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Posted at 10:44 PM ET, 01/25/2011

Fact-checking Obama and education

By Washington Post editors

My colleague Nick Anderson, on the national education beat, provided these items to the Washington Post Fact Checker blog. One is on the Race to the Top contest and the other on science-math teaching. I'm republishing them here.

"Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. These standards were developed, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country. And Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what's best for our kids."

In his speech, President Obama makes expansive claims about the impact of a $4.35 billion grant program known as Race to the Top. That program, which he launched in 2009, is at the core of his education agenda.

Is Race to the Top "the most meaningful reform" of schools in a generation? That's debatable. Some might argue that the 2002 No Child Left Behind law enacted under President George W. Bush should get the nod. That law required for the first time that public schools test all students in reading and math every year in grades three through eight and once in high school. Parents and teachers across America have strong opinions about all of that standardized testing and what it has done to public education. It marked a huge expansion in assessment and the birth of a culture of school accountability. What is certain is that the Bush-era law set in motion a cascade of actions to close student achievement gaps that the test scores revealed in greater detail than ever before. The law is still reverberating in numerous ways.

Here are some facts on Race to the Top. The Education Department designed the program and funded it with money Congress provided through the 2009 economic stimulus law. States and the District of Columbia were eligible to apply. But there was a catch: the reform plans had to dovetail with a detailed set of criteria established by the Obama administration. The adminstration gave points to states with plans to adopt common academic standards, link teacher evaluation to student achievement, expand quality charter schools, intervene in low-performing schools and other measures that the president supports.

Some critics said the administration's criteria were off-base. They said the administration should have done more to encourage equity in education funding, for instance, or efforts to reduce class size. Other critics said that the program set up an unhealthy dynamic of winners and losers in education funding.

The program's funding level was indeed less than 1 percent of the commonly accepted estimate of about $500 billion spent each year by state, federal and local governments on public education.

All of the Race to the Top funding was awarded last year. About $350 million was set aside to fund the development of tests and assessments. That left $4 billion to fund state reform plans. Winners in a first round of competition were Delaware and Tennessee. Winners in a second round were the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island.

The winners included some surprises, among them Maryland, Ohio and Hawaii. Some analysts suggested that those states had done little to challenge the power of teachers unions. Lousiana and Colorado, among others, were cited as examples of states with bolder plans that were left out of the winner's circle. The bottom line is that there is still strong debate about which states deserved win.

Whether Race to the Top produces meaningful change depends in part on whether states follow through with their plans, which are just getting under way. If they don't, the administration could withhold the money. It is therefore somewhat early to gauge the impact of the awards for the winners.

Even so, the administration contends that a raft of changes to state law occurred because of the contest--in essence, reform by incentive

Some advocates of charter schools caution that the changes spawned by Race to the Top do not amount to a major national policy shift. But the administration is justified in claiming that there has been a flurry of action on charters at the state level--actions that might otherwise not have happened.

It is true that teacher evaluation reform has become a major movement in education. Race to the Top certainly helped encourage states to take significant actions on tenure, evaluation and related issues--actions that might have been politically unthinkable a few years ago. But it was not the only instigator of such actions. Many teachers have long complained that evaluation systems are broken.

Lastly, it is true that Race to the Top helped encourage a state-led movement toward common standards in English language arts and math. It is true that more than 40 states and the District in the past last year have adopted--provisionally or fully--what are now national academic standards. But the standards movement, pushed by governors and state school chiefs, preceded the launch of Race to the Top. And the impact of the new standards will only be measured in years to come after experts assess how much states actually revise curriculum, teacher training and testing to make the benchmarks become an educational reality.

"Over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math."

President Obama's call for 100,000 new teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known in education as the STEM fields) over the next decade is not new.

On Sept. 27, the White House said in a news release that Obama wanted to recruit 10,000 such teachers over two years. "This announcement will move the country forward on the Obama Administration's ambitious goal of preparing 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade," the White House said at the time.

In 2006, President George W. Bush voiced a similar goal in his State of the Union speech: "Tonight I propose to train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science, bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms, and give early help to students who struggle with math, so they have a better chance at good, high-wage jobs."

The key issues here are how many STEM teachers there are now, what is the shortage of such teachers, and what is the turnover rate. Administration officials say that the demand for STEM teachers is part of a larger question about teacher turnover as baby boomers retire. In addition, some independent experts note that public schools have trouble recruiting qualified STEM teachers because starting teacher salaries are not competitive with what graduates in those fields can earn from private industry.

In 2007 a group known as the Business-Higher Education Forum sounded an alarm about the STEM teaching workforce. The forum, based in Washington, is composed of business executives, college presidents and other leaders.

In the report, "An American Imperative: Transforming the Recruitment, Retention and Renewal of our Nation's Mathematics and Science Teaching Workforce," the forum called for a major campaign on the issue. It cited an estimate that the nation would need 280,000 new math and science teachers by 2015. It found that students who face economic disadvantages are more likely to have unqualified or minimally qualified math and science teachers. And it found that math and science teachers turn over at a higher rate than peers in other subject areas.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said the president's goal is on target. STEM teachers, he said, are "absolutely, desperately needed." He said the Maryland system aims to triple what he called a "pathetically small" number of STEM teachers it produces each year. Currently, about 120 STEM teachers emerge each year from the Maryland public universities, he said, and the goal is to raise that figure to 350 annually.

Kirwan warned that goals must be backed up with funding. "Sometimes the rhetoric is ahead of the actual allocation of resources to achieve the goal," Kirwan said.

Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said 100,000 new STEM teachers over a decade --or 10,000 a year--is an ambitious goal but in line with needs. He estimated there are about 600,000 public secondary school science teachers. "We've got a long way to go," to meet demand, Eberle said.

