Dear Mr. Obama, Please Stop!

I have become desperate. Desperate enough to write a letter to the president. I decided to post the letter that I will be sending him and CCing to Mr. Duncan. The recent news day about the one error that New Jersey made on such a high-stakes RTTP application, which will resulted in a $400 million lost to students, has shown that something is wrong. I hope that Mr. Obama listens to some of my concerns.

President Obama

Dear Mr. Obama,

This is my plea to you. I am quickly losing hope in your education agenda, and so are many of my colleagues. My state applied for Race to the Top funds and lost. That’s fine, but you have fundamentally changed education to become what author Alfie Kohn says is a “quantification mania.”

I have one question for you Mr. Obama.

What happened to learning for the sake of learning?

Albert Einstein in On Education argued, “[the] crippling of individuals I consider [is] the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.” Who knew that Albert Einstein had such a viewpoint on modern education even during his time? Mr. Obama, in your “truce to teachers” you said that your loosening up on some of the “quantification” rhetoric has nothing to do with politics; rather “it’s a back-to-school message that fits squarely into [your] plan for economic recovery, stressing the role of educators in shaping a competitive American work force.” Why wasn’t your message about learning, developing as an individual, or enhancing upon a democratic society? Mr. Obama with all due respect, whether or not you toned down the more inflammatory rhetoric of your agenda, the underlying tone is still prevalent – using market based tactics in education.

“The advent of the standards and accountability movement in the 1980s, with its reliance on test scores to measure student performance, gave economists the tools to gauge the effectiveness of schools in a more nuanced way.” (Harvard Education Letter, Sept. 2009) There are two important elements in regards to the advent of the standards and accountability movement. First, the 1980s saw the surge of ECONOMISTS in education. Mr. President, this is a far cry from the early days of curriculum and learning development that centred on the advice of psychologists and educators. Secondly, the use of the same tools that economists use to understand the markets and labour has created a nuanced way of looking at educational issues.

I understand for better or for worse economists are part of the group of people offering their perspective on education especially in a 21st century global economy. However, it is important that policymakers (like yourself and Mr. Duncan) exercise pause when developing the techniques that will be used for economic reform. The “nuanced way” that economists use to look at education reform has muted or silenced the various different issues that exist in school districts and more importantly AROUND school districts. The more disturbing element is that the reforms developed by economists are being implemented where the help is needed the most. This is why it is important that you remember your constituents (educators, parents, teachers, and the union) and stand up against unyielding adoption of market tactics in education reform.

Mr. Obama, I agree with you 100%. We absolutely must fight against the status quo. However, who or what is your definition of the status quo? One of the most ubiquitous terms used to describe people who fight against market tactics in education is the STATUS QUO. A study of history of the status quo will yield that depending on the particular decade/era, this group of people has changed. The status quo has been the government, districts (in the 80’s), parents & students (in the 90’s), schools (in the 00’s) and now the new decade has ushered in teachers as members and perpetuators of the status quo. In each of these decades there has been propagation that reforming whomever the status quo entails will be the “step in the right direction” towards improving education. “With knowledgeable scholars (like yourself) uncritically embracing broad generalizations about the relationship between [the status quo] and academic achievement, it is not surprising that we also find widespread acceptance of this perspective among educational practitioners and the general public.” (Noguera, 2003)

It is the “knowledgeable scholars” who side with the “nuanced view economists” that have allowed the skewing of the discussion of education reform for the last thirty years. There are many people who are more knowledgeable than I am on the specific reforms, however I am aware that the US has been working on education reform for more than thirty years (i.e after deindustrialization). I would venture to say that working on anything for thirty years should yield positive results. However, we still deal with chronically failing schools (especially in urban/rural school districts). How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to place the blame on a new group of people? How are we going to change this paradigm if we continue to take a nuanced view of issues about AND surrounding education? How are we going to change this paradigm if our “knowledgeable scholars” do nothing to fight against the cycle of blame and the tunnel vision view that has become ubiquitous in education reform?

No Child Left Behind and your program Race to the Top are the most contemporary “nuance view” reforms that have come out of the White House. Both have contributed to the cycle of blame and both have gone in with unproven tactics that so far have yielded little results. NCLB and RTTT have adopted market tactics like performance pay, longitudinal data systems, and choice/competition among schools. Even on face value, do you think that this will improve LEARNING for students? I agree with Alife Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes who said, “I have yet to meet an economist who understands the nuances of how children learn, [and all] the messiness of learning is reduced to data points observed from a mountaintop.” I think the key word in that quote is “messiness.” There is no way to control the messiness of learning, especially the messiness of learning of so many populations of students with different abilities, languages, customs, and experiences. Albert Einstein astutely said it best, “the education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow-men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.”

