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Posted at 12:42 PM ET, 01/19/2010

A question for President Obama

By Valerie Strauss

I wonder if President Obama realizes the very huge gap between his pre-election talk about education and the program that his administration is advancing now.

Today Obama went to a Virginia school to announce $1.35 billion in new funding for his “Race to the Top” initiative to improve the country’s public education system. The total price tag is expected to be $4.35 billion.

This effort is the successor to president Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program in ways that are more than just timing; the emphasis on standardized test scores that marked NCLB has been carried over into Race to the Top, and even, as some critics note, made more prominent.

This is not at all the message that Obama made repeatedly as a presidential candidate

Here’s what his website said when he was running for president, on a page that described the issues important to him and his running mate, then-Sen. Joe Biden.

The headline: “Barack Obama will reform No Child Left Behind

The text: “Obama and Biden believe teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests, and he will improve the assessments used to track student progress to measure readiness for college.”

In November 2007, he advanced a three-part education plan and here’s what he said in a speech then:

“And by the way - don’t tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend most of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test.

“Don’t tell us that these tests have to come at the expense of music, or art, or phys. ed., or science. These tests shouldn’t come at the expense of a well-rounded education--they should help complete that well-rounded education.

“The teachers I’ve met didn’t devote their lives to testing, they devoted them to teaching, and teaching our children is what they should be allowed to do.”

So it seems fair to ask if Obama understands just how much the Race to the Top plan being advanced and implemented by his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, relies on the results of standardized test scores--not just to gauge student achievement, but also to determine teacher performance.

Race to the Top is offering new federal funding to states if they agree to reform education in the way Duncan wants. Applications for the first round are due today.

What is Duncan’s way?

--More charter schools--even though there is no unanimous opinion that charter schools are, in general, better than public schools.

--New plans for re-making failing schools--even though there is no consensus on the best way to do this

--Creating more incentives to attract better teachers--even though it also calls for linking teacher performance and pay to student standardized test scores.

Using a standardized test score as a single measure of anything makes no sense. In a recent guest blog, prominent researcher and educational psychologist David Berliner of Arizona State University explained why we should use multiple measures. Read it here.

Let’s be clear: No Child Left Behind may have had laudable goals. Its creators may have thought it was the way to raise the achievement of minorities and improve public education. It didn’t work, and yet another version of it won’t, either.

So, President Obama, I'd like to know: Do you realize just how different your education reform program is from what you said it would be?

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 19, 2010; 12:42 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Standardized Tests, Teachers  | Tags:  president obama, race to the top, standardized tests  
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Another excellent post, Valerie. In addition to contradicting statements made during the Obama presidential campaign, many of Arne Duncan's "Race to the Trough" initiatives were proven failures during his tenure as Chicago Schools CEO, as a long story in last weekend's Chicago Tribune demonstrates.

Bob Schaeffer, Public Education Director
FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing

Posted by: FairTest | January 19, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse


You must have been a teacher or researcher because you are the only education writer who demonstrates a firm grasp of what is going on in education. You seem to understand why the present Race to the Top "reform" movement is just one more expensive attempt destined for failure.

As you point out, President Obama the candidate displayed a sound understanding of what is needed to ensure an excellent education for each child: a combination of school, family and individual responsibility on the part of the student. As president, Mr. Obama again demonstrated his good sense when he told the story of his daughter Malia. Yes, Malia attends a first-rate school and is blessed with educated parents, but she only excelled when she herself took responsibility for her own learning. There are no shortcuts to a good education.

I, too, am puzzled by the president's narrow approach to educational reform. Placing the entire burden on schools and teachers isn't going to make much of a dent on our educational landscape for the obvious reason that each child spends 87% of his time OUTSIDE of school. These outside factors must be addressed. There is great social inequality in every city and suburb in our country. These inequalities cannot be ignored if we expect equal educational opportunities for all our children.

You appear to be one of the few education writers who seem to understand that when we say the teacher is the most significant factor in a child's education, we are actually talking about the child's SCHOOLING. The teacher is the most important factor in a child's schooling. Again, this accounts for approximately 13% of a child's time. This careless use of terms has led to many inaccurate conclusions by journalists and other people.

