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What does Fenty's defeat mean for Obama's education reforms?

Dana Goldstein thinks Barack Obama and Arne Duncan could learn a thing or two from the defeat of Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee:

As antithetical as the Fenty/Rhee scorched earth PR strategy is to President Obama’s own calm and conciliatory tone, there is no doubt about it: Rhee’s education reform agenda for D.C. -- closing down failing schools, firing ineffective teachers and principals, and instituting teacher merit pay based in part on kids’ standardized test scores—is near and dear to Obama’s heart. The very same policies were incentivized by his administration’s Race to the Top program, a $4 billion grant competition in which states competed for stimulus dollars by promising to institute such reforms.

If there’s a lesson for Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, to learn from Fenty’s defeat, it might be that significant segments of the public—including the urban public school parents who have the most potentially to gain—are skeptical of the White House’s school reform agenda, which adopts many of the priorities of the Bush administration, including high-stakes standardized testing and tough accountability measures for neighborhood schools. While many in the media champion these policies, school reformers so far have failed to make the case to communities, who see their local schools not only as student achievement factories, but also as storehouses of community history, sources of jobs, and even repositories of racial pride.

Matt Yglesias sort of disagrees, and notes that Fenty won 62 percent of parents who have children enrolled in the D.C. public schools.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 15, 2010; 1:48 PM ET
Categories:  Education  
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Comments

What exactly do 'urban school parents' have to gain by the administration's reform agenda? Assuming their kids' schools perform exactly according to plan (a pure enough fantasy in itself), their kids have higher test scores. Higher test scores are simply not a good indicator of improved or increased learning overall.

If they don't perform fantastically well (a much better bet), they gain school closures, fired teachers, demoralized teachers who remain, and ever more of their kids' time in class spent preparing for a test rather than learning from a balanced curriculum.

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | September 15, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

"While many in the media champion these policies, school reformers so far have failed to make the case to communities, who see their local schools not only as student achievement factories, but also as storehouses of community history, sources of jobs, and even repositories of racial pride."

There is an element of truth to the above statement, but the major problem with the emphasis on "accountability" for standardized test scores is far more simple.

The children in a school that is "held accountable" are denied needed resources because of problems which are not of their own making.

When a school is under-performing, the solution is not to starve it to death, the solution is for the District or other authorities to get involved, determine the reasons for the under-performance, and design a viable solution.

Designing an educational system as a funding contest with winners and losers only makes sense if you have no concern for the students who become collateral damage in the game being played.

Posted by: Patrick_M | September 15, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

The biggest deficit in schooling is not the teachers, it's the parents. Parents play a large part in whether or not students do well in school. But the parents are the ones who are always blaming the teachers because parents don't want to take the extra time to nurture their child's learning processes.

Standardized tests are very poor tools for measuring learning. School's just ramrod students to cram for tests that they, in turn, regurgitate memorized answers,then forget. Meaningful learning occurs when students use higher order thinking which is not what they use on multiple choice, knowledge based, out-of-context tests.

The whole school system is antiquated and based on behaviorist psychology -- positive and negative reinforcement. We have gone way beyond Skinner's black box theory in educational psychology. There is lots of research on learning models that work organically with who we are as humans. But those that make policy just want quick fixes. And behaviorist approaches to learning are much quicker, than, say, constructivist approaches because they can easily be put into SPSS and analyzed and reported in percentages along with nice graphs (no offense Ezra). They go much easier with sound bytes too.

Posted by: ania8 | September 15, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

There was also a racial angle to this: Fenty appointed a number of non-Blacks to his administration. Rhee wanted to close the budget gap by terminating a number of teachers, most of whom were Black. Rightly or wrongly, the majority of DC residents, and especially the majority of Black DC residents, saw Rhee and Fenty as doing more damage than good to the city's school system and students.

As a health policy person, I think the lesson that should be taken is that data is limited. Data-driven medicine is hard enough because of the body's complexity. The data we have in education are of lower quality because there are so many variables we don't track. I once heard that the education data could distinguish the very best from the very worst teachers and students, but not get more fine grained that that. I hope the next DC secretary of education continues Rhee's initiatives, but realizes the limitations of the data. We should be cautious of firing people based on the data, and we should only fire teachers who perform poorly a number of years in a row. Otherwise, we should use data internally for performance improvement. As it is, I can't help but think the teachers will revolt and ask us to throw the data out - which is just as wrong.