Mr. Obama, please reconsider your role in education reform. You are not only alienating teachers, parents, and the infamous union leaders, but you are also hurting students. Learning is messy! Data, incentives, and competition cannot solve that messiness. However, working with qualified teachers to develop strategies for learning is the best way. That, Mr Obama, has been proven.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Martin Palamore

Concerned Educator from the Great State of Illlinois

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Truce Mr. Obama? Hardly!:Race to the Top = Slap in the Face

Message from State Superintendent Christopher A. Koch

We have just been informed by the U.S. Department of Education that Illinois has not been selected to receive a Race to the Top grant. While this is disappointing news, I am proud of the effort that our state has made to put together such an ambitious plan, which I believe should serve as our blueprint for where we need to take education through the next decade.

I thank you for your support of Illinois students and look forward to working with you as we implement many of the elements that comprised our application. As you know, the Illinois education community worked collaboratively to form our Race to Top application, so many of the proposed changes are in statute and will occur anyway.
We still intend to develop new rigorous teacher and principal evaluation systems, as required by state law, as well as continuing our work to improve teacher and principal preparation programs.

We are still committed to developing a comprehensive longitudinal data system to assist us in better preparing students for college and careers and we are already on our way to implementing the new Illinois Learning Standards, incorporating the Common Core.
Nothing more is needed with regard to the Race to the Top at this time, however, we will be working with you as we move forward with the goals we’ve outlined for driving educational progress in Illinois.

I appreciate your passion for students and your commitment to excellence.

Chris

The second phase of “Bribery to the Top” winners were announced today, and to the dismay to many, Illinois just didn’t make it to the top. I am curious to view Illinois’ application and will be doing so soon. Chris Koch, the Illinois Superintendent, released the “warm and fuzzy” letter above after the announcement from the U.S. Department of Education.

Mr. Koch is insistent on “developing a comprehensive longitudinal data system to assist [Illinois] in better preparing students for college and careers and…implementing the new Illinois Learning Standards, incorporating the Common Core. So is Mr. Koch’s insistence based on his own personal beliefs, the advice of teachers, and the support of community members, or is it based on the potential prospect of the money from Race to the Top (RTTP). In other words, was it the chicken or the egg?

The losers of RTTP were more than just the states. Photo Courtesy: tripadvisor.com

This is an important question and has many implications for all the states that lost [and won] the Race to the Top Funds. It is the impetus for me calling Race to the Top, Bribery to the Top. Many states rushed to develop the “reforms” necessary to win Race to the Top funds only to come up short at the end. While they rushed to develop these reforms many members of the education landscapes’ voices were silenced including teachers, parents, and the infamous union leaders. How are people like Chris Koch going to mitigate the concerns from all of these people now that the prospect for the money is gone? Who is going to champion these reforms now that prospect for the money is gone? Will there be political will in place to implement the reforms now that prospect for the money is gone? For the states that won, will the money continue to be there next year and/or after Mr. Obama leaves office, or will the program be added to one of those failed “good/popular” ideas like Supplemental Education from the NCLB days? Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan have essentially threw many educational leaders “under the bus” to fend off the obviously unpopular reforms that were adopted to “win” RTTP funds. It is leaving states to fend for themselves to MAINTAIN these systems, while playing on the desperation from the recession and the historical disinvestment in public education.

Where is the Money Going to come from?

Illinois is one of many states across the country that has cut education jobs to balance their budget for the next year. This is a clear sign that there is a cash-flow problem. However, Mr. Koch is still “committed” to the heralded longitudinal data system and the creation and implementation of new standards (which include training). Where is this money supposed to come from? I assume you could probably take it from the Edujobs money.

RTTT is largely reminiscent of No Child Behind. The implementation of the requirements of NCLB came as a great cost to the states. As Diane Ravitch discusses in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “some states complained that the federal government did not even give them enough money to do what the law required. Federal funding for elementary and secondary programs were increased by 60 percent in the early years of NCLB, but Democrats complained that it was way below what was needed and what Congress had authorized.” (Page 98)

Now that only eleven states and the District of Columbia is privy to the $4.35 billion from the RTTT funds, what are the other 39 states going to do to implement the RTTP reforms? Are they going to have to have their arm twisted in applying for the “School Improvement Fund” or the “Charter Schools Program?” Having cash strapped states create unfunded or under funded “reforms” is wrong and definitely from the Bush/Spellings playbook.

