School Beat: The Duncan/Obama “Blueprint” for Education

by Lisa Schiff on April 8, 2010

On March 17, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveiled the administration’s proposal to revamp the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). A Blueprint for Reform (Blueprint) is an overview of the key areas that the administration hopes to see enacted in legislation and provides the groundwork for public education supporters to start getting their arguments together to bring to lawmakers in the House and Senate.

Anyone who was hoping for visionary changes in the federal government’s approach to education must have been sorely disappointed. But given the administration’s track record on education so far, with its pseudo market-based approach to schools as embodied in Race To The Top (RTTT) competitive grant competition, realistically the possibilities were never that great.

Because the Blueprint is still an outline and not actual proposed legislation, it is difficult to compare it to current legislation, the seriously flawed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), imposed on U.S. children by a bizarre combination of former President George Bush, previous Education Secretaries Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings, and Democrats Ted Kennedy and George Miller. But despite the lack of specifics, it does not appear that the Blueprint is proposing to take the country down a radically new path in education. There is quite a bit of familiar territory here, and some of what is different is unfortunately the same in spirit if not in strategy.

The heart of NCLB was a Scarlet Letter approach to education, centered on high-stakes standardized testing and the socio-economic disaggregation of those test scores. Test outcomes served as single measures used to determine success or failure of students, schools and districts, with penalties for failure to improve from year to year no matter how well the school and its students were performing. The entire scheme was rife with flaws, not the least of which was the wide variation of rigor of the standards and the associated tests across states, mapping to lines of political favoritism between certain states (for instance Texas) and the White House.

The Blueprint offers modest improvements upon this bankrupt scenario, but still leaves much to be desired. Instead of the relatively meaningless use of snapshots of standardized test scores, growth will now be used as the index of performance. While the measurement of growth is a move in the right direction, the sources used to get at that measurement are not changing significantly. Unfortunately, the hammer of standardized tests will continue to turn many education challenges into nails, as this limited assessment strategy will live on as the primary metric for academic achievement. Test scores will also be used to evaluate teachers as well, supported by a requirement for data systems at the state level that track a multitude of factors about teachers, principals and students.

A more significant, yet still not revolutionary, difference between what the Blueprint offers and NCLB revolves around the creation of the state standards against which the tests described above would be aligned. As opposed to the politicized, haphazard manner in which standards were established previously, the administration is focusing on standards that will ensure that high-school graduates are “college and career ready,” proposing that states create such standards in collaboration with each-other or in partnership with 4-year public universities.

The latter collaboration is a promising approach, since colleges and universities are all too familiar with what skills and knowledge students are lacking, having had to make up for these gaps by requiring remedial classes. But even that small bit of enthusiasm must be dampened by the recognition that the Blueprint carries forth NCLB’s myopic focus on English language arts and math, leaving history, science, foreign languages, the arts and other areas to be addressed as states can fit them in or to those “lucky” enough to win yet another competitive grant. It seems not all of our children deserve a well-rounded education.

In a similar vein, the Blueprint leaves behind both the Annual Yearly Progress (the previously mentioned Scarlet Letter, otherwise known as “AYP”) and the fairytale deadline of 2014 when all children in the United States were magically going to be reading at grade level. The Blueprint instead offers a target of 2020, at which point all students are supposed to be either “graduating or on track to graduate from high school ready for college and a career.”

This is much more realistic and useful then just declaring students above or below proficient, but it’s still not transformative and could have been better without doing much. The Forum on Educational Accountability provided an excellent critique and set of alternative strategies, delivered to the House Education and Labor Committee by Monty Neill, Chair of FairTest.

In fact, and unsurprisingly, the Blueprint presents more serious flaws than steps in the right direction. Shockingly, parents are entirely missing from the blueprint, except as recipients of data. Hopefully a fuller role will be forthcoming and that role will be integral to the governance of school sites and districts. It would probably be wise though, to assume the absence will persist, and begin to advocate for it now.

In a continuation of NCLB’s disruptive approaches, the administration is targeting the lowest performing schools for dramatic reconstitution, using blunt measures to determine which educational staff can stay or go, and relying on relatively unspecified strategies (e.g. the often referred to” research-based programs”). No gesture is made towards any kind of rigorous analysis of why these schools are “failing,” what “failing” actually means, and what it would actually take to address those challenges, many of which are external to schools.

Even the measures within the Blueprint that are designed to address the inequities of resource distribution within districts, from money to experienced teachers, can only be seen as empty promises. Without a doubt that is a problem that needs to be addressed immediately, but without addressing the need for increased funding for all schools, this is an insufficient and inadequate call.

The complete disregard for resource inadequacy pervades the Blueprint, just as it did NCLB. Special Education services are mentioned without a commitment to turn around the failure of the government to fully fund IDEA (the Individual with Disabilities Education Act). Similarly, schools are urged to implement a variety of programs, to train teachers in new ways, to establish new systems, all within the same impoverished budgets that have brought public education to its knees.

If the lack of adequate funding is overlooked in the Blueprint, a winner-take all approach to education is not. Competitive grants are strewn throughout the proposal, grants that states will have to tussle over and will ultimately lose untold millions on, just as they did with the RTTT contest, that some argue had questionable, politically influenced results. Just as important if not more so, how can it be acceptable that critical educational programs are developed and implemented by way of winning beauty contests? What about the children in states that apply, but don’t win? And what about the children in states that don’t even care to apply — are they just to be forgotten since their elected officials declined to play the game?

If the competitive approach to education programs wasn’t bad enough, a not-so hidden theme in the Blueprint certainly is, and that is the push to privatization. An entire section in the Blueprint is devoted to resources that will not only be given to charter schools, but to “autonomous” schools that will also be able to receive additional funding at the discretion of the Secretary of Education. The formalized support for these independent schools marks yet another indirect success by supporters of vouchers who have continuously been seeking alternative strategies to remove the public from public education.

So now we know President Obama’s best offer for education, an offer that’s pretty slim on his much vaunted hope. On the fundamental issue of funding, where federal education policy could begin to address the wild variance of education budgets across and within states, it is silent. On the realities of poverty and how insufficient access to jobs, housing, health care and other necessities affect how children are able to learn, the Blueprint takes the most narrowest of focuses. On the vision of young adults, graduating from high school prepared to be engaged members of society with a solid foundation in critical thinking, analysis and expression in addition to core skills and knowledge, we are left with restricted goal of college and career readiness. In sum, while the Blueprint is certainly not the worst approach to federal education policy we’ve seen, it may be the worst lost opportunity.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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