Assessment Opinion

Obama and Romney on Education Policy: Part II

By Marc Tucker — June 14, 2012 8 min read
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Shall I let you in on a little secret? Not long after the Obama administration took office, my colleague Betsy Brown Ruzzi and I paid a visit to an old friend, Carmel Martin, who had left behind many years as a senior staff member in the United States Senate to become Assistant Secretary for Policy in the new administration.

We had an idea. We suggested to Carmel that the new administration consider taking an agenda for education reform that we had distilled from our years of study of the strategies used by the top-performing countries to get to the top. We said that we thought this should not be formulated as yet another categorical program, but as a new kind of federal program. The government should offer this aggressive set of reforms to states that genuinely wanted to do them, but could not do so for lack of funds. It should, we said, be a competitive program, not an entitlement program, and the money should go to those states that offered the most convincing proposals, proposals that captured the essence of the strategies that lay underneath the achievements of the most successful countries.

Carmel seemed intrigued. We left her office hopeful, but heard nothing. Months later, however, to our astonishment, Carmel told us that our earlier proposal was the inspiration for the Race to the Top Program.

So it turns out that, according to a senior administration official, we were responsible—for the form, but not the substance—of Race to the Top. The substance was not about the education strategies used by the top-performing countries. It was about taking the lid off of charter schools, adopting value-added assessments that could be used to get rid of the worst teachers and implementing the Common Core State Standards. It was the administration’s standards and accountability agenda, carefully framed to greatly overlap the Republican agenda for school reform as well as reflect the agenda embraced by the center-right of the Democratic party.

Casting modesty aside, I think I can say that the form we provided to the administration was a wild success, even though some states have had a hard time delivering everything they promised. At a moment when school districts and states were strapped for funds as never before, the state competition enabled the administration to demand some very aggressive assurances from both Republican and Democratic governors and legislatures, and it got them, even from states that ended up getting no money at all.

But the contents of the envelope were not what we had in mind. What we had in mind begins with the findings from the Center’s 1990 report, America’s Choice: high skills or low wages! In that report, we pointed out that all of the high-performing nations we had benchmarked while doing research for the report had high-quality systems of national academic and vocational standards for their students. In the year following the release of the report, the Center started New Standards, an effort involving 22 states designed to bring internationally benchmarked standards and examinations to the United States. Many education leaders have told me that they see a direct line between New Standards and the Common Core State Standards.

So the administration can reasonably say that their strong backing for the Common Core State Standards in the Race to the Top Program entitles them to a strong claim that the content of their reform program is based on at least one of the key elements of the strategies used by the top-performing countries. That claim would be buttressed by the inclusion in the Race to the Top Program of the component that led to the funding by the administration of the two interstate testing consortia, so that the United States would have standards strongly linked to assessments, another notable feature of the systems used in top-performing countries.

It is also true that it was Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, who asked the OECD for a special report for the United States on the strategies used by the top-performing countries in the education arena, which NCEE produced for the OECD. And it was Arne Duncan who called the first International Summit on the Teaching Profession, two years ago, and invited the education ministers and national teacher union heads from the top-performing countries to join him at that summit to share experiences and ideas. Here is a man, clearly, who, unlike his predecessors, wants to learn from other countries and is anxious to incorporate what he has learned in his own policy prescriptions.

Recently the administration created the RESPECT program. The white paper announcing the program declares that, “It is time for a radical transformation of the profession. We must develop pioneering innovations in the way we recruit, select, prepare, credential, support, advance, and compensate teachers and school leaders. As in other high-performing countries, our schools of education must be more selective, applied, and rigorous. To attract more top students into the field, we must dramatically increase potential earnings for teachers and principals, and we must create career and leadership opportunities that value success in the classroom as highly as success in management and administration.” So the administration is now embracing one of the other pillars of the new global education reform agenda, the agenda that people like us who have been benchmarking the top performing countries for years have been advocating. And it has included $5 billion in the administration budget proposal to fund states interested in pursuing this agenda.

So you are no doubt asking, perhaps a little irritably, why I would say that the administration has adopted the form but not the substance of the global agenda? You might be saying that, sure, they did not adopt it when they framed the Race to the Top agenda, but they seem to be doing so now. Isn’t that enough? This is the real world, after all, and this much policy change is a lot to get in a few years from a standing start.

Maybe so—and maybe not. The administration has not backed off from the agenda with which it began. It still insists, to the degree that it can, that the states take the lid off charters, build statewide data systems and public accountability systems and use value-added measurement systems keyed to multiple-choice, computer-scored tests to identify poor-performing teachers and then get rid of them. But this agenda, taken as a whole, is antithetical to the agenda the Department has more recently begun to champion, an agenda built on professionalizing teachers and recruiting top performing high school graduates into teaching. The very agenda the administration first embraced and still embraces bids fair to make teaching even less attractive to people with good choices than it has been up to now.

As I see it, the administration has no chance of improving the performance of American school children unless it drops the agenda it so aggressively embraced in the first and second round of Race to the Top grants in favor of the agenda it now seems to favor, however tentatively, in its RESPECT budget proposals. But that would be very difficult, not just because they have championed that agenda so aggressively, but also because many of the participating states have already made policy changes to advance this agenda. In addition, the administration would be abandoning an agenda that the Republicans have also embraced in one of the very areas of agreement in the whole range of public policy issues the country faces.

Which then begs the question as to whether there is any prospect that a Romney administration might be interested in any of the elements of the global education reform agenda. All I have to go by here is the white paper on education on the Romney-for-President web site. It is very discouraging.

The centerpiece of the Romney education plan would convert Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act into school voucher programs. According to the Romney plan, there is no challenge in American elementary and secondary education that cannot be met with an aggressive program of education choice, teacher accountability and increased authority for the states vis a vis the federal government, notwithstanding the fact that there is not one national government anywhere on earth that has made the top ten with an agenda remotely like this one. There is not one scintilla of interest in providing incentives to American teacher colleges to greatly raise their standards, or demand that teachers really know the subjects they will teach, or master the art of teaching. There is no interest in greater equity in our school funding system. There is not one sign of commitment to internationally benchmarked standards for student achievement, much less high quality assessments that are uniform across the states and which can measure the acquisition of the kinds of skills employers say they need to compete effectively in world commerce. Indeed and in short, whatever the shortcomings and contradictions involved in the Obama agenda with respect to its embrace of the strategies used by the top-performing countries, they pale in comparison to the Romney white paper. What is profoundly depressing to me is the lack of any sign in this white paper that the candidate is seriously interested in doing what is required if the United States is to have any chance of matching the performance of the world’s leaders in the education sweepstakes. Does he not understand what is at stake? Could that be?

But one can hope that this is not the last word in a campaign that has months to run. My comments on the education platforms made in my first blog on this subject still stand. We are still a long way from the kind of education reform agenda that stands a chance of enabling this country, which used to be far ahead of all our rivals, to catch up with them. We’ll see if that changes.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers 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.