Obama's War on Schools

By Ravitch, Diane | Newsweek, April 4, 2011 | Go to article overview

Obama's War on Schools


Ravitch, Diane, Newsweek


Byline: Diane Ravitch; Ravitch is a historian and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

The No Child Left Behind Act has been deadly to public education. So why has the president embraced it?

Over the past year, I have traveled the nation speaking to nearly 100,000 educators, parents, and school-board members. No matter the city, state, or region, those who know schools best are frightened for the future of public education. They see no one in a position of leadership who understands the damage being done to their schools by federal policies.

They feel keenly betrayed by President Obama. Most voted for him, hoping he would reverse the ruinous No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of George W. Bush. But Obama has not sought to turn back NCLB. His own approach, called Race to the Top, is even more punitive than NCLB. And though over the past week the president has repeatedly called on Congress to amend the law, his proposed reforms are largely cosmetic and would leave the worst aspects of NCLB intact.

The theory behind NCLB was that schools would improve dramatically if every child in grades 3 to 8 were tested every year and the results made public. Texas did exactly this, and advocates claimed it had seen remarkable results: test scores went up, the achievement gap between students of different races was closing, and graduation rates rose. At the time, a few scholars questionedthe claims of a "Texas miracle," but Congress didn't listen.

In fact, the "Texas miracle" never happened. On federal tests, the state's reading scores for eighth-grade students were flat from 1998 to 2009. And just weeks ago, former first lady Barbara Bush wrote an opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle opposing education budget cuts on the grounds that Texas students ranked in the bottom 10 percent in math and literacy nationally. After two decades of testing and accountability, Texas students have certainly not experienced a miracle when judged by the very measures that were foisted on students across the nation.

NCLB mandated that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Any school not on track to meet this utopian goal--one never reached by any nation in the world--would face a series of sanctions, culminating in the firing of the staff and the closing of the school. As 2014 nears, tens of thousands of schools have been stigmatized as failures, thousands of educators have been fired, and schools that were once the anchors of their communities are closing, replaced in many cases by privately managed schools. NCLB turns out to be a timetable for the destruction of public education.

Because of the punitive character of the federal law, educators struggle to meet their testing targets. Many districts have reduced time for the arts, history, science, civics, foreign languages, physical education, literature, and geography. They devote more time to preparing students for the state tests in basic skills, which will determine the life or death of their schools. Some districts, such as Atlanta, have experienced cheating scandals. Some states, such as New York, lowered the passing mark on their tests to increase the number of students who were allegedly proficient.

Standardized-test scores can provide useful information about how students are doing. But as soon as the scores are tied to firing staff, giving bonuses, and closing schools, the measures become the goal of education, rather than an indicator.

So now come President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan with their Race to the Top program. The administration invited the states to compete for $4.3 billion in a time of fiscal distress. To qualify, states had to agree to evaluate teachers by student test scores, to award bonuses to teachers based on student scores, to permit more privately managed charter schools, and to "turn around" low-performing schools by such methods as firing the staffs and closing the schools. …

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