Grading Obama on Education

By Michelle Chen Feb 27, 2009

Is the Obama administration on the honors track to bridging the racial and economic disparities that plague our public schools? The President has proposed several initiatives that appear to target inequities in teacher quality and student performance. His budget plan highlights the Promise Neighborhoods program, which focuses on academic achievement in high-poverty communities. The program follows the model of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which uses an innovative community-oriented approach to schooling that offers comprehensive early education and diverse services for families. Obama has also proposed to boost and restructure Pell Grants for low-income students. And on the sticky issue of charter schools, which critics see as a move toward corporatizing education, Obama seeks to expand them while also monitoring their performance. But looming over the budget and the stimulus is the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. The reform debate will likely bring a clash between business-oriented, test-minded reformers and other education activists (including advocates for immigrant, low-income, and people of color communities) who link schools to broader social inequality issues, and promote more holistic systems for teaching and assessment. At EdWeek, Diane Ravitch, a former education official under Bush senior, views the new Education Secretary Arne Duncan as the sequel to the Bush administration’s most damaging policies:

I wanted to believe candidate Barack Obama when he said that he would introduce real change and restore hope. Surely, I thought, he understood that the deadening influence of No Child Left Behind has produced an era of number-crunching that has very little to do with improving education or raising academic standards. … I am sorely disappointed in Arne Duncan. I don’t see any change from the mean, punitive version of accountability that the Bush administration foisted on the nation’s schools.

The "deadening influence" falls heavily on the most vulnerable. report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project on school segregation explains that recent education reform policies are actually perpetuating inequities. Tying No Child Left Behind to the erosion of affirmative action, the authors argue:

The price of ignoring race before the underlying problems are solved, it is now apparent, is to deepen divisions and perpetuate inequalities. Particularly disappointing have been the dismantling of good workable desegregation plans and their replacement by an assertion that there were policies that could produce “separate but equal” schools, the same assumption that the Supreme Court rejected in l954. That assumption has now failed again. The failure is clearly reflected in mountains of data collected under No Child Left Behind which show the very large numbers of segregated schools that are now under sanctions. We know that the schools left behind have been very disproportionately black and Latino, high poverty schools and that the remedies embodied in NCLB have not repaired the inequalities. The best available scientific comparisons show that NCLB, in spite of putting intense pressure and sanctions on schools serving minority students, has made no significant change in the previous trends in test scores or in the racial achievement gaps.

On the left and the right, there’s no shortage of ideas on how to fix schools, but will Washington absorb the lessons of No Child Left Behind before the country steps further backward toward a segregated past? Image: Harlem Children’s Zone