Why has President Obama turned his back on his own good sense regarding education? My guess is that he is preoccupied with so many other issues and has left educational policy to others. I have confidence in him and believe he will turn his attention back to education soon.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 19, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Obama breaks yet another campaign promise. What's new? Maybe he is trying to break some sort of record.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | January 19, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate your post. It stated the exact thoughts I was having as I was reading the article about Obama visiting the school in Fairfax County. I teach preschool special education at an FCPS school near the school Obama visited. I became an Obama fan immediately after I read his thoughts on education from his website. However, I feel the same disheartened feelings after reading the paper today. How can you plan to link teacher performance to student achievement? j I like with two other teachers. We each work 7:30-5:00 as well as hours at home. We spend this time planning, researching, and doing our best to educate our students. However, not all classes have the same make up. You will NEVER find two classrooms with the same demographics of students. A not-so-great teacher can teach a class of gifted and talented students that come from educated and involved parents. Regardless of their teachers, these students will have great test scores, in theory. However, a great teacher may be presented with a classroom of ESOL students, students with special needs, or students that do not get educational influence at home and/or have a bad attitude about learning. These students are going to have a tougher time succeeding, due to the circumstances they have been presented. Therefore, it is incredibly unfair to relate teacher effort and performance directly to test scores. And what about teachers like myself? I teach preschool special education. How is my performance going to be measured? Am I not going to qualify for a performance based raise because my children do not have standardized test scores? I agree that teachers need to be evaluated and encouraged/supported to challenge themselves and students. However, a focus on test scores is not the way to do this. There are many ways to keep good teachers in the schools. In many counties, de-staffs of teachers is based on the number of years the teacher has been working in the county/school. Therefore, excellent teachers are being let go over teachers that are mediocre at best, because they have the unfortunate circumstances of being younger. Yes, education does need to be reformed. However, I do not understand why the government continually fails to come up with an appropriate way to do so.

Posted by: smjames | January 19, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

LindaRetiredTeacher wrote: I, too, am puzzled by the president's narrow approach to educational reform. Placing the entire burden on schools and teachers isn't going to make much of a dent on our educational landscape for the obvious reason that each child spends 87% of his time OUTSIDE of school. These outside factors must be addressed. There is great social inequality in every city and suburb in our country. These inequalities cannot be ignored if we expect equal educational opportunities for all our children.


Students in MD (PGC anyway) are in classrooms on average 6.5-7 hrs. per day which equates to 30.5-35.00 hrs. identified toward instruction(with the exception of PE (for lower grades) and lunch. Include probable after school activities and homework, studying and reading. Not much family time is available, esp. during the week for nine months out of the year.

Please let go of blaming parents for the ineffective instruction that is occuring within many of the classrooms. Undoubtedly, children are within dysfunctional setting, but please identify when this EVER wasn't the case within past or society?

I read earlier that an alarming percentage of HS graduates, of all races, that were accepted to college, needing to retake HS remedial HS classes their first year. Is this the fault of parents as well?? They were involved, right? So now colleges are raising the standards on acceptance while HS nationally are trying to play catch up to meet those same standards. How is this fair to students or parents?

Parents sacrafice a great deal to assure our children are prepared to live successful and independent lives. Must we also do the job of classroom teachers while we are at work as well?

Posted by: PGCResident1 | January 19, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse


Don't forget that most students attend school for about 180 days. Do the math again.

Involved parents make most of the decisions regarding the education of their children, including the school that they attend. They don't do the job of classroom teachers but they know what's going on in those classrooms and make changes when necessary. I know many parents with very successful children. Every one of those parents was very cognizant of their child's progress. If they weren't satisfied with the school, they placed the child in another school or even moved to another community. Parents too poor to do this got jobs in other cities just so their child could attend that city's schools. This is not just my opinion; there's a mountain of research showing the primacy of the parents.

Here's something you can check out for yourself: Ask a lot of parents who is most responsible for their child's education. You will notice that the parents of very high-achieving children name themselves; whereas the parents of average or underachieving students will name the school or the teacher.

Is the school important? Absolutely. Is the teacher critical? Yes, but nothing compares with the education provided at home by Mom and Dad.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 19, 2010 11:28 PM | Report abuse

We've debated this before and appreciate your opinion.

Yes most certainly a parent is a child's first teacher, but not primary educators regarding instruction relating to math, science, technology, and language arts. Parents support their children but again, there are kids that were passed year after year falling further and futhe behind in academics, and teachers knowing this was the case for years.

No, I do not think parents are asking for "parents in class" what we NEED are effective teachers because there is absolutely NO REASON for any child to be reading 2-3 grades below level within the richest nation of the world.

So again, there are high school graduates that had parents very involved in their education but were not prepared day 1 for class.

Aug-June are the months kids are in school. On average 8am-3pm Mon.-Fri. After school activities 5-6 pm. Dinner 6:30 pm. Homework 7-8 pm.

