Grading Obama's Education Policy

By Apple, Michael W. | The Progressive, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Grading Obama's Education Policy

Apple, Michael W., The Progressive


For those of us who slogged through the years of No Child Left Behind and its damaging effects on education, Barack Obama's election promised what we hoped was a major shift in educational policies. The threat of privatization would no longer hang over schools. Curricula would no longer be simply made up of low-level facts to be mastered for seemingly mindless tests. Teachers would no longer have to spend weeks doing nothing but test preparation with their students. Poor children of color would no longer be so overrepresented in special education classes, shunted there as an excuse for not dealing with the realities of racism in the larger society.

Schools would finally get the resources they needed to try to compensate for the loss of jobs, ever increasing impoverishment, lack of health care, massive rates of incarceration, and loss of hope in the communities that they served. A richer and more vital vision of education would replace the eviscerated vision of education that now reigned supreme.

Ah yes, all would change. And even if all did not change, we would see vastly different approaches to education than those that had dominated the Bush years.

Some things have changed. But much still remains the same. Obama's signature education initiative, the Race to the Top, includes some partly progressive elements and intuitions. For instance, schools will be given more credit for raising student achievement, even if a school's average scores do not meet the goals of adequate yearly progress. The culture of shaming schools has been lessened. There is no longer a hidden agenda of privatizing all of our major public institutions. These changes should not be dismissed.

But even with this more flexible approach, Race to the Top continues some of the same tendencies that made No Child Left Behind so deeply problematic. We still have corporate-style accountability procedures, the employment of divisive market mechanisms, the closing of schools, an uncritical approach to what counts as important curricular knowledge, the weakening of teachers' unions, and strong mayoral control of school systems.

The policies advocated by Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan aren't as aggressive as before. They don't see schools as simply factories producing workers and profits. But overall, these policies still bear some of the hallmarks of the neoliberal agenda that has been pushed on schools for years. Competition eats cooperation. Nationalist rhetoric dominates as well.

Throughout the last decade, we repeatedly were told that public is necessarily bad and private is necessarily good. Powerful groups argued that the more that schools mirror the goals and procedures of the corporate sector, the more that we hold teachers' and schools' feet to the tire of competition, the better they will be. These arguments are almost religious, since they seem to be nearly impervious to empirical evidence.

Even such a stalwart supporter of these policies as Diane Ravitch has finally concluded that none of these measures will lead to more democratic, substantive, and high quality education. But the criticisms of these kinds of "reforms" have not made it any easier for states to resist them. States and school districts face a serious economic crisis, so federal stimulus dollars tempt them to engage in these problematic reforms, a key part of Race to the Top.

In Obama's plan, competition will still be sponsored. But rather than an emphasis on vouchers and privatization--the ultimate goal of many on the right during the Bush years--the focus is on charter schools. Choice will largely be limited to the public sector. This is clearly an improvement over the ways in which public institutions and public workers were vilified during the Bush years.

However, the research on charter schools shows that their results are mixed at best. While some good charter schools flourish, charter schools asa whole have often fared worse than regular public schools. …

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