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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 03/ 2/2011

Obama's mistimed Miami school visit -- with Jeb Bush

By Valerie Strauss

At a time when Wisconsin teachers are protesting to keep their collective bargaining rights, President Obama is traveling to Florida to share a stage with former governor Jeb Bush, the king of corporate-driven, standardized test-obsessed school reform that devalues teachers and their unions.

What a tag team.

Obama is scheduled to speak to the students and faculty of Miami Central Senior High about the importance of out-educating the competition to secure America’s future. (That’s highly unlikely, with states cutting billions of dollars out of school budgets and with a reform agenda that is focused on expanding charter schools, assessing teachers based on students’ standardized test scores and the like, but never mind.)

Obama is appearing in Florida as state legislators move toward passing legislation (Senate Bill 736, HB 7019) that:

* Ties at least half of a teacher’s salary to how well his/her students perform on standardized tests

* Prevents consideration of many advanced degrees and special training to be considered in determining a teacher’s salary

* Eliminates tenure for teachers hired after the summer of 2014

* Requires the creation of new standardized assessments for all courses, though it doesn’t suggest where the money will come from to pay.

Similar legislation passed last year but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. The new governor, Rick Scott, not only supports the legislation but had dangled the idea of taking apart the way public education is financed in Florida and handing money over to all parents in a new “voucher” system that would have made it virtually impossible to maintain local public schools. Scott has put that idea aside for now.

Obama has gone out of his way to be bipartisan in the education reform arena, which would be good if the Republicans were right about reform, but they aren’t either. Rather than eliminate the most egregious parts of No Child Left Behind, the signature education initiative of Jeb Bush’s brother, former president George W. Bush, Obama is building on some of them, making them even worse.

For example, instead of using standardized test scores to evaluate only schools and students, they now will be linked to how much a teacher is paid (even though we all know that a teacher isn’t solely responsible for how well a kid does on a test). It’s a bad idea, not championed by assessment experts and not borne out by research, but it’s the reform idea du jour, backed by Gates Foundation money and Obama’s policy agenda.

Breaking bread with Jeb Bush on school reform should be a questionable proposition for a president from a party that has traditionally championed public education (which is not to say it doesn’t need reform) and teachers unions (which is not to say that they should not reform).

Florida is increasingly being looked to as a national model of education reform, and we have Jeb Bush to thank for that. The state began to overhaul its public education system after Jeb Bush became governor in 1999, and it has been a leader in reforms centered around standardized tests, the expansion of charter schools, virtual education and merit pay. He long tried to reduce the power of teachers unions -- being very vocal about his aims -- and last year campaigned for legislation that would eliminate teacher tenure.

Under Bush, the state did make progress early on by focusing on reading and creating a statewide reading research center while hiring reading coaches.

The biggest improvement in Florida’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, were in elementary reading, which suggests that this focus worked. The achievement gap for different demographic groups between 1998 and 2009 also shrunk for fourth- and eighth-grade reading between students who were in the federal lunch program (low-income families qualify) and those who do not qualify, according to a post by Florida educator Sherman Dorn.

But the achievement gap didn’t budge for 8th-grade writing or for math in any grade. Here’s the main point: Bush doesn’t talk about his reading initiative when he talks about his success, instead crediting his standardized testing regime.

The scheduled Obama-Jeb Bush fest is symbolic of how far afield Democrats have gone with school reform.

Obama last month expressed support for the Wisconsin teachers, who have been protesting to keep the collective bargaining rights (and that of other public employees) that the governor, Scott Walker, is intent on taking away. Wisconsin teachers already made concessions on monetary issues.

Obama said: "Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain, generally seems like more of an assault on unions. And I think it’s very important for us to understand that public employees, they’re our neighbors, they’re our friends. These are folks who are teachers and they’re firefighters and they’re social workers and they’re police officers.”

So, at this point in time, when teachers in Wisconsin and elsewhere feel besieged, I’m wondering why Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are flying to Florida to be with Republicans who have been part of the attack force. Why, when teachers are fighting for union rights, does the president decide to spend time with anti-teachers union school reformers?

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 2, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  School turnarounds/reform, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  arne duncan, president obama, president obama and teachers, rick scott, scott walker, wisconsin protests, wisconsin teachers  
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Next: The Bill Gates problem in school reform


As a Florida teacher, you have no idea how I feel about them appearing together. You would not be able to print it.

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | March 2, 2011 6:14 AM | Report abuse

The answer, Valerie, is because Americans are 31st in the industrialized world in math, 24th in the world in reading and 19th in the world in science. Teachers aren't the only problem for this, but let's be honest they are a big reason for it!

