President Obama spoke to the National Urban League this week and defended his "Race to the Top" program, which has become increasingly controversial. Mr. Obama insisted that it was the most important thing he had done in office, and that critics were merely clinging to the status quo.
Mr. Obama was unfazed by the scathing critique of the Race by the nation's leading civil rights organizations, who insisted that access to federal funding should be based on need, not competition.
The program contains these key elements: Teachers will be evaluated in relation to their students' test scores. Schools that continue to get low test scores will be closed or turned into charter schools or handed over to private management. In low-performing schools, principals will be fired, and all or half of the staff will be fired. States are encouraged to create many more privately managed charter schools.
All of these elements are problematic. Evaluating teachers in relation to student test scores will have many adverse consequences. It will make the current standardized tests of basic skills more important than ever, and even more time and resources will be devoted to raising scores on these tests. The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind, because of the link between wages and scores. There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test. There will be more cheating, more gaming the system.
Furthermore, charter schools on average do not get better results than regular public schools, yet Obama and Duncan are pushing them hard. Duncan acknowledges that there are many mediocre or bad charter schools, but chooses to believe that in the future, the new charters will only be high performing ones. Right.
The President should re-examine his reliance on standardized testing to identify the best teachers and schools and the worst teachers and schools. The tests are simply not adequate to their expectations.
The latest example of how test results can be doctored is the New York state testing scandal, which broke open this week. The pass rates on the state tests had soared year after year, to the point where they became ridiculous to all but the credulous The whole house of cards came crashing down this week after the state raised the proficiency bar from the low point to which it had sunk. In 2009, 86.4% of the state's students were "proficient" in math, but the number in 2010 plummeted to 61%. In 2009, 77.4% were "proficient" in reading, but now it is only 53.2%.
The latest test scores were especially startling for New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg staked his reputation on their meteoric rise. He was re-elected because of the supposedly historic increase in test scores and used them to win renewal of mayoral control. But now, the city's pass rate in reading for grades 3-8 fell from 68.8% to 42.4%, and the proficiency rate in math sunk from an incredible 81.8% to a dismal 54%.
When the mayor ran for office, he said that mayoral control would mean accountability. If things went wrong, the public would know whom to blame.
But now that the truth about score inflation is out, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein steadfastly insist that the gains recorded on their watch did not go up in smoke, that progress was real, and they have reiterated this message through their intermediaries in the tabloids. In other words, they are using every possible rationalization and excuse to avoid accountability for the collapse of their "historic gains."
Meanwhile Secretary Duncan travels the country urging districts to adopt mayoral control, so they can emulate New York City. He carefully avoids mentioning Cleveland, which has had mayoral control for years and remains one of the lowest performing districts in the nation. Nor does he mention that Detroit had mayoral control and ended it. And it is hard to imagine that anyone would think of Chicago, which has been controlled by Mayor Richard Daley for many years, would serve as a national model.
President Obama and Secretary Duncan need to stop and think. They are heading in the wrong direction. On their present course, they will end up demoralizing teachers, closing schools that are struggling to improve, dismantling the teaching profession, destabilizing communities, and harming public education.