Thursday, January 5, 2017
Secretary of Education John King is set to give his final reflections on the work that the U.S. Department of Education has accomplished over the past eight years. The Atlantic reports that he will release a 14 page exit memo titled "Giving Every Student a Fair Shot: Progress Under the Obama Administration’s Education Agenda.” I would expect that it is largely a summary of the 60 page document the White House released back in May under the exact same title. Get that report here.
The most notable accomplishments it will tout are Race to the Top, changes to the teaching profession, expansion of pre-kindergarten education, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and civil rights enforcement. With the new administration that lies ahead, many on both sides of the aisle will soon enough long for the one that just left and, thus, I hesitate to be critical. Nonetheless, I cannot count many of this administrations accomplishments as positives.
An overarching theme of this administration is what I would call the econometrics and corporatization of education. I use econometrics to refer to the notion that we could precisely measure student growth and teacher effectiveness. These notions became the basis for using extremely complicated mathematical analysis to compare one teacher to another, one school to another, and to take action against them when officials did not think the results were good enough.
Intuitively, the approach made perfect sense--far more than No Child Left Behind's nonsensical assumption that it could force schools to make 100 percent of students proficient by 2014. The problem is that the Obama administration's policies rested on the same fundamental flaw as No Child Left Behind. They both assumed that standardized tests are an accurate measure of learning. In many ways, the Obama administration made things worse because it upped the ante. Not only would it rely on the test results, it would attempt to draw far more information and conclusions from them. As I detail here, this approach is inherently unfair in a number of ways and produces random and unreliable results. What the Department should have done is the opposite. Keep the tests but use them only for what they are good for: rough global measures of a slice of student learning that can serve as a trigger for further inquiry into a school (and maybe a teacher).
Corporatization is somewhat of a rough characterization, but I use it as a proxy for the notion that schools can run like businesses and on the whole operate like markets. This notion led the Department to demand that states lift caps on the number of charter schools and resulted in an enormous expansion. Charter school enrollments roughly doubled during the Obama administration. While it is true that there are scores of very high performing and beat-the-odds charter schools across this nation, they are the exception, not the norm. There is no evidence to show that a school, simply by virtue of being a charter, is likely to perform any better than a traditional public school. Rather, the evidence shows quite the contrary.
And even putting achievement results aside, the profit motives, potential corruption, lack of transparency, and lack of legal protection are, in fact, inherent risk in charters as currently structured. Thus, these past several years saw a sharp spike in these problems. What charter schools require and neither the federal nor state governments have been willing to impose are serious oversight and standards that align them with the core values of public education. As I detail here, without that oversight and alignment, they can undermine public education itself.
Finally, the Department is quite proud of the fact that it got rid of No Child Left Behind. I concede that is an accomplishment. The problem is that the Department overreached so much through Race to the Top and the waivers of No Child Left Behind, that the final legislation that replaced No Child Left Behind was more about eliminating the federal role in education than it was improving it. In that respect, the Every Student Succeeds Act is a major step backward for the students who need federal leadership the most. That is no accomplishment at all. For a full explanation, see here.
Those critiques, however, do not mean that the Department was without success. To be absolutely clear and reiterate what I wrote a few weeks ago, the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education has done an outstanding job, particularly in the past four years. For the first time in a very long time, the Office for Civil Rights once again became an institution that families believed would take their claims of discrimination seriously. The Office once again became an institution that would insist that districts comply with anti-discrimination law, regardless of the politics that surrounded doing so. Thus, it is no surprise that the cases filed with the Department grew, so much so that the Department requested additional resources to do the work that the law demanded of it.
As we turn to the next administration, signals indicate that we will miss the Office for Civil Rights more than most appreciate now. Whether we will miss the general Department of Education's substantive policies remains to be seen, but things can certainly get a lot worse.