Few people strive for their best when accountability is taken off the table. You, yourself, in this post indicate that unions need to be reformed as well as teachers--what did you mean by that?

This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. This isn't rhetoric. DCPS, under Marion Barry, became a haven for the intellectually limited and lazy to become educators. The school district simply became a place for "stupid" people to have a job so Barry could win votes. And what do stupid people beget? Other stupid people...

Posted by: teacher6402 | March 2, 2011 6:39 AM | Report abuse

I thought about this the last time Obama went to a high school. He has more interest in getting in front of young voters than educating them. He is courting seniors and juniors for votes. He doesn't know a thing about education but he does know how to impress young folks.

Posted by: jbeeler | March 2, 2011 7:54 AM | Report abuse

I am a 12 year, teacher in an underperforming, hostile school in Miami. It was recently pointed out at a school board meeting that we teacher do not have tenure, and the speaker could not understand why all the references to taking away teacher tenure. We are not guarenteed a job for life. We can be fired through due process. Could you please clarify this point? I think Rick Scott is using the term to fire the anti -union backlash, when in fact it doesn't exist.

Posted by: speakthetruth2 | March 2, 2011 7:56 AM | Report abuse

They simply want to privatize schools. Somebody is trying to make a profit. No point in analyzing this anymore. Did anyone see what Walker is going to do to the education budget in Wisconsin?

Posted by: georgia198305 | March 2, 2011 8:37 AM | Report abuse

It's time we begin to treat police officers and fire fighters the same way we're treating teachers--using data and accountability. Let's close fire stations and police stations in neighborhoods which have low crime rates and a low percentage of fires. Let's tie police officers' pay to how many tickets they write and how many arrests they make. Let's tie fire fighters pay to how many people they save from burning buildings. No more "last hired, first fired" for these two groups.

I also propose a TFA type of program for police officers and fire fighters. Let's have a 5 week crash course for new college graduates where they can become police officers and fire fighters for 2 years and then move on to graduate school or another career. I don't know about you, but I would certainly rather have a 22 year old firefighter with 5 weeks of training try to rescue me from the second story of my burning home than to have a 20 year veteran try to do the same thing. Also, I would expect a fire chief to be standing nearby observing with a clipboard and checklist of 22 points that the firefighter must "cover" while rescuing me and then subsequently extinguishing the fire in my home. Same for police officers. Please send me a 22 year old with a 5 week crash course to investigate a murder in my neighborhood. Experience is NOT necessary. All we need are police officers who are young, energetic, idealistic, that believe all people are good and can be reformed and rehabilitated and that if you talk nice to criminals they will just melt and turn away from their life of crime. For too long the public has been paying fat salaries to lazy police officers and fire fighters whose unions protect them when someone gets shot or burns up in a building even though it was beyond their control to save them and even though they tried everything they could and risked their own lives. That's just plain whining. No more excuses police officer and fire fighters!! You are sucking the life out of the American economy and endangering the lives of innocent citizens with your unions and tenure.

Bring on FFA--Firefighters For America and PFA--Police For America. It's time for a revolution so we all can be safer and live in peace and harmony. I know Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family and other big money will be sure to sign on to help fund this worthwhile endeavor.

Sound ridiculous? So do the "reforms" they are pushing in public education.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | March 2, 2011 8:48 AM | Report abuse

Keep digging in your heels (and attacking Gates/Obama/Bush/Duncan) Valerie Strauss, it's a surefire way to insure ALL the reforms you oppose with be enacted.

From the liberal Ezra Klein:

"If unions are to not just survive, but to actually flourish again, they need to create an identity beyond being a protection service for people who aren't very good at their jobs. For too long they've been defending individuals at the expense of the collective. Every time an incompetent teacher or overly aggressive cop hides behind a union, unions in general become a bit less attractive to everyone else. Next year, when a slew of beloved and decorated teachers are fired not because they were worse than the teachers who kept their jobs but because they were younger, good people everywhere will find themselves that much less sympathetic toward organized labor."

Posted by: frankb1 | March 2, 2011 10:15 AM | Report abuse

teacher6402 wrote: Few people strive for their best when accountability is taken off the table.
That statement bothers me for a number of reasons. First of all--no one is talking about taking accountability off the table. More importantly, though, is the fact that people seem to think that teachers don't care about the results of their teaching. Just like an artist or musician takes pride in their work or performance, teachers take pride in theirs. Granted there are a small number that are burned out, but in my experience there are few of those. As a teacher, my students' performance is a reflection of my work and I take pride when they perform well and I go back to the drawing board when they don't. I teach in a subject that is not tested and one that few administrators have expertise in. Your statement implies that I wouldn't work hard because I don't have "accountability." That simply isn't true.

