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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 04/22/2010

Obama should call an education summit

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Mark Phillips, professor of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips
President Obama should call an education summit meeting if he wants to have credibility as a leader of school reform. It should include our most eminent educational leaders as well as teacher organization heads. It is not too late to reshape his policies, but this must happen soon.

I’m a strong supporter of the president, but as an educational practitioner and reformer, I can say that he is demonstrating the same ignorance and fallacious thinking that has plagued national and state policy-makers for years. His educational policies are flawed and counter-productive.

When an education policy is so bad that leaders from opposite sides of the educational spectrum unite in opposition, it has to be wrong.

Education historian and New York University Professor Diane Ravitch was a leader of conservative thinking in educational policy and worked in the first Bush administration. Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond was Obama’s primary advisor on education during his election campaign and is a major voice for liberal educational ideas.

That these two are now bedfellows is one of the strange outcomes of the policy thrust from Washington. Ms. Ravitch’s book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," in which she explains why she no longer supports the emphasis on testing and on school choice, is on the national best-seller list and she is “playing” to sold out audiences.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is ineffective at best in his role as the president’s educational adviser. Duncan has a sports mentality that is fine for basketball but not for improving education.

Competition in sports is a great motivator. Competition between struggling schools for limited funds creates anger, not motivation. Players who don’t perform well should be fired, but measuring player performance is easy. Measuring teacher performance is complex and difficult. We want teachers from different schools to cooperate, support each other, and share what’s working, not compete like corporations trying to do each other in.

Additionally, players' performance is largely based on how well they were prepared. Firing a coach for not producing a team of high-performance athletes from players who are undernourished, didn’t have a ball to play with when they were children, and go home to neighborhoods where their lives may be in danger would be truly stupid. Yet this is what Duncan is suggesting we do with teachers.

Dominating all the reform talk is blame for teachers and principals. Newsweek epitomized this with a cover story highlighted by the phrase “we must fire bad teachers.”
This was exacerbated when Obama and Duncan supported a Rhode Island district move to fire all the educators at the only high school in the area.

We know authoritatively from psychological research that attacking increases defensiveness, not motivation. Teacher organizations need to take more responsibility for the quality of teaching, but this isn’t the way to get there. An open war between teacher organizations and policy makers will be a lose-lose battle, with the kids the biggest losers.

The latest Obama-Duncan policy, the $3 billion Race to the Top, is a perfect example of the present failure in educational policy-making. States that want to win money in the competition have to promise to implement reforms favored by Duncan, and to help the most troubled schools, they must choose from one of four reform strategies, each punitive and fatally flawed.

The turnaround model: Replace the principal and least half the existing staff. But what if the principal is good and evaluation determines that only ten percent of the teachers aren’t effective (the most accurate estimate for most schools)? So forget that model.

The restart model: Convert it to a charter school. I’m a supporter of good charter schools, but charter schools are no panacea. This is also not the way to initiate them. Good ones should be built from the ground up based on a set of core values and to provide choice, not as a replacement. Forget this foolish model.

The school closure model: Shut the whole school down and send the students to higher achieving schools. Terminate a school without a careful analysis of where the problems lie? They must be kidding! The problems usually lie with the economic and cultural background of the students. Send them to higher achieving schools? High achieving schools often fail to reach their low achieving students. At one school I know in my county, Marin, California, the overall GPA is 3.12 while that of African American kids is 1.92. This is not a solution.

The transformation model: Replace the principal. But what if he or she is excellent? Reform instruction? Hey, that’s what we should be doing everywhere, even in successful schools where academically programmed students just go through the motions successfully. Increase learning time? There is NO significant evidence that more time means anything UNLESS student motivation is also increased. Where is that addressed in these policy pronouncements?

And none of this provides help for all the school districts that are not designated low performing but are still regressing in quality because of massive budget cuts.

Absent the convening of a summit meeting, there is a danger that the president and Duncan will just wait out the current surge of excitement centered on Ravitch’s book and continue on their present destructive path. And as long as Ravitch rides the wave of temporary celebrity alone, nothing will happen.

What really needs to happen for anything to change is for Ravitch, Darling-Hammond, and teacher and parent organization leaders to get their collective heads together and come up with an effectively coordinated, highly publicized, and well financed counter-attack. A powerful counter-voice is needed.