When Mr. Duncan and Mr. Obama are gone, the states are still going to be left to try to figure out how to add these “reforms” to their budget year after year. The amount of money that the USDOE had to work with was unprecedented for any Secretary of the Department of Education. It doesn’t hurt to mention also that the money is borrowed. Is Obama and his predecessors going to make education a principal priority with two wars, a stagnant economy, and a soon to be deficit-hawk Congress? If no, is the blame for the states inability to maintain the reforms going to be placed on states; therefore continuing the cycle of blame from the teachers to the states/districts? I believe that these questions (among others) need to be answered before I stand up and applaud for Obama/Duncan’s leadership on improving education in our country.

This is was not about Education Reform, this was about Politics

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day about Race to the Top. He asked me to explain what the programme is and its purpose. After explaining to him what the ins and outs of the program were he asked me, why did the Obama Administration have to have a separate Edujobs bill to save teacher jobs? Why couldn’t he just use some of the money from Race to the Top to help save teacher jobs? My answer to him was the Edujobs bill is not about education it’s about politics. In other words, getting back in good graces with teachers and union leaders (one of Democrats’ core constituencies) leading up to the election and subsequently declaring a “truce.”

Why would I make that claim? What does the Edujobs bill tell you about RTTT? It became clear around January of this year that many of the teacher-related and education support personnel positions that were saved by Obama’s first round of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds would dry up and states would be strapped. However, the Edujobs bill was passed in August. Why did it take so long? The Department of Education and Obama had no interest in saving or helping anyone part of the “status quo” without stipulations. This was evident in his threat to veto the bill if it included taking money from RTTT. Barack Obama’s attempt to be “everyone’s president” has influenced his decisions the last eighteen months as president. Think about it. He can placate parents, civil rights leaders, and desperate states by creating “reforms,” while placating the economists and conservative (and some liberal) think tanks in the advancement of market tactics in education. With Duncan’s announcement today of the RTTT winners he emphasized his commitment to asking Congress for more money for RTTT, while many states are hoarding their EduJobs money under fear that it won’t cover through the next school year. Why is he not committed to saving teacher jobs? It has become the politically popular viewpoint to place teachers (especially the unions) in the group of bureaucrats that are hostile to any reform. There is no way that the current pseudo deficit-hawkish Congress is going to give any money to educators without stipulations especially when they are sold to be members of the “status quo.”

The second indication that it is political is the lack of stipulations placed on the EduJobs bill. While Mr. Obama has praised the bill for saving teacher jobs, many states are not doing the immediate re-hiring and the reduction in classroom sizes that was supposed to occur under the fear of being back in dire-straights again next year. Mr. President, how can you give one sum of money with an inordinate number of stipulations, but not make a fairly clean-cut stipulation like re-hire teachers part of an EduJOBS bill? It was not about education it was about politics. Selling the message of “saving teacher jobs” seems to be the politically prudent thing to do leading up to a tough election with Republicans in the midterm elections. In my opinion, there aren’t enough press conferences or supposed “truces” that would make me feel otherwise. Almost everything that President Obama has made a priority (health care, AARA, financial reform, CARD Act, etc.) has passed fairly quickly (with the exception of the health care bill.) Edujobs were not Mr. Obama’s priority; the Obama/Duncan agenda is the priority.

In any race there are going to be winners and losers. While, I don’t support many of the reforms that were required by the Obama Administration, I do believe that what has happened in this program is going to set a precedent. It is setting a precedent for twisting the arms of desperate states to adopt “reform” measures that negate all of the stakeholders in an effort to circumvent bureaucracies. It sets a precedent that similarily in the free market that there are going to be winners and losers, and that the losers just need to “try harder and do more.” It sets a precedent that education leaders not only need to be savvy in pedagogy and management, but in politics. It sets a precedent of a dangerous road for public education that is unsustainable and has many unintended but very REAL consequences.

Truce Mr. Obama? Hardly.

All for None: The Racial Failure of the Duncan/Obama Agenda

Barack Obama

Barack Obama at the Urban League Conference Discussing Education

“There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” These were the words that echoed throughout the mind of many Americans as they watched Barack Obama ascend from a state senator to a prominent Democratic US Senate candidate. These words also echoed into the psyche and the rhetoric that has surrounded the idea that we currently live in a post-racial America. Who knew that in three short years he would be elected the first African-American president of the United States? What better indication that we truly live in a post racial America?