Posted by: musiclady | March 2, 2011 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Valerie Strauss, why keep defending the indefensible?

From Richard Whitmire:

"What struck me about the backlash Rhee experienced in Washington was the cloak of protection everyone afforded the city’s teachers.

Politicians, parents, Washington Post columnists—they were all quick to rush to the defense of beloved teachers, citing their dedication and years of loyal service.

The fact that the District of Columbia ranked as the worst school district in the nation and that similarly poor, African-American children fared far better in other urban districts (as much as two years ahead in learning) seemed not to warrant a mention.

What mattered was that Rhee was questioning their life’s work."

Full commentary at:

Posted by: frankb1 | March 2, 2011 10:39 AM | Report abuse

If the students and faculty don't walk out on him, then they deserve what they get.

Posted by: zoniedude | March 2, 2011 11:35 AM | Report abuse

The point here is that when you dig a little deeper, the reforms that are being championed by the likes of Obama, Gates, and others are just not proven successful. Research any of the charter schools these guys support and you will see that they operate on an unstainable model from funding to discipline policies. These guys are going for the low-hainging fruit, but once that is picked, there are still millions of kids who need an education.

Posted by: SupportPublicEd | March 2, 2011 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Valerie Strauss: You and the teachers unions are doing great harm (with your intransigence) to the liberal/progressive agenda.

That explains why Obama, Duncan, Coumo, Villaraigosa, Ezra Klein and other liberals/progressives are calling you out and separating themselves from your views.

Posted by: frankb1 | March 2, 2011 1:40 PM | Report abuse

"Few people strive for their best when accountability is taken off the table."

Posted by: teacher6402

If by "accountability, you mean business-style "performance reviews," here's food for thought from someone who knows:

By Samuel A. Culbert, professor in the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles (a BUSINESS Professor).

"IN the raging battle over union rights in Wisconsin, those seeking to curtail collective bargaining for state employees have advanced an argument that seems hard to resist: It will make it easier to reward those workers who perform the best. What could be fairer than that?

If only that were true. As anybody who has ever worked in any institution — private or public — knows, one of the primary ways employee effectiveness is judged is the performance review. And nothing could be less fair than that.

In my years studying such reviews, I’ve learned that they are subjective evaluations that measure how “comfortable” a boss is with an employee, not how much an employee contributes to overall results. They are an intimidating tool that makes employees too scared to speak their minds, lest their criticism come back to haunt them in their annual evaluations. They almost guarantee that the owners — whether they be taxpayers or shareholders — will get less bang for their buck.

... Performance reviews corrupt the system by getting employees to focus on pleasing the boss, rather than on achieving desired results. And they make it difficult, if not impossible, for workers to speak truth to power. I’ve examined scores of empirical studies since the early 1980s and have not found convincing evidence that performance reviews are fair, accurate or consistent across managers, or that they improve organizational effectiveness.

Think about it. Performance reviews are held up as objective assessments by the boss, with the assumption that the boss has all the answers.

Now, maybe your boss is all-knowing. But I’ve never seen one that was. In a self-interested world, where imperfect people are judging other imperfect people, anybody reviewing somebody else’s performance — whether as an actor, a writer, a spouse, a friend or a worker — is subjective. It’s why when employees switch bosses, more often than not their evaluation changes as well.

Under such a system, in which one’s livelihood can be destroyed by a self-serving boss trying to meet a budget or please the higher-ups, what employee would ever speak his mind? What employee would ever say that the boss is wrong, and offer an idea on how something might get done better?

Only an employee looking for trouble."

From the NY times, of course, the Post never opines anything but the corporate agenda.

If you've ever had your performance "reviewed" by an incompetent manager, you know exactly what Prof. Culbert is talking about.

Posted by: mcstowy | March 2, 2011 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm with you on this, Valerie. So are thousands of others. Keep advocating for strong pulic education! Don't let the trolls bring you own.

Posted by: Spoooon | March 2, 2011 3:43 PM | Report abuse

As a Miami, Florida teacher, veteranteacher1's initial comment goes double for me. I've taught and coached for 28 years at an inner-city high school about four miles north of Miami Central. Our schools are mirror images of one another.

