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Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss: Obama’s education policy ignores role of poverty in educational achievement (and evidence that NCLB should be scrapped)


In a Chicago Daily Observer column, which also appeared in the print version of the Chicago Sun-Times, Don Rose gives "Bad Grades for Obama on Education."

Rose cuts Obama a break and doesn’t "fail" him because of his commitment to early childhood education (the federal stimulus bill he signed last month will provide $5 billion to grow the Early Head Start and Head Start programs nationwide, and expand access to child care for 150,000 more children from working families) and parental involvement. While I agree with Rose’s criticisms, he goes way too easy on Obama, who is betraying his "progressive" base in many areas, but none more so than on education policy where he is intensifying George W. Bush’s disastrous No Child Left Behind scheme.

As I’ve pointed out previously, Obama’s education plan is a continuation of the discredited and destructive No Child Left Behind Act. Rose makes this same point and notes that the rhetoric from Obama, and his education secretary Arne Duncan, is that NCLB just needs to be fixed, but the research evidence is clear that NCLB needs to be scrapped—see, for example, The Nature and Limits of Standards-Based Reform and Assessment and Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, both published by Teachers College Press, for extended critical analyses of NCLB.

How exactly is Obama failing on education?

First, and most importantly, Obama and Duncan ignore the 800 lbs. gorilla of educational achievement, which is poverty. Poverty is the major factor in the differences in school performance. As Rose points out

"poor education is an economic issue; failure to acknowledge that is the single most egregious omission in their statements. Regardless of what the “bell curve” advocates tell you, or the way Duncan talks about education as a “civil rights” issue, it isn’t race, but class."

Studies have repeatedly shown that socio-economic factors have the highest correlations with student test scores.

Randy Hoover, a professor at Youngstown State University, has conducted a number of studies that show that tests scores are primarily predictors of class and race. In Hoover’s latest study, the three factors he found were most likely to predict test performance were the percentage of single parent wage earners, the percentage of poor children and the median family income in a school district. When Hoover combined those factors into what he calls the "lived experience index" He found they were responsible for at least 61 percent of a district’s test performance. (Hoover studied about 60 variables to see which correlated best with test performance and "on most of them I got no correlation whatsoever," he said.)

The US has made "closing the achievement gap" among racial and ethnic groups a key goal. This is the one of the main purposes of No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB uses student testing as the primary strategy for promoting changes within schools to accomplish that goal. The problem, of course, is analogous to the old saying "you don’t make the pig grow by weighing it," and as many educators have pointed out you don’t improve educational achievement by giving tests.

A recent policy brief by David C. Berliner, Regents Professor at Arizona State University, makes this point crystal clear. Berliner’s report, Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, details six out-of-school factors (OSFs) common among the poor that "significantly affect the health and learning opportunities of children, and accordingly limit what schools can accomplish on their own":

  • low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal influences on children;
  • inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance;
  • food insecurity;
  • environmental pollutants;
  • family relations and family stress; and
  • neighborhood characteristics.

Berliner also discusses is a seventh OSF, extended learning opportunities, such as preschool, after school, and summer school programs.

Because America’s schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier children, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed. Efforts to improve educational outcomes in these schools, attempting to drive change through test-based accountability, are thus unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by policies to address the OSFs that negatively affect large numbers of our nations’ students.

One has to wonder how a supposed "progressive" president who, because of his own personal background, is sensitive to issues of poverty and its connections to race and ethnicity doesn’t see the connection between what goes on inside of schools and the social and economic conditions that affect students’ lives outside of schools. The simple answer is that Obama’s "progressivism" is a chimera and his education policy is not oriented to serving the needs of students, but rather interests of the corporate-capitalist class.

There is really no other logic to Obama’s pronouncements on education.

Obama wants give teachers pay for student test scores, ignoring the fact that history has proven such schemes to be debacles.

Obama praises charter schools for creativity and innovation, ignoring the fact that charter schools perform no better and often worse than public schools, pave the way for privatization, and allow teacher unions to be sidestepped. As Gerald Bracey says "you can’t bash the public schools on test scores then praise the charters which have lower scores.”

Like his predecessors, Obama misrepresents public education performance as a scare tactic and to open the door for the privatization. Obama claims that graduation rates have fallen from 77% to 67%, but the U. S. Department of Education says the best method for estimating it puts it at 74.5% nationally. Obama says dropout rates have tripled over the past 30 years. But how does a 10% decline in graduation rate equal a 300% increase in dropout rate?

Obama claims “Just a third of our 13- and 14-year-olds can read as well as they should.” Gerald Bracey calls this claim “outright garbage.”

Obama has “raved about South Korean schools but neglected to say that thousands of South Korean families sell their children–yes, sell–to American families so their kids can a) learn English and b) avoid the horrible rigidity of Korean schools. And while the US trails Korea on average test scores, it has a higher proportion of students scoring at the highest level on the Program of International Student Achievement (PISA). Moreover, it has the highest number of high scorers (67,000) of any country. No one else even comes close.”

Obama’s education stimulus package continues the regimentation of curriculum and test-driven approach to education by bribing states and school districts to apply for $5 billion in grants largely aimed at boosting student test scores. These grants, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, are known as the “Race to the Top Fund.”

Obama, Duncan, and the rest do this because that is what they must do in the social context they are in, and because they have chosen sides in what is the class war, the international war of the rich on the poor, which the rich recognize and the poor, at least in the US, do not—yet.

The core issue of our time is the interaction of rising inequality and mass, class-conscious, resistance. That is why the education agenda is a war agenda.

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