Now that Barack Obama has been re-elected president, it’s time that he start making good on the education issues he emphasized during his campaign. While in speeches and in ads the president seized on Romney’s statement that class size doesn’t matter, the truth is that Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan has dismissed the importance of class size nearly as strongly. Worse yet, Duncan proposes cutting federal funds that districts can use to hire teachers at a time of sharp increases in class size.
While Obama inveighed against “teaching to the test,” his administration has injected even more test prep into our schools by mandating that teachers and schools be evaluated by means of unreliable algorithms based on test scores. His wrong-headed Race to the Top program and No Child Left Behind “waivers” forced districts to adopt punitive policies like school closings and mass teacher firings that further undermine the opportunities of our most at-risk students. His Department of Education has wasted billions by financing the expansion of merit pay, high-stakes testing, online learning, charter schools and Teach for America, none of which has a positive record. The latter program puts earnest young college grads in classrooms with the most at-risk students after only five weeks of training.
Rather than follow blindly in the path of privatization and unleashed free-market competition that led to the collapse of our economy, it’s time for Obama to start listening to the priorities of parents and treating teachers as professionals. Cramming kids into classes of 30 or more and putting them on laptops while supervised by novices will never enhance their creativity or critical thinking skills.
On November 6, voters throughout the country, including in Connecticut, Indiana and Idaho, rejected corporate-style education measures and candidates. In only two states did these policies prevail: Georgia, which approved an appointed state board that can authorize charter schools over the objections of local school boards; and Washington, which will allow charter schools to be instituted for the first time, but where the margin of victory was paper-thin and might still be reversed. In both cases, these pro-charter campaigns were financed primarily by wealthy billionaires like Bill Gates and Alice Walton (of Walmart fame), who outspent their opponents by more than 10 to one. In both cases, their measures were opposed by a coalition of local school boards, state PTAs, teachers unions, civil rights and good government groups, which are becoming increasingly vehement in their resistance to the damaging tide of budget cuts, class-size increases, privatization and high-stakes testing that is overtaking our schools.
Instead of pauperizing, standardizing, digitizing and privatizing education, we know what works to increase opportunities for children. Just witness the sort of education Obama’s own daughters receive: small classes with plenty of personal attention from experienced teachers, a well-rounded education with art, science and music, and little or no standardized testing. By instituting these reforms in the 1970s, Finland was able to turn around its school system and now outranks nearly all other nations in student achievement. If it’s good enough for Malia and Sasha, it should be good enough for inner-city public school students in New York City or Chicago.
Across the country, resistance to corporate-style education is growing in intensity and breadth. The grassroots coalition of parent, teacher and civil rights groups that worked together to win critical battles on November 6 must double down and make our voices heard, so that Obama will understand that he is on the wrong track. It’s not too late to for him to reject the favored policies of billionaires, corporate consultants, testing companies and privateers. These policies defy common sense and research, destroy the morale of teachers, treat our children as data points, and threaten to run our public schools into the ground.