School Choice & Charters Opinion

The President’s Speech

By Diane Ravitch — February 01, 2011 5 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I watched President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech and liked his appeal to the nation to encourage innovation, creativity, and imagination. But I was disappointed by his misleading description of Race to the Top. He said it is not a “top-down” program and is not prescriptive. He thinks that it somehow emerged as a result of the good ideas of teachers, principals, local school boards, and communities. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was designed and written within the confines of the U.S. Department of Education by Secretary Arne Duncan and a flock of advisers from the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation.

Race to the Top was funded by nearly $5 billion of economic stimulus money appropriated by Congress. Never in history has the U.S. Department of Education had money of this scale to dispense at will. As I wrote in my recent book, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute called Race to the Top “NCLB 2: The Carrot That Feels Like a Stick.” While Petrilli liked the program’s demand to expand the number of charter schools and to evaluate teachers (in part) on student test scores, he noted that the heavily prescriptive nature of the program marked the death of federalism.

Contrary to what President Obama now believes, Petrilli pointed out that the administration did not ask states for their best ideas; instead it “published a list of 19 of its best ideas, few of which are truly ‘evidence-based,’ regardless of what President Obama says, and told states to adopt as many of them as possible if they want to get the money. It’s as if a bunch of the do-gooders sat together at the NewSchools Venture Fund summit and brainstormed a list of popular reform ideas, and are now going to force them on the states. (Wait, I think this is how this list got developed.)”

For the uninitiated, the NewSchools Venture Fund is an organization funded by the big foundations, devoted to the proliferation of charter schools. As if to make official the tight link between that organization and the administration’s signature program, Secretary Duncan tapped the chief operating officer of the NewSchools Venture Fund to run Race to the Top.

And, as we know, many states passed new laws to qualify for money they desperately needed. Many agreed to evaluate teachers by student test scores, even though most testing experts agree that the methods for doing so are inaccurate and unstable, and even though this emphasis on test scores will inevitably cause even greater teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum than the odious No Child Left Behind. Many states also raised their limits on charter schools, further expanding the reach of the new edu-entrepreneurial industry. The effects of Race to the Top continue to accumulate, as Tea Party governors promise to eliminate job rights for teachers and call it reform.

Perhaps you remember how Secretary Duncan campaigned for RTTT with Newt Gingrich? Now he has been endorsed by George Will as the “one redeeming feature” of the Obama administration. Apparently education is the “bipartisan” issue that will bring together the most conservative Republicans with the Democrats, even though the administration’s approach eviscerates the Republicans’ usual devotion to local control.

President Obama repeatedly espouses a narrative in which he posits that America’s economic future is imperiled by our students’ poor test scores on international assessments. I recommend Yong Zhao’s brilliant analysis of that claim, which is now the non-factual foundation of the current corporate reform movement.

Although President Obama is dismayed by the terrible performance of our nation’s students on the international tests, he also says “America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers—no workers are more productive than ours. No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs.”

Yong Zhao, a Chinese-born, China-educated professor for many years at Michigan State University, now at the University of Oregon, sets the record straight. He points out that in the 1960s, America’s 8th graders ranked at the very bottom of the first international assessment of mathematics and close to the bottom in the 1970s and 1980s on international assessments of math and science. Now, we are in the middle, which is sort of an improvement. But then comes his punch line:

“So who has made America ‘the largest, most prosperous economy in the world?’ Who are these most productive workers? Where did the people who created the successful companies come from? And who are these inventors that received the most patents in the world?

“It has to be the same Americans who ranked bottom on the international tests. Those 12th graders with shameful bad math scores in the 1960s have been the primary work force in the U.S. for the past 40 years. The equally poor performers on international tests in the ‘70s and ‘80s have been working for the past 30 years now. And even those poor performers on the 1995 TIMSS [Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study] have entered the workforce. Apparently they have not driven the U.S. into oblivion and ruined the country’s innovation record.”

Yong Zhao concludes, as I did in a blog that I wrote for The New York Times within minutes of the president’s speech: If we want more creativity, innovation, and imagination, we won’t get it by pursuing the remedies now prescribed by Race to the Top. Not by more testing, more test prepping, more narrowing of the curriculum, more lockstep instruction to ready for the next state test.

The status quo today is not good. For 10 years we have pursued the heavy-handed mandates of No Child Left Behind, with meager results. Now with Race to the Top and the Obama administration’s “blueprint,” we appear ready to impose failed ideas on yet another generation of children. This obsession with testing, ranking, grading, evaluating, measuring, labeling, and sorting students has nothing to recommend it. The winners continue to win, and the losers continue to lose. Testing should be used for diagnostic purposes, to help students and teachers, not for high-stakes accountability. High-stakes testing corrupts testing and corrupts education and causes us to lose sight of the purposes of education.

We should be doing so much more to improve education and the lives of children. And with the ascendancy of governors who share the Obama administration’s desire to cut the power of teachers’ unions and to remove job rights for teachers, who will advocate for education in the state legislatures when they start slashing education budgets? The unions have their faults, but they are the ones who have steadfastly demanded adequate funding for class-size reduction, for decent wages, for capital spending, and for the necessary cost of a good education.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.