The president does pay attention to strong pressure groups and perhaps then he will take the initiative in rebuilding bridges with teachers and engaging in the necessary shared process of change.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 22, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Guest Bloggers, Race to the Top  | Tags:  Arne Duncan and schools, President Obama and schools, Race to the Top, school reform  
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Yes, calling an education summit that includes all stakeholders is an excellent idea. If we continue on the present road, we'll end up spending billions of dollars and get nothing for it. Worse, as the economy improves, younger people will eschew teaching for other fields and there will be no more captive women waiting in the wings.

Perhaps I'm being naive but I believe the president left his education policy to his inexperienced buddy Duncan while he (Obama) wreslted with health care. Hopefully Mr. Obama will now turn his attention to education and will begin to envision a more collaborative and sensible approach to reform.

And yes, parents, educators and other citizens interested in effective change need to unite to come up with a plan that makes much better sense.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 22, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Words of wisdom.

Yet, as far calling for an education summit, the Obama/Duncan duo would probably stack the invitees according to those who already agree with them (for whatever reason???) and then declare that the education summit "findings" are indeed aligned with the plans already in place by Obama/Duncan.

Posted by: shadwell1 | April 22, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

I second Linda's response above. I have also suspected the same thing. I think the current reform ideas have some obvious flaws. One is from the rural perspective and the other is the whole emphasis on "shaking things up". It might work well in business, but we should be thinking about the kids. It seems to me that the schools most in danger of being closed are those in areas where kids already have been "shooken up" and that it is an unproven experiment with their lives.

I do think that looking at the drop out rate is a good idea and National Standards in most subjects would be agood idea.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 22, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

shadwell - it wouldn't be a summit if they brought in their own people - there's no reason to have a summit if they intend to go on their already planned and initiated path.

I hope Linda/retired teacher is right and I hope that ravitch and the other educational experts get through to Obama and Duncan.

Posted by: efavorite | April 22, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I have a feeling this administration would call a summit underwritten and dominated by Broad, Gates, Walton, and a variety of education publishers and testing companies. They would invite token parent and teacher representation, tell us we've been heard, and go on their merry way pumping billions of dollars into data and measurement without having resolved the major issues that undercut their effectiveness. I'd like to be wrong, though.

For more on the issues I'm referring to, especially around the use of standardized testing, please head over to

Posted by: DavidBCohen | April 22, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

efavorite - I understand what you are saying, but there are ways of stacking the deck, as many said of the Doctors' Summit at the White House. So, a tweak here or there, same substance.

Posted by: shadwell1 | April 22, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

If the summit were called and they only invited people who they have already heard, then there is no hope of real reform. Too bad for the country, in that case. The idea would be to get people to discuss thoughtfully real reform. There is no quick fix or silver bullet that is going to work.
So, many ideas should be heard. I still think that an educational reform that doesn't take teachers' opinions into account is on the wrong track. It is based on the false assumption that teachers are incompetent. The teachers have been working with students and know the day to day work involved. They have to be included.
The idea that non-teachers are going to somehow miraculously reform education is flawed. They will try for a year or two and then quit. It is not the easiest job in the world even if you know what you are doing.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 22, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm just not ready to accept that Barack Obama, a brilliant man and comsummate politician, would ignore teachers in his quest for better schools. It just doesn't make sense because he surely knows that nothing will happen in education without the cooperation of teachers.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 22, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

I agree with you again. My thoughts exactly.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 22, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to see a Diane Ravitch/Richard Rothstein vs. Eli Broad/Bill Gates public smackdown.

Posted by: pondoora | April 22, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Right on, Mark Phillips!!!!!!!

Posted by: resc | April 22, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

I am beginning to think Obama really is anti-teacher. I think the only thing that will get through to him is political pressure, he has no true interest in listening to teachers.

Posted by: resc | April 22, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse


I usually agree with you. But I think we have to face the fact that Obama hates teachers and looks at them as basically scum to be punished. He has chosen to believe we are basically lazy and worthless. He is not, nor even will be our friend.

If we accept his hatred and his lack of respect for us, we know how to deal with him. He has no true interest in improving education, only in hurting teachers. If we face the truth about him, we can deal with him.

We have to Obama for what he really is, not what we want him to be.

I always support you Linda, you say things that are absolutely the truth. But I think you are missing the mark on Obama.

Posted by: resc | April 22, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

resc--I disagree with your opinion that Obama hates teachers. I think that he has just bought into the hype that his "experts" have fed him. The idea that unions are harmful and teachers just want to glide by to retirement has been repeated so many times that in some people's minds it has become a fact. We saw how organizing the public helped defeat SB6 in Florida. We need to try to do this on a national level.

