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Barack Obama Says Education Reform Isn’t a ‘Cure-All.’ Is That a Flip-Flop?

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 20, 2019 10 min read
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Just how much can you take away from one former president’s tweet about education?

It’s a fair question to ask after President Barack Obama recently promoted, with enthusiasm, a story in the Atlantic from a philanthropist, Nick Hanauer, who lamented his focus on improving schools as a sure-fire and sweeping solution to some of the nation’s most intractable problems:

“Even the most thoughtful and well-intentioned school-reform program can’t improve educational outcomes if it ignores the single greatest driver of student achievement: household income,” Hanauer wrote in the Atlantic’s July issue.

Obama’s social media message on Tuesday inspired a variety of responses, with some accusing him of ignoring teachers and carrying water for Republican policy while in office, instead of addressing broader inequities that impact schools.

Here’s the bottom line: Obama’s education record is often remembered as a series of competitive grants and other measures tightly focused on transforming how education was delivered and how both educators and schools were evaluated and held accountable. Those signature policy initiatives proved highly controversial and grabbed many headlines. Yet other efforts his administration undertook tried to address factors beyond schools that many believe contribute to economic inequality and lack of opportunities. And those initiatives have a mixed track record.

Obama’s message also landed at a time when many Democrats, including those seeking the White House, have declined to carry the banner for several of the 44th president’s big education initiatives on school and teacher accountability and improving educational systems. Much of his agenda’s political support crumbled during his time in office, and at one point the National Education Association, typically a staunch Democratic ally, called on Obama’s first education secretary Arne Duncan to resign. But that doesn’t mean every Obama measure on K-12 would be doomed to the dustbin under the next Democratic president; keep your eye on civil rights policy.

One important thing to say about Obama’s tweet is what it doesn’t do. Obama did not disown or minimize all or any part of his education record. He still called himself a backer of “education reform,” even though that term makes some people cringe. However, Obama’s tweet might clear the way for Democrats to take a very different approach in 2021 if one of them wins the White House.

So how can we characterize, and categorize, Obama’s education record? And how does his Twitter message look in the political context of 2019? Let’s sort some notable pieces of Obama’s record into two basic buckets.

Competitive Grants, Waivers, and the Stimulus

The Obama administration’s use of competitive grants to push relatively technocratic, systems-based changes to improvement and accountability fell outside the traditional formula-funded Beltway programs school leaders were used to.

  • States that won a piece of $4 billion in Race to the Top grants agreed to do things like create teacher evaluations using student achievement, build new data systems, and embrace the Common Core State Standards. Fairly or not, the program became an avatar for what conservatives and liberals thought Obama’s Education Department got wrong or implemented poorly.
  • School Improvement Grants, which got $3 billion, aimed to jump-start schools by aiding their conversion to charters or requiring schools to lay off a big share of their workforce, drew similar complaints. And arguments about SIG’s effectiveness polarized the education policy world.
  • Less controversial were the Investing in Innovation grants, the smallest of the three big competitive grant programs and the only one to (essentially) survive under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Wonder why some liberals and progressives fond of Washington’s involvement in policy speak with suspicion about proactive K-12 intervention from Uncle Sam? Those kind of approaches—particularly Race to the Top and how it was implemented and talked about—are part of your answer.

However, remember that all three grants got their start in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the stimulus. The Obama team’s fingerprints were all over it. The single biggest chunk of the $115 billion earmarked for education was explicitly designed to save thousands of teachers’ jobs at the tail end of the Great Recession, as well as prevent public schools from closing. Any Democratic president might have supported and signed a similar package in 2009. But it’s worth considering the practical impact of the stimulus alongside ambitious plans from 2020 candidates to raise teacher pay and triple the federal money earmarked for disadvantaged students, among other things. Those grand visions, by the way, have price tags that also run into the tens of billions of dollars.

One more thing: With efforts to revamp No Child Left Behind Act stalled in Congress, Obama’s team also used the regulatory waiver process to push its priorities like aggressive school turnarounds and changes to teacher evaluations. This led to more concerns about the extent to which the administration sought to impose its will, instead of trusting education officials and ultimately educators.

Civil Rights and Cross-Agency Collaboration

What about other Obama education initiatives? Did the administration show awareness of how a broad range of factors can exacerbate or alleviate societal inequality?

The administration made waves when it released guidance designed to protect transgender students, to encourage schools to take race into account to promote student diversity, and to address racial disparities in school discipline. Those policies were conceived and issued at a time when new political forces spawned national debate over the extent to which historical inertia and discrete policy decisions disproportionately harmed people of color and other groups often marginalized by broader society. These pieces of guidance were not economic or material welfare measures, and they met with strong opposition from conservatives alarmed by what they saw as an Obama power grab. But they did reflect shifting political currents about societal inequities.