Posted by: weiwentg | September 15, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Those stupid parents not seeing the way in which Rhee's making being a teacher in DC a worse job than it is now will lure great teachers to DC!

Posted by: endaround | September 15, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

"Fenty won 62 percent of parents who have children enrolled in the D.C. public schools." That pretty well demolishes the somewhat hyperbolic and speculative analysis la flâneuse puts forward.

Everyone wants to read their favorite agenda into things like primary elections, explaining wins and losses through the lens of their own ideological or programmatic predilections. But voting habits, for large swaths of the electorate, are much more capricious. It's not new, but everyone should read Louis Menand's 2004 piece "The Unpolitical Animal," about how political scientists understand voters. And then go pull the covers over your head. It's a giant crap shoot out there. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/08/30/040830crat_atlarge

Posted by: JJenkins2 | September 15, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Gray was driven by the Unions and race scare rumors that Fenty was pursuing a meritocratic government which didn't employ racial hiring preferences. The whole point about the way parents voted says it all. Gray owes the teacher's union big time for his power. It still might end well, if they have to stick to the race to top plan to get the money.

Posted by: staticvars | September 15, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

"Matt Yglesias sort of disagrees, and notes that Fenty won 62 percent of parents who have children enrolled in the D.C. public schools."

Yglesias does not say that. He says the "City Paper’s pre-election poll . . .found that 62 percent of parents with children currently in the D.C. public schools did support Fenty."

In fact, you do not know how many parents of school children voted for Fenty. A good question for a high-profile reporter to ask, don't you think? Or high profile blogger, for that matter.

I do think your points are well-taken in terms of parents wanting more than mind-scrubbed, obsequious children prepared to become low-paid corporate drones.

This election is a smackdown for the Gates-Broad-Walton phalanx that has taken over national education policy, corporate media coverage on education, and Hollywood documentary ventures like "Waiting for Superman."

The takeaway from the Fenty-Rhee defeat that most of the media ignores is that the citizenry, especially the black citizenry, do not want their children abused in cheap corporate schools with poorly trained temporary white girls as teachers. Nor do they want an anti-cultural curriculum that is based on behavioral and psychological modification of children as the solution to the poverty gap, which is the greater part of the achievement gap.

Here is novel idea: why don't you or Yglesias ask some voters and some parents why they voted to bring down oligarch-owned corporate government in DC?

Posted by: SchoolsMatter | September 15, 2010 5:27 PM | Report abuse

But Yglesias' ideas about education are decidedly childlike, even more so than Bush's.

If you want to kill any opportunity to learn, base everything on standardized test scores. They're not the be-all and end-all of assessment strategies. In fact, they wreak far more harm than good.

What we have here is not a fight over school quality. What we have is a fight over who is going to have jurisdiction over schools.

If Obama were interested in quality, he would learn something about the variety of factors that go into determining school quality and devise programs to promote those.

He is not.

He has left that up to the schools.

The authority he assumes is solely the authority to reward and punish according to his own standards, and that is not what you do when you are trying to improve anything.

That is what you do when you are trying to take control.

Posted by: pj_camp | September 15, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

"If there’s a lesson for Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, to learn from Fenty’s defeat, it might be that significant segments of the public—including the urban public school parents who have the most potentially to gain—are skeptical of the White House’s school reform agenda"

Poverty stricken, inner city students have nothing to gain from these alleged reforms. No legitimate peer reviewed literature supports the mandates in Race to the Top. And instead of creating the teacher-as-enemy narrative, the media might focus on Duncan's effect on the Chicago schools when he was CEO.

Don't think for one minute Arne Duncan's reforms, standardized testing, and Race to the Top's mandate to double the number of charter schools is about improving poor schools.

It's about transferring tax dollars to private investors under the guise of "getting rid of poor teachers" or "saving inner city children".

They don't care if kids are over tested, if the tests are unreliable indicators of instructional quality, or if charter outcomes are no better than public schools (all facts).

The motivation is shareholder profits.

Corporations are investing in charter schools and using their public "mandate" to:
invest in real estate: http://www.stickwithanose.com/index.php?s=real+estate+investment

getting tax breaks that double their investment:
http://www.democracynow.org/2010/5/7/juan_gonzalez_big_banks_making_a

creating a corporate utopia by destroying teacher protections, emasculating unions, ending tenure & pensions, pushing "merit pay" ,
http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2010/03/ravitch-on-newsweek-disinfomercial.html

Posted by: jcgrim | September 15, 2010 9:32 PM | Report abuse

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