That leaves only 1-2 hours of "mom & dad" time with our children.

Nobody asking for a teacher to take the place of "mom & dad" just adequately and effetively teach so "mom and dad" can enjoy life with our children within what little time that we have with them because eventually they will gone and have their own families as well.

Parents are aware of their childs. They receive report cards and read "A" but a child is reading "D" level. These situations have occurred and why standardized testing was implemented and why students don't have basic skills and WERE dropping our or graduating to jail cells.

The cover up is over...and thank GOD for it because our great nation was gradutating illiterates and teachers were passing them through the system knowingly. All this occured before NCLB.

A child may have one or two parents that may or may not be deemed "acceptable" parents in a classroom teachers eyes, but how many teachers did this same child(ren) come before reaching his senior year and reading below multiple levels nor have basic math skills? 15-20 or more? These children are the lost generation.

But no more.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | January 20, 2010 12:48 AM | Report abuse

Also LindaRetiredTeacer, where are these jobs that you are referring to and readily available that allow parents the level of educational assurance mobility that you are referring to?

Again, we are the richest nation in the world. Decent schools should be within each of our respective neighborhoods and communties.

Posted by: PGCResident1 | January 20, 2010 1:02 AM | Report abuse

This is why Obama continues to lose support: his actions don't match the rhetoric. Obama also led us to believe that he would pursue policies based on rational argument and evidence, but Duncan's "reforms" have manifestly failed in Chicago and Duncan's ED is completely impervious to contrary views.

Posted by: dz159 | January 20, 2010 1:25 AM | Report abuse

pgresident - it's not a matter of "blaming" anyone. Finding scapegoats will not solve the problem; understanding and addressing the issue with common sense solutions will solve the problem.

I'm hugely disappointed in Obama's approach to education. He chose the wrong Education secretary and is now following him blindly.

Valerie and others here, please check out the new book “Drive” by Dan Pink. It’s about decades of academic research on what truly motivates people that has been largely ignored. It’s definitely being ignored by our Secretary of Education in his Race to the Top.

Here are some recent interviews with the author:

And here’s a Harvard business school research working paper on the same subject:

Posted by: efavorite | January 20, 2010 8:29 AM | Report abuse

Also, what happens to teachers' pay (or their jobs) when a couple of good years in terms of student achievement are followed by a couple of not-as-good years? Is the teacher presumed to be at fault? Is the teacher's pay docked, or worse, is the teacher fired?

All decent teachers know there are factors beyond their control that cause student achievement to fluctuate from year to year. They know they don't deserve ALL the credit or ALL the blame. But it sounds like in this system, no one cares about actual insights from teachers that could actually improve education. Instead, it's all about reward or punishment based on a system already proven not to work.

So much for "Change we can believe in."

Posted by: efavorite | January 20, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

efavorite, I don't pgc's rant is chanting "blame" anyone. I'll use my own experience as an example. A few years ago one of my son's (who is currently an honor roll sophomore) was having difficulty in math one year but by the end of the following year became an advanced student. Why? These were HIS words that I remember vividly to this day as a second & third grader "math was hard last year [second grade] because I didn't get what my teacher was teaching. This year math is alot easier [third grade] because I understand this teacher better"

There isn't a great deal of growth, maturity or accountability between the ages of 7-8 but apparently there were marginal difference of instruction methods. My son was fortunate. Many other students were not.

Please read:

Posted by: TwoSons | January 20, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

TwoSons - I have no doubt that teachers can make a difference. I don't doubt that your son's experience was exactly as you describe it. I also wouldn't be surprised to learn that another kid in the same class had a different experience with the same teachers or to learn that your son's experience was pretty typical of other kids with those teachers.

This is anecdotal evidence which is interesting and useful, but shouldn't be the only or main measure in making huge costly decisions about education that affect thousands of students and teachers.

It’s doubtful that policy would be made based on anecdotal evidence of some people being cured by one doctor but not others. It could be a matter of physician incompetence, but it could be a lot of other factors too, including changes in patient compliance and insurance coverage. Understanding and balancing the factors would require careful research.

Meanwhile, here’s some reasoning that I don’t think requires deep research to accept: If you have more than one kid, you’ve noticed that they are not both the same. They have different interests, abilities and temperaments. So do parents, and often one parent can understand and get through to a kid better than the other parent, even though both are really trying. Parents don’t get consistent, good results with their own kids. Thus, it seems quite unrealistic to expect this from teachers and then to make their jobs dependent on it.