The sense of shock at both schools is the same. Can it be that President Obama is going to give his stamp of approval to the scorched earth education policies of Jeb Bush? So many young people have been destroyed in the building Obama will appear in on Friday. So many young people at Central hold the President up as a hero and their hero is going to tell them that this man Bush is ok, no matter what their parents, their community leaders and their teachers have told them for years about his efforts to hurt them. For many of these young people this will be the greatest betrayal they will experience in their lives.

There's tremendous irony in it but the nation's first African-American president's education policy is the most profoundly racist and reactionary one ever suggested in the United States of America. It is a testament to how far the oligarchs (Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Wal-Mart Family) have pushed us into the realm of absurdity in this area.

America's public schools, and Miami Central is still one of them, are admittedly failing the children of working people. But that is because the schools are woven into the fabric of a failing economy where teachers and children are accountable for rote test taking skills but bankers and oil companies destroy with impunity.

The economy of the United States is now fully devoted to the pursuit of corporate profits through war and no longer has the capacity to maintain a functioning public school system. Every state in the Union faces a deepening hole in their budgets. Unemployed people stop paying income taxes you see. Foreclosed upon people stop paying property taxes you see. Alchemists are all that's left on Wall Street and no real wealth is created in this country today so there's nothing to tax. Nothing of value is made in the United States anymore!

Nothing that is except weapons of war. War making is the only "healthy" sector of the US economy left, which is why were staying in Iraq, escalating in Afghanistan (no matter how many war crimes might be exposed by Wikileaks), and expanding the fight to Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. But an ability to deliver bombs from drone aircraft on people around the world will not rescue a broken economy.

The steadily accelerating destruction of public education in the United States is the result. Obama's men can rearrange the educational deck chairs on the Titanic anyway he pleases. The iceberg is still dead ahead. The Race to Oblivion is on!

Only resistance lies ahead for teachers. Resistance to Gov. Walker in Wisconsin, resistance to former Gov. Bush and his inbred successor Scott in Florida, and resistance to President Obama nationally. Wisconsin today, tomorrow 50 Wisconsins.

Posted by: natturner | March 2, 2011 7:31 PM | Report abuse

to teacher6402:
In the state of Florida we are mandated to teach the sunshine state standards. Counties and local districts create pacing guides based on what is going to be tested at the end of the year. These pacing guides are often unrealistic---forcing teachers to fly through the curriculum to "introduce" what might be on the test instead of actually teaching to mastery. Teachers have been trying to fight this for years. The problem is local school districts bend over to legislators that know NOTHING about education because the money comes from the state and districts are facing cuts every year. TESTING IS NOT TEACHING but in Florida that is all the state of Florida is focused on.... tests. That is what education has become---and teachers can't do much about it. Lesson plans have to show that we are teaching the standards, benchmark assessments are given three times per year and you are called in if your students are not making progress---even though you may not have had a chance to teach to mastery. Third graders in our county are forced to take a test EVERYDAY--forgoing instructional time---just to meet portfolio requirements from the state.TEST NOT TEACH IS OUR MOTTO!!! The teachers hands are truly tied. Politicians can run on education reform EVERY YEAR because they have ruined it---and SPIN it to blame "incompetent" teachers.

Posted by: deby1221 | March 2, 2011 10:08 PM | Report abuse

"I am a 12 year, teacher in an underperforming, hostile school in Miami. It was recently pointed out at a school board meeting that we teacher do not have tenure, and the speaker could not understand why all the references to taking away teacher tenure. We are not guarenteed a job for life. We can be fired through due process. Could you please clarify this point? I think Rick Scott is using the term to fire the anti -union backlash, when in fact it doesn't exist."--Tenure is NOT a lifetime job in public education; it is merely the right to due process, which is almost always abused by public school administrators to their benefit when they want to get rid of a teacher. It is actually very easy to fire teachers or push them out by forcing them to retire or resign. Reformers are lying through their teeth like they always do to manipulate public opinion into thinking "tenure" for public education teachers is the same as "tenure" for college professors, which basically IS a lifetime job with far more protection for faculty than what exists in public education. Never trust any argument put forward by these neoliberal reformers.

Posted by: tonysam | March 4, 2011 10:34 AM | Report abuse

mcstowy, this goes double for public school principals, because these people are typically the least qualified to supervise teachers. They are NOT in administration because they care about the students by and large; they are there because they couldn't cut it as teachers, they hated kids, or they figure this is an easier way to make piles of cash and great bennies while being entrusted with unlimited power to destroy teachers. The public school environment is a far more poisonous environment than what exists in private business or in other governmental work.

Posted by: tonysam | March 4, 2011 10:42 AM | Report abuse

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