Is “No Excuses” Faltering? Are the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top Policies Endangering Re-Election? Is A Human Sacrifice In the Cards?

If we expect to recruit and retain good principals and teachers in hard-to-staff schools, stop judging them inappropriately by test scores and start listening to educators. Most oppose the current test-based accountability thrust of American education policy. Educators want safe working environments, reasonable class sizes and adequate resources.       
Schools alone cannot solve persistent social and economic inequalities. If we fail to change the conditions in which students and their families live, even our best educational efforts will fall short of our hopes of creating both equity and excellence.
Diane Ravitch, NY Times, July 10, 2011.
I vividly remember President Obama confronting a teacher at a Pennsylvania town hall meeting.  He browbeat her about the need to get rid of “bad teachers.” With billions of dollars to entice states the Obama-Duncan education plan is rather simple.
* ease union rules and make it easier to get ride of “bad teachers,” defined as teacher whose classes do poorly on standardized tests.
* remunerate “good teachers,” defined as teachers whose classes do well on standardized tests.
* create union-free charter schools as competition to unionized public schools.
* data, data, data: collect and evaluate everything.
* ignore the socio-economic status of families and children: it is a distraction and an excuse.
State after state amended, eliminated and changed their laws to satisfy the requirements of the feds to qualify for the billions in Race to the Top (RttT) dollars, State incentive Grants (SIG)  and other federal programs.  Charter schools caps were lifted, teacher-principal evaluation based upon student achievement, tenure rights eroded, collective bargaining limited, all in the name of qualifying for Duncan dollars. Forty-six states joined one of two national consortia the intent of which is to move to national common core standards evolving into new exams to assess the new learning standards.
The worm may be beginning to turn.
The administration and their acolytes, so-called education reformers, have  steadfastly refused to acknowledge the impact of poverty
In a feature article in the New York Time magazine Paul Tough deflates the “(de)reform” crowd..
As Paul Reville, the Massachusetts secretary of education, wrote recently in Education Week, traditional reform strategies “will not, on average, enable us to overcome the barriers to student learning posed by the conditions of poverty.” Reformers also need to take concrete steps to address the whole range of factors that hold poor students back. That doesn’t mean sitting around hoping for utopian social change. It means supplementing classroom strategies with targeted, evidence-based interventions outside the classroom: working intensively with the most disadvantaged families to improve home environments for young children; providing high-quality early-childhood education to children from the neediest families; and, once school begins, providing low-income students with a robust system of emotional and psychological support, as well as academic support.   
School reformers often portray these efforts as a distraction from their agenda — something for someone else to take care of while they do the real work of wrestling with the teachers’ unions. But in fact, these strategies are essential to the success of the school-reform movement. Pretending they are not is just another kind of excuse.
In a featured New York Times Op Ed ( David Brooks and Diane Ravitch dueled and Diane clearly got the last word – she basically skewered columnist Brooks.
In Washington the Duncan Blueprint, the plan to embed RttT and other strategies into law is no longer on the rocks, it has sunk. Duncan lost patience, attempts at a bipartisan reauthorization of the ESEA, aka No Child Left Behind never gained traction. Duncan’s end run, the use of rule-making to continue pushing his agenda angered Republicans, the majority in the House.  Representative Kline, the Chair of the Education Committee introduced pieces of an ESEA reauthorization (  reflecting the New Federalism philosophy of many House members. The bill would allow states to move federal dollars from program to program. Advocates howled, the traditional lobbying for funds in Washington would no longer guarantee the use of the funds at the local level. A classical argument: who knows best? The bureaucrats in Washington or state departments of education and state legislatures?
It is a lot easier to lobby lawmakers and rule makers in Washinton than in fifty state capitals.
Can we trust the states? Will funds authorized, lets say for English Language Learners be directed to school sports program when it reaches states? Or, can rules both give states flexibility and protect the most vulnerable?
Tucked away in an office building in Chicago a group of political operatives are running numbers, deeply analyzing polling data and reports from thousands of election districts around the nation. The bottom line: crafting a path to 270 electoral votes.
Three million teachers are essential to reach that elusive number of “270.” The rather lackluster Obama endorsement by the NEA, the largest teacher union was not encouraging. While teachers are certainly not abandoning Obama their enthusuasm has ebbed. Too many teachers either sat on their hands in 2010, or voted for republicans, that lead  to a historic sweep in the Congress and in state houses around the nation.
The Obama operatives know that something is necessary to revitalize teachers, to get them back in the fold. It’s not only teacher votes, it’s teacher energy and committment. Phone banks, knocking on doors, dragging spouses, friends and neighbors to the polls, the foot soldiers that are crucial to victory.
An enormous symbolic gesture would be the replacement of Arne Duncan and the selection of a new Secretary of Education who would restore teacher faith in the Obama administration.
The late Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil, told us “All politics is local.” The leader of the NEA and their thousands of delegates endorsement of President Obama is meaningless if it not accompanied by teachers at local union meetings volunteering to spend weekends and evenings in the drudgery that wins elections.
If the New York Times is beginning to question Obama-Duncan and educational reform mantra can policy changes be far behind? Will the operatives in that Chicago smoke-filled room convince Obama that a human sacrifice is essential to right a faltering campaign?

3 responses to “Is “No Excuses” Faltering? Are the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top Policies Endangering Re-Election? Is A Human Sacrifice In the Cards?

  1. Excellent analysis. In recent weeks, President Obama has proved extremely disappointing on several fronts, especially in failing to confront the Tea Party driven Republican agenda on taxation. Slouching to the right reminds this observer of the Yeatsian center that will not hold when “the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passion and intensity.”


  2. Olivia Koppell

    I nominate Diane Ravitch!!


  3. David Shulman

    I can’t remember when I was last more disappointed by a political figure. The teachers DID sit on their rears in 2010, and look what we got. Even this crap is not going to motivate me to get up and vote. This President has done more to screw up public ed than any three I can think of. Unless he stops kowtowing to Gates, Waltons, Broad, etc there won’t be any pub Ed to survive, and I will end my life watching the institution that supported the melting pot that is the USA go down the tubes!

    Very sad for me as a poor kid growing up in Brooklyn, with the only possible hope resting on a good public education and virtually free college at CUNY.


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