Ronald Takaki wrote in his book A Different Mirror using Maya Angelou’s words, “Race has functioned as a metaphor necessary to the construction of Americaness in the creation of our national identity. ‘American’ has been defined as white.” American has been defined a white. As inflammatory as one may see these words, there is truth to those words. Mr. Takaki went on to talk about how a cab driver thought he was immigrant, because he has Japanese heritage although his family had been in America for 100 years. The cab driver (whether intentionally or unintentionally) has portrayed the fact that a “Post-Racial America” is a nice idea, but doesn’t align itself with the actual reality of the situation.

Unfortunately, Barack Obama working with his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has ascribed to the idea that because we are all “American” that their “revolutionary” education reform plan Race to the Top is a measure that will benefit everyone equally. As Tim Wise discusses “To be fair, of course, the rhetoric of post-racial liberalism wasn’t something invented by the current President. Rather, it has its roots in the period immediately following the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for instance — an advisor to President Johnson before becoming a United States Senator — who first suggested that the nation would do well to engage in “benign neglect” when it came to the issue of race.” However, the “benign neglect” doesn’t just affect the rhetoric or the discussion it affects the future of Black Americans, Hispanic Americas, Asian Americans, Arabs Americans, etc. Why? Because despite what people may want to believe in their hearts, the history, experiences, and position of these people are very different from each other. A one-size-fit-all approach to education reform in his country is NOT the answer. Furthermore, reform measures like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTP) will not solve the problems of everyone. What it does it is make “Americans” be able to sleep at night.

Jonathan Kozol in his book Shame of the Nation discusses the paradigm of the one-size-fit-all approach.

“New Vocabularies of stentorian determination, new systems of incentives and new models of castigation are termed “rewards and sanctions,” have emerged. Curriculum materials that are alleged to be aligned with governmentally established goals and standards and particularly suited to what are regarded as “the special needs and learning styles”…a new empiricism and the imposition of usually detailed lists of named and number “outcomes” for each isolated parcel of instruction…are just a few of the familiar aspects of the new adaptive strategies.”

I read a lot of education blogs and education newspaper columnists who praise these efforts as a way of turning around education for “everyone.” However Kozol sheds light on the actual outcome. “Although generically described as “school reform” most of these practices and polices are targeted primarily at poor children of color.” Isn’t that what I am arguing for in this blog? Yes/No, yes I am arguing for a targeted approach however, not an approach that is “valued chiefly as responses to perceived catastrophe in deeply segregated and unequal schools.” (Kozol, 64) In other words, “Americans” cannot tell people of colour what the problem is when they are the creators of the problems then in turn mandate a solution. At the bare minimum, there is a conflict of interest.

The “Conflict of Interest” reform polices of Bush/Spellings and Obama/Duncan are prevalent in NCLB and RTTP. The policies ask for the creation of choice in public schooling so parents can choose a “better school” for their child. There has never been a mention of historically disinvestment in public schools that has been documented in many narratives including Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. The policies punish schools (teachers in RTTP) for failing students. However, there is no mention of the lack of resources for schools/teachers that has been a consistent problem and complaint since for decades in urban/rural school districts. The policies call for the creation of high stakes tests so that the government knows whether or not the students are succeeding. However, no one discusses that fact that these test typically measure the bare minimum in standards and do assess for other aspects of the students including “soft” skill increasingly seen as important in a service-based job market. Theoretically speaking I could go on and on, but I am going to choose to stop. Not because I feel that I’ve driven in the point, because all of this misses the ball.

My experience working with students of colour has presented me with a set of challenges that I have not seen addressed by the policies of Spellings/Bush and Duncan/Obama. I have had students who are homeless and the only meal of the day is the lunch at school. I have had students who have vision problems, but cannot afford glasses. Even if they get public assisted glasses, they have to wait for weeks and fall behind in school. I have had students whose older siblings are molesting them everyday, but afraid to say anything under the fear of being “stuck in the system.” I have had students who have no one to go home to at the end of the day, and therefore no one to keep them accountable for their homework assignments. I have had students who wanted to complete my research paper, but don’t have a computer at home to type it on and complain that the library doesn’t have word processing. While, these problems are not unique to students of colour in urban/rural school districts they have chronically been seen as prevalent problems. However, there is very little discussion of these problems. This is a reflection of not only a failed education policy, but also the fact that a post-racial America doesn’t exist. It is only when are ready to have a REAL discussion. We need a real discussion of the SPECIFIC historical and contemporary disadvantages of students of colour in urban/rural school district. We need a discussion that will make “Americans” feel uncomfortable. As long as we continue to believe that is not happening, we allow “Americans” to hide behind the notion of a post-racial America.