All three were ultimately junked by the Trump administration. All three were issued by Obama’s Education Department in conjunction with the Department of Justice. And all three are strong candidates to be quickly revived by the next Democratic president.

Here are other instances when Obama’s Education Department worked with other cabinet agencies or outside typical department boundaries to address systemic issues impact equality, with varying success.

  • In a 2016 “Dear Colleague” letter that touted “benefits of socioeconomic and racial diversity in schools and communities, and that such diversity can help establish access points for opportunity and mobility,” the Obama Departments of Education, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development issued a rule that communities receiving funding under the Fair Housing Act of 1968 must work to “reduce barriers to fair housing” and against racial segregation in neighborhoods. The Trump administration rolled back the deadline for communities to meet this rule.
  • Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative in 2014 in order to improve the lives of young men of color. The initiative began with $200 million committted from outside philanthropic groups, and continues today under Obama’s foundation.
  • In 2016, the Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice Departments launched the “Every Student, Every Day” campaign to combat chronic absenteeism.
  • Obama’s 2013 Early Education for All proposal involved collaboration with Health and Human Services through the expansion of Early Head Start, for example.
  • Promise Neighborhoods drove local work and wasn’t a collaboration across cabinet agencies. But it was an early, much-touted Obama initiative focused on wraparound community services for children. Unlike Race to the Top and SIG, the program still gets funding today.

Disappointment and Affirmation

We reached out to Obama’s two education secretaries for comment about his tweet and how people should interpret it. A spokeswoman for the Emerson Collective, where Duncan now works, did not respond. In a 2015 speech shortly before he resigned, Duncan called for shifting $15 billion in public funding from prisons to teacher pay raises. In his prepared remarks, Duncan said such a move “would have ripple effects on our economy and our civic life.”

Takirra Winfield Dixon, a spokeswoman for the Education Trust, the education civil rights group where John B. King Jr. is now the president, pointed to speeches during King’s time as Obama’s second secretary that placed education in a broader discussion about opportunity and equity. In one speech she highlighted, for example, King highlighted students who worked to “end the dumping of garbage in the neighborhood and to support urban agriculture projects and to work on building affordable housing.” This work participating in “real life community change” helped them with academics, he noted. And he stresed the strong link between poverty and educational achievement in the U.S. (In one of the speeches, King told the audience among other things that, “Education is the key” to accessing and increasing opportunity and prosperity.)

“We’ve got to get to the systemic issues if we’re really going to tackle education injustices,” Dixon added in an email. “Housing, health care, transportation, etc. are all linked to education.”

When Scott Sargrad saw Obama’s tweet, he says that he wasn’t really taken aback. A former deputy assistant secretary in the Obama Education Department, Sargrad said that while there are naturally disagreements about how effective Obama’s signature education measures were, they should not be viewed in retrospect as isolated attempts to hammer schools into better shape.

“Schools are an important lever to address income inequality and address the broader situation ... The administration always intended for that work to be a part of a broader program of improving the condition of a lot of people in the U.S.,” said Sargrad, who’s now the vice president for K-12 policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank typically aligned with Democrats.

In light of Obama’s record, Sargrad said Democratic presidential plans for education seem “incomplete” and “a little bit disappointing” because they largely don’t address next steps for improving schools themselves. But he lauded candidates who sought to increase teacher pay. And he said he regretted the lack of proper input from the education community before Obama rolled out big initiatives.

“They were in a lot of cases necessary but not sufficient to get the kind of improvements that we need,” he said.

But Obama’s message promoting Hanauer’s piece disappointed Sandy Kress, a former education policy adviser to President George W. Bush who helped craft No Child Left Behind. While he said there’s “some truth” to the article Obama promoted, he said it’s hardly a new debate, and one that Obama’s own record failed to stem.

“Had he done his edu-reform more intelligently, he would have gotten better results. And if he had gotten better results, I’m not sure he would have written that tweet,” Kress said.

While Kress stressed that Obama didn’t repudiate his record, “He’s sort of creating a world in which other Democrats can say other things matter more or matter first.” That could have important effects for 2020 and the next Democratic administration.

And he said Republicans are guilty of something similar by deciding to largely ignore pro-active work on teaching, school accountability, and other policy levers.

“Schools do make a difference. Good schools make a difference and bad schools make a difference, and we should have as many good schools as possible,” Kress said. “I find it disheartening to see Republicans and Democrats, each in their own way, kind of going back to their pre-reform homes.”

Photos from top:

President Barack Obama, sitting next to 6th-grader Osman Yaya, spoke at Anacostia Library in Washington during in a live “virtual field trip” with middle school students in 2015. (Susan Walsh/AP)

President Barack Obama speaks to the media while meeting with members of the cabinet in the Cabinet Room of the White House in 2015 Education Secretary Arne Duncan is at far left. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

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