I would like to see a summit. If Obama agreed to do that and truly listened, then my suspicions would be correct. If he dismisses teachers and other public education personnel, then I'll have to suck it up and admit that you are right.

Posted by: musiclady | April 22, 2010 8:07 PM | Report abuse

good points resc and musiclady - maybe we could harness some of the energy and the actual people from Florida to approach Obama.

He must be quite aware of what happened there - Duncan too. So as awful as it was for Florida teachers, maybe some good can come of it.

Posted by: efavorite | April 22, 2010 8:17 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Mark Phillips - think your article states many of the issues very clearly.

Also think your idea of assembling a "powerful counter-voice" is not only a really good one, but absolutely necessary.
Arne Duncan is in way over his head, and he has too much power to keep things going in the alarming Education trends we are seeing.

I am very much afraid that if this "Race to the Top" agenda isn't side-tracked, and soon, the public schools will cease to maintain and improve the humanistic environments that all young people deserve, and the kind of teachers that will ultimately be attracted to such schools will be highly trained technicians with little sense of what it means to have important "children-relating" skills: empathy,patience,intuition,careful listening,managing student interactions,caring more about a student than just his or her scores....
That's just the tip of the iceberg, for me; we all need to stay on this!

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | April 22, 2010 8:28 PM | Report abuse


Oh, I hope that you are wrong, but like Musiclady, I'll wait and see. I am so enamored by that megawatt smile that I just can't imagine anything but the best from President Obama. I will be so dreadfully disappointed if he ignores the input of the teachers who work so hard for the children of this nation. I wonder if he knows that the average teacher spends more money on her students than the federal government? Every well-equipped classroom in this country has a teacher running to Teacher Supplies every Saturday with her own funds.

I have several reasons for believing that President Obama will come around to our side:

His writings demonstrate a good grasp of education (it's a collaborative effort) and a respect for teachers;

He worked at a low-paid public service job(community organizer) when he could have had one that paid a lot more and offered more prestige;

His sister is a teacher and must be giving him an earful;

Mrs. Obama has an interest in helping others also and would want the best for all children;

The president's interview in Essence Magazine (March 2010)show him to have beliefs that are very similar to teachers' beliefs about education;

If he takes a stand against teachers, he will not be reelected in 2012.

So let's hope for the best. And teachers, parents, and other child advocates: We need to have a good plan of our own!

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 22, 2010 9:40 PM | Report abuse

Linda - please write your last post directly to the president - including the comment about the megawatt smile.

Posted by: efavorite | April 22, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

"If he takes a stand against teachers, he will not be reelected in 2012."

I think that might be the only thing we have on our side.

Perhaps our efforts at educating the powerful about education should be aimed at Bill Gates, The Broad family and Michael Bloomberg instead of Obama. Obama listens to them more than does the teachers anyway.

Posted by: resc | April 22, 2010 10:19 PM | Report abuse

There is widespread and growing disappointment among educators about President Obama's education policies in general and Race to the Top in particular. Obama has turned his back on teachers and made us the scapegoats for all of the problems in education.If you are on facebook, check out Teacher's Letters to Obama. This is a page started by Anthony Cody, a teacher and blogger. So far over 1,700 teachers have joined and posted their concerns about the president's education policies. I posted my letter to the president on my blog which I invite you to read:

Posted by: magg1 | April 22, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Obama is beating up a female dominated field to order to favor business. If this was a male dominated business he wouldn't try this.

He is beating up on us to please business interests who want to get their hands on education money. He is throwing us to the dogs to the support of big business.

Posted by: resc | April 23, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

Let's look on the bright side: We are 50% of the population and we vote.

I sent my comments to the president and gave him my phone number. I'll let you know if I get a personal response. (Well, if we don't laugh, we'll cry.)

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 23, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your effort Linda. It's good to know people are trying to make things better.

Posted by: resc | April 24, 2010 7:34 AM | Report abuse

I worked in business for many years, shaking things up helped destroy the businesses I worked for. Now Arne Duncan wants to import a strategy that failed in business into education.

Posted by: resc | April 24, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Obama needs to be fired.

Posted by: jlp19 | April 24, 2010 6:54 PM | Report abuse

For this summit, I invite CEO and president of IDEO, Tim Brown to participate. I just read his book, "Change by Design". He writes about his company, IDEO, "Today IDEO applies its human-centered approach to drive innovation and growth for the world's leading businesses, as well as for government, education, health care, and social sectors."

Posted by: lizlauter | April 25, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

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