School Choice & Charters Opinion

President Obama’s Agenda

By Diane Ravitch — March 17, 2009 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I will get back to you on another day about the strengths and dangers of a national curriculum.

Today I want to initiate a conversation with you about President Obama’s education program. We previously discussed Secretary Arne Duncan’s policy views, which frankly sounded identical to those of President Bush’s secretary of education, Margaret Spellings.

Now President Obama, in a speech on March 10 to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, has repeated the same views.

The president said that his administration would support whatever works, without regard to whether the ideas are liberal or conservative. He then laid out a vision that heaped goodies on both the liberal Broader, Bolder Agenda (early-childhood education) and the conservative Education Equality Project (more testing, tough accountability, charter schools, merit pay).

This is a politically astute trick. President Obama avoids choosing sides by giving both camps what they want. The left wants more funding: Done! The right wants choice, testing, and merit pay based on test scores: Done!

But let’s look at the vision of where American education is heading. The key here, I think, is the $250 million that the Obama administration will give to states to build longitudinal data systems. These data “warehouses” will collect and track every student’s data from pre-kindergarten through the end of college. Students’ test scores will be linked to individual teachers. Teachers who fail to get test score gains consistently will lose their jobs, while those who do get gains will be rewarded with bonuses or higher salaries. That is one obvious use of the data warehouses.

The assumption here is that the tests we have are excellent; that they are vertically aligned from grade to grade; and that they can safely and reliably be used as the basis for making high-stakes decisions for teachers and students. Many testing experts would challenge each of these assumptions.

Another piece of President Obama’s vision can be seen in his call to states to remove the cap on the number of charter schools that may be established. This one worries me. We both know that there are many excellent charter schools and many abysmal charter schools; states have been slow to close down the latter. But even when they do, there remains this question: Over the long term, what happens to the public school system when the most motivated students enroll in charter schools? What will be the state of public education, especially in our cities, a generation from now if the states take the president’s advice?

So President Obama would have us turn our public schools over to charter entrepreneurs. Charters were originally proposed as a way to deregulate education. We should all wonder: Is deregulation a cure for what ails American education? Or will American education find itself in the same dismal condition as our financial institutions a decade hence?


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