Posted by: efavorite | January 20, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

efavorite, without a doubt there are very energenic, impactful, effective, creative and down right good souls that are charged to educate our children.

At the same time, there are teachers, administators, and principals that should be removed. They are poison to these children and the expense to our nation far outweigh the amount of money currently considered.

You also know that teachers have been doing creative things with test scores that was truly nothing less then a disservice to students to keep their jobs.

Valarie Strauss column today, as part of the story described a guidance counselor identifying a student as lazy and should drop out. Instead of helping this student, she chose, as a school counselor, to classify him as nonproductive at the tender age of 16. He wasn't lazy afterall but had learning disabilities instead. Or how about a teacher last week stating that she would "sue a student" for his inability to learn...the list goes on.

Students were graduating that literally unable to read or perform basic math.

Students were accepted into college but ill-prepared to take college level courses.

The current state of the US Educational System is flawed and impacting past, present and future generations.

How much money will it take to bring back quality and effective education?

I would much rather my tax dollars flow toward teachers, students and classrooms instead of security guards, juvenile and detention centers.

Money will be provided/allocated one way or another.

Posted by: TwoSons | January 20, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

So we agree, TwoSons, good teachers should be supported and bad ones should be shown the door. And I’d say lots of other things should also happen for education to be successful in the US.

The practically single-minded focus on bad teachers and using student performance data to weed them out is not the answer. I believe the more we focus on this, the less likely we are to make systemic improvements. It makes me sick.

The flaws in education are not going to be fixed by threatening teachers and administrators to raise test scores or else. Instead that encourages the kind of cheating you describe and a beaten-down attitude among teachers who know very well that they can’t be completely responsible for student achievement, but know that if they say that out loud, they will be marked as bad teachers. Meanwhile, if the whole system - parents, teachers, administration, students, communities – is not addressed, little meaningful change can be made.

Please read some of the sources I linked to above – it’s excellent reading on human motivation and it’s the opposite of what’s going on right now in our schools and what Duncan is proposing more of.

Posted by: efavorite | January 20, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

It seems the "pratically single minded focus on test results" is being made more by teachers. Some teachers didn't even read (or didn't seem to aborb) Wiengarten's speech containing the 5 point proposal before drawing an informed conclusion.

What is the definition and measure of good vs. bad teachers? What is the rubric or criterion and how should the same be measured?

What should be systemic standards that must be maintained while continously evolving? Who will provide oversight that is not directly connected polticially nor personally?

What should be the remedies when standards are not met? More training? Longer school days or school year? As with many private schools, parents required to volunteer certain amount of hours at their kid(s) school(s) per year? Parents also required to attend at least 1 parent/teacher conference per quarter, and if they do not, fines issued or tax refunds withheld?

I'm a parent, you're a teacher. You support great teachers I support proactive parents. Great teachers effectively teach and children benefit. Parents support education and children benefit as well.

The government can only address what they have some level oversight within and as student achievement increases, which hopefully translates toward higher volume of educated, proactive, informed and responsible parents.

efavorite, I visit and volunteer at schools all the time. I speak with teachers, principals, administrators and students as often as possible. My sons are within the system and well aware of what is happening to and around them...and why.

Posted by: TwoSons | January 20, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

TwoSons, can you provide your source of information for this statement: "It seems the "practically single minded focus on test results" is being made more by teachers. Some teachers didn't even read (or didn't seem to absorb) Weingarten’s speech containing the 5 point proposal before drawing an informed conclusion." I’d be interested in seeing more information about teacher response to Weingarten’s speech.

Also, I have not indicated what my field is and choose not to, as is the case with many people who comment here.

I agree that government "can only address what they have some level oversight within...."
That wisdom applies to every issue that government (or just about any entity) addresses. Thus it’s important to direct resources wisely. A national policy of threatening farmers with eviction for not improving their crop output during a drought year wouldn’t enable them to grow better crops and it certainly wouldn’t inspire more people to go into farming. I think the same reasoning applies to the concept of threatening teachers with dismissal because they can’t raise the performance of certain kids whose possibilities are limited by matters totally unrelated to the quality of their teachers.

Whatever the solution is, it will be complex and not just about getting rid of bad teachers and replacing them with good teachers, who, if they get happen to get one bad crop of kids, will themselves risk castigation, transformation into bad teachers and dismissal. At some level, I think most people realize the inanity of it, but it’s easier to blame and threaten teachers and apparently it’s easier to throw money at them too. What a waste. I wish Obama would just keep that money in his pocket until he found a worthy way to spend it.

