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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/ 4/2010

Book blasts research base for Obama reform plan

By Valerie Strauss

A new book sharply criticizes the research base for the education reform blueprint that President Obama released earlier this year, saying that it is "superficial and inadequate" and does not support the document's conclusions on two major issues.

The book, titled "The Obama Education Blueprint: Researchers Examine the Evidence” and written by a handful of leading education researchers, looks at the six research summaries that were presented by the administration last spring to support its main proposals that were put forth in Obama’s Blueprint for Reform.

The blueprint is Obama’s vision for changing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known in its current form as No Child Left Behind. It is not clear when Congress will take up the reauthorization of the law.

“The research summary provides rhetoric and exhortation, not research,” the book says.

The administration’s research summaries are meant to be a foundation for reform proposals in these areas:

* Ensuring that all students are college- and career-ready

* Ensuring great teachers and great leaders

* Giving students “a complete education”

* Meeting the needs of English language and other diverse learners

* Creating successful, safe and healthy students

* Fostering innovation and excellence.

The new book, published by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder's School of Education, provides analysis topic by topic. The authors of each section questioned the quality of the research cited by the administration.

For example, in the first chapter, written by Diane Ravitch of New York University and William J. Mathis of the University of Colorado at Boulder, 62 research references in the administration’s research summary on “College- and Career-Ready Students” are examined. Of the 62:

* Twenty-three are from think tanks, most with explicit policy agendas.

For example, to support the claim of lost earnings for less-educated Americans, one of the administration’s research summary cites a think tank that advocates for high school reform.

* Thirteen are from governmental sources, many of which do not support the policy interpretations attached to them.

For example, one of the research summaries documents the varying state academic standards but does not take the next step to explain how the establishment of common standards across states -- which the blueprint supports -- will result in improved academic performance.

Today, Massachusetts has high standards and high student performance on standardized tests; California has high standards but does not have high student performance on standardized tests.

* Fewer than 15 percent of the references appear to be from independent, peer-reviewed research, the book says.

Though the blueprint promotes the use of competitive grants as a way to drive reform, the book says that the administration’s research foundation offers no rationale for such an approach.

There is, also, an overwhelming reliance, with little or no research justification, on standardized test scores as a measure of student learning and school success, it says.

In Chapter Five, a review of the research summary on “Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students,” the authors cite numerous examples of policies that have broad appeal but a weak research base.

For example, it says, “Family involvement is crucial to education, but the evidence for a causal link between student achievement and the type of parent involvement discussed is ambiguous and suspect. The proposals for safe schools boil down to increased local flexibility and increased gathering of survey data, neither of which can be expected to improve outcomes.”

Along with Ravitch and Mathis, book authors include W. Steven Barnett of Rutgers University; Gene V. Glass of Arizona State University; Paul Shaker of Simon Fraser University, and Kevin G. Welner of the University of Colorado, who, with Mathis, edited the book.

Welner said the authors hope the book will inform the reform discussion and “help ground it in evidence.”

The trick now will be to get the education policy folks in the Obama administration to feel the same imperative.


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By Valerie Strauss  | October 4, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Research, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  diane ravitch, education research, esea, no child left behind, obama blueprint, obama schools, reform blueprint, research, research summary, school reform, welner  
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"Though the blueprint promotes the use of competitive grants as a way to drive reform, the book says that the administration’s research foundation offers no rationale for such an approach." Such an approach is an end run around politics and bureaucracy and a plan steeped heavily in logic. To Obama's and Duncan's credit, the plan has worked. States have jumped at the opportunity to secure additional monies from Washington for their schools.

"There is, also, an overwhelming reliance, with little or no research justification, on standardized test scores as a measure of student learning and school success, it says." The tests were a necessary response to what the schools were not doing prior to NCLB - providing any credible evidence learning was taking place in our public schools. The only impartial evidence was the SAT tests which were not taken by all students, especially the target population of the legislation, poor/minority students.

Teachers grades, which could vary significantly from one district to the next, even one school to the next, even one teacher to the next were simply too unreliable.

Additionally, the bureaucracy involved in retaining a student or preventing a student from graduating that had not earned their diploma was often too daunting for individual teachers and/or administrators to battle. This essentially made social promotions the law of the landscape. Education reform, via NCLB state tests, a number of which required passing the state test for graduation, was at least an attempt at confronting this eight hundred pound gorilla in the classroom.

Posted by: phoss1 | October 4, 2010 7:55 AM | Report abuse

Never was a big fan of Arne Duncan Education Secretary. He impressed me as a fast talker and somewhat of a bully. To me this is proof that he is also incompetent.
At this juncture he should resign and think about all the harm he has done. Who ever thought education policy could be like putting kids in harms way?
Obama needs to sit down with this charlatan if he's not going to walk and get him to resign.
I understand loyalty but it's a two way street. What do you do when you discover your confident is really a confidence scammer?

Posted by: zebra22 | October 4, 2010 8:00 AM | Report abuse

Phoss1, you sound like Obama and Duncan are conspirators going around the system. The fact is neither of them have a track very good track record on policy, especially Duncan. His record in Chicago is nothing to tout. In fact, both Obama, who really came across as ignorant and in the "form over substance" camp, and Duncan really don't have a program to offer.
To say that they at least attempted to put in place a metric is not good enough. To me it is unacceptable that this country cannot put a viable, evidenced-based program on the table.
A hungry poor kid having trouble learning has an excuse. The president of the United States does not.

Posted by: zebra22 | October 4, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

It's sad that most Americans won't read this book and they will be likely to watch "Waiting for Superman".

Posted by: salukiindc | October 4, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Increased gathering of survey data is going to make the schools safer?

Posted by: celestun100 | October 4, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

The lack of research behind the DOE policy is similar to the entire "reform" cult. The "reforms" proposed either lack research to back it, or contradict the research that exists. In the hierarchy of knowledge, there is: 1. Fact - Statements that are objectively provable through evidence or research. 2. Opinion - Statements that are supportable, although not objectively provable, based on evidence or research. 3. Belief - A statement or position which is neither provable nor disprovable by evidence or research, but, rather, based on faith. 4. Bias - A statement or position taken in contradiction to or in ignorance of the available evidence or research. The Bush and Obama education policies, and most of the “reform” agenda, are based on belief or bias, not fact or opinion.

Posted by: mcstowy | October 4, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

So, a book published by a partisan union-funded think tank says that Obama has cited evidence "from think tanks, most with explicit policy agendas."

Pot, meet kettle.

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