--Nick Anderson

By Washington Post editors  | January 25, 2011; 10:44 PM ET
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I'm a STEM teacher from Washington State. I became a STEM teacher after a 30-year career in engineering. The only reason this was possible was because Washington has a program that will train a person with a science/math background with the skills necessary to become a teacher in a years time.

It is possible with the proper support to provide the nation a platoon of STEM teachers quickly as long as there are individuals willing to retire from their careers and give back to the local communities through the schools. That may be the biggest stumbling block. There was a small amount of money available in Washington's program to offset a portion of the education costs and none for the loss of income. I had ample savings and a supportive family, otherwise it would have not happened. This needs to improve or else this will remain a pipe dream.

I now teach classes in a high school designed to stimulate interest in the technology and engineering fields using a lot of hands-on tools along with engineering principles. It is a terrific program that will produce a few more future college students enrolled in engineering disciplines. It needs to continue with more intensity elsewhere.

Posted by: rgod8855 | January 26, 2011 12:17 AM | Report abuse

The push to hire new STEM teachers is admirable, although some studies suggest the need for more engineers might be overstated. When it comes to education, I think a deeper problem looms.

The biggest threat to American preeminence in the 21st century draws its power from the past. Continued societal inequities and stagnant poverty rates are our Achilles' heel and will remain so until we reexamine tax, housing, and economic policies which perpetuate and punish the lower class.

Barriers erected long ago to sustain racial and class divides must be acknowledged and then dismantled if our national ambitions are to be met. How ironic that it is the poor who hold so much of our future prosperity in their hands.

Today, vaunted reformers claim to have discovered the remedy for all our woes. Through privatized charter schools, impotent teacher unions, rigid standardized testing, and an assembly line of interchangeable new teachers, America can lift its poor without examining any of its other policies and privileges.

It is an intoxicating premise. The lifting of the children of the poor without addressing the causes and ramifications of the persistent poverty afflicting their parents (and the self-perpetuating behaviors on everyone's part, including the poor) is a quick fix no adept politician could possibly ignore.

Already, billionaire philanthropists eagerly embrace this "bloodless revolution." We will have the "Great Society" without all the mess.

For more on my experiences teaching in light (or in spite) of all this, please visit my blog at

Posted by: dcproud1 | January 26, 2011 7:10 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for this column, Jay. When NPR did a review of the facts from last night's address, they didn't touch the comment about "100,000 teachers." In fact, this type of hyperbole goes back well before Dubya. Clinton used the same number back in 1998, saying that 100,000 new teachers would help to reduce class size. (It wouldn't, really; a typical 25-student class would only be reduced by 1 student.) It's another politician's attempt to use a big number to impress, and it frustrates the heck out of me. I wish the President had talked about some real reforms to curtail the teacher shortage. Instead, it looks like tried to channel Darrell Huff and impress us with five zeroes.

Posted by: pvennebush | January 26, 2011 9:48 AM | Report abuse

As usual, one of the largest areas of impact on teacher employment is left out of the discussion- attrition. Schools can hire all the people they want in STEM or any other (EQUALLY IMPORTANT for a well-rounded education!) area but how long will they remain???

The largest and best school districts around the nation know unequivocally that the single biggest problem to staffing is the huge exodus of classroom teachers after five to seven years on the job. Growing numbers of "boomers" retiring is nothing compared to the attrition numbers of those who can't afford to stay in the low pay, sustain a ridiculous workload and listen to the gross disrespect they must endure every day.

Set standards as high as you want but nothing will improve until the true experts, the classroom teachers themselves, are empowered, paid and respected.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | January 26, 2011 12:24 PM | Report abuse

For pvennebush---Thanks for making that excellent point. Nick did a great job recounting the history. I don't fault the president for using one of those old 100,000 canards. If you are a politician, you are forced to, just as political reporters have to do stories about meaningless polls two years before the election. It is part of the culture. Many readers and viewers will be critical if we don't. I recall President Clinton did the same thing with 100,000 new police on the streets. My son Joe did a piece for the Wall Street Journal following up on this a few years later and revealed that the federal money had actually added few new officers at all, at least not on any permanent basis.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 26, 2011 2:35 PM | Report abuse

1bnthrdntht: I agree 100% w/ you.

As I listened to Obama's speech about adding teacher's and encourgaing more people to attend college, I couldn't help but to think that college tuition has increased almost as fast as health care costs. I don't know too many people who can afford to undertake a $50,000 or more college loan, then teach for $35,000/yr.

Posted by: ilcn | January 27, 2011 8:09 AM | Report abuse

It seems we learn nothing from the rhetoric of office. Calling for STEM increases might reach the required numbers (they say) we need. Back in the 60s and 70s everyone cried for engineers. We had engineers coming from college that could not find employment in their field.

Lawyers rose to prominence more recently and now we have lawyers that cannot find employment. I am not sure we can have too many doctors, dentists, and nurses but I would be willing to bet we will find that soon.

America has a tendency to overreach when called to's hoping we get what we need, but not at the expense of cheating college graduates.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 27, 2011 9:05 AM | Report abuse

For all the grandstanding Obama makes about the need for Math and Science teachers, one fact remains NCLB ONLY recognizes Math and ELA and as such Science programs around the country particularly NYC are being cut drastically. My JHS has cut from 6 periods/week to 4. We have canceled the advanced placement and early Science Regents classes and all because they are not included on NYC School Report cards. Obama talks the talk but when it comes to one hand not knowing what the other is doing---in his case it's both!!! If not stopped and returned to a full curriculum we will lose an entire generation. Arne Duncan may be a good basketball buddy but his reforms failed in Chicago and now he is destroying education on a nationwide scale!!!--NUFF SAID

Posted by: dominickspez | January 30, 2011 6:23 PM | Report abuse

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