Posted by: efavorite | January 20, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Most of the money in Race To The Top is earmarked for computer systems. It appears every school district has to reinvent the wheel to pay for developing their own educational computer system.

Perhaps Race to the Top should be renamed Race to Waste Money.

By the way it is 2010 and the government still has not released the results of the national 4th and 8th grade tests in Reading for 2009. So much for the importance of the only real standardized tests in the nation.

Posted by: bsallamack | January 20, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

efavorite, my apologies. I presumed you were a teacher because of your apparent passion toward the teaching profession.

your statement:
"I think the same reasoning applies to the concept of threatening teachers with dismissal because they can’t raise the performance of certain kids whose possibilities are limited by matters totally unrelated to the quality of their teachers."

And continued reference relating to student assessment equating teacher dismissals, included in performance evaluations or demonstation of student academic absorbtion rates. Your along with teachers (who've identified themselves as such) that post on the education blogs relating to assessments contiuously post disgruntleness.

Parents do not like the idea of our kids continuously being assessed either but I've asked the questions above, several times, how student achievement should be measured adequately and informatively. It's a tragic that classroom content assessment no longer being the only proficiency measures relating to curriculum content.

It is a terrible shame that public school systems nationwide are not producing higher percentage of stronger more academically sound students, because yes, a great deal of financial resources already placed within.

Re your analogy "A national policy of threatening farmers with eviction for not improving their crop output during a drought year wouldn’t enable them to grow better crops and it certainly wouldn’t inspire more people to go into farming." We are referring teachers not farmers, classrooms not farmland and these kids are most certainly children and not just crop.

Maybe a more accurate comparision would be a teacher to a physician (IMHO, effective teachers should be paid just as much, if not more). Teaching effectively (like practicing medicine) is very critical, demanding profession that takes years of experience to become experts, determination, professionalism, passion & care of their students, as physicians toward patients. Effective teachers provide an invaluable service. A benefit that last a lifetime. Ineffective teachers who do not are literally committing "malpractice" on our youth and it's killing childrens present and future growth which impacts their truest potential levels and they need to be found and removed immediately.

Posted by: TwoSons | January 20, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Hello, TwoSons --

You say, “It is a terrible shame that public school systems nationwide are not producing higher percentage of stronger more academically sound students….”

I’d rephrase that slightly to say “it’s a shame that WE – meaning the entire community - are not producing….”

Certainly children are not farm produce, but they are living things that vary in many ways, just as plants do. The soil matters, droughts, fires, rain, etc. Some things can be controlled for, others cannot. Who would blame a farmer for a hail storm? But in this new system, at least here in DC, Chancellor Rhee holds teachers responsible for everything:

“As a teacher in this system, you have to be willing to take personal responsibility for ensuring your children are successful despite obstacles…You can’t say, ‘My students didn’t get any breakfast today,’ or ‘No one put them to bed last night,’ or ‘Their electricity got cut off in the house, so they couldn’t do their homework.”

“Our students aren't achieving, not because of their aptitude, but because we, as the adults in this system, are not doing our jobs to serve them well.”

I’m glad you brought up medical doctors, because Rhee also doesn’t think that teaching should be a long term profession. As she said in the Atlantic Monthly:

“Nobody makes a thirty-year or ten-year commitment to a single profession. Name one profession where the assumption is that when you go in, right out of graduating college, that the majority of people are going to stay in that profession. It’s not the reality anymore, maybe with the exception of medicine. But short of that, people don’t go into jobs and stay there forever anymore.

“…I’d rather have a really effective teacher for two years than a mediocre or ineffective one for twenty years.”
(but teachers often say that they aren’t effective until after five years)

And think about it - if Duncan’s plan calls for firing teachers if their students’ scores decline, that would be equivalent to firing an oncologist because a higher percentage of her patients died of cancer. This is a presumption that the doctor is guilty of malpractice and not that her patients were terminally ill and she did everything she could for them and actually was able to save a few. How many med school grads would go into oncology under those conditions?

I agree that bad teachers, like bad doctors, need to be removed immediately. I sincerely don’t think that bad teachers are the primary cause of low student achievement, anymore than medical malpractice is the major cause of cancer deaths.

Thanks for engaging with me on this. I’m enjoying the conversation.

Posted by: efavorite | January 20, 2010 8:32 PM | Report abuse

CORRECTION to my comment of January 20, 2010 8:32 PM:

The link to the Atlanic "medicine" quote should be:

Posted by: efavorite | January 21, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

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