the complicated relationship between education and larger societal forces. Nor was his tenure as Chicago’s schools chief an unmitigated success in any of the popular ways politicians and presidents define success, such as increased test scores and lower dropout rates.

Duncan’s debut on the national stage has been quite remarkable. Since the creation of the position in the Carter administration, the U.S. secretary of education has primarily been a “quiet” player. The one notable exception was William J. Bennett, during the Reagan administration. Given the nature of Duncan’s service as CEO of the Chicago schools under Mayor Richard M. Daley, it seemed likely that he would fit quite well into the “quiet player” pattern. Quite the opposite has happened, however: Secretary Duncan has been one of the most visible and vocal Cabinet members thus far. He has offered a series of bold declarations about the state of schooling, and aimed a barrage of highly critical barbs at educators and schools of education.

Education in America, particularly what takes place in many urban and rural schools, cries out for our most creative thinking and sustained attention. And having a prominent, empowered figure leading the way could help us accomplish some of the reforms that educators themselves have long supported but felt hamstrung in their efforts to put in place. Sadly, instead of “racing to the top,” reform in the first year of the Obama administration has been hastening down a much too narrow-minded and unsupported path. Which brings us back to the question: What of this reclaimed era of evidence-based decisionmaking?

For some of Duncan’s biggest ideas so far—more mayoral takeovers of local school districts, more performance-based-pay programs for teachers, longer school days or school years, increased routes to teacher certification, larger numbers of charter schools—there are at best limited or inconclusive findings regarding their success. And at worst, there are serious causes for concern or bodies of evidence that on balance point away from their success, not toward it. Lack of certainty does not need to be an impediment to action. But large-scale experimentation requires caution and needs to be informed by theory and practice, not just promoted by strong rhetoric.

The case of alternative certification illustrates this point. Secretary Duncan has on many occasions, such as in a major speech last fall at the University of Virginia, extolled the benefits of what he calls “high-quality alternative pathways” to teacher certification (such as Teach For America). In that same speech, he criticized traditional teacher education programs and called for them to be, among other things, “more rigorous and clinical.” Yet Duncan wants to have it both ways: to lambaste schools of education for not offering enough preparation to future teachers, while praising alternative-certification programs that inherently accelerate the process and offer less clinical preparation.

Instead of an evidence-based approach, what this sounds like is an administration that emphasizes the evidence that supports its educational agenda and downplays or ignores that which doesn’t. The unfortunate result is that, after one year, President Obama’s education agenda is, broadly speaking, indistinguishable from that of his predecessor. Sure, Mr. Obama, unlike George W. Bush, has not expressed support for federally funded voucher programs, for example. And it is nearly impossible to imagine that President Bush would have thought seriously about schools’ needs in his allocation of billions of stimulus dollars. But for anyone who might have expected the current president to move in a new direction in education, there is not much about which to be hopeful.

Sadly, instead of 'racing to the top,' reform in the first year of the Obama administration has been hastening down a much too narrow-minded and unsupported path."

President Obama has claimed that Arne Duncan “will use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with [our] precious tax dollars: It’s not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works.” But what works for whom? In what context(s)? According to what indicator? More to the point, with regard to many of the ideas that Secretary Duncan has promulgated so far, we don’t even know yet what works. So, by his own standards, the president is being less than honest.

The truth of the matter is that President Obama has a particular vision of the role that public schools should play in our society, and his secretary of education’s job is to promote that vision. But education is a value-laden enterprise—inescapably so—and while evidence should be driving our educational decisionmaking, the field is too complex to have these matters decided by research alone.

The reform of education in American has to be connected to a vision of what kind of society we want to have and how education can help us get there. So far, President Obama’s corporate-minded approach has led him (and Secretary Duncan) to speak of the role of education in very narrow terms. Judging from their comments, they see schools as existing primarily to develop in young people the skills they need to compete for jobs in a global economy. Such rhetoric is relevant at the moment, given the unemployment numbers the nation is facing, but ultimately we deserve—actually, we need—to have a president with a more expansive and hope-filled view of the functions of education than that.

If the administration were more truthful about its education agenda—that is, by admitting that it’s not about what works but what those in charge want to work—then we could discard this pretense of evidence-based decisionmaking and get to the real battle at hand.

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2010 edition of Education Week as Obama-Era Education Policy

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