Fact-checking Obama and education
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.
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