Grading Obama's Education Policy
Obama’s signature education initiative, the Race to the Top, includes some partly progressive elements and intuitions. For instance, schools will be given more credit for raising student achievement, even if a school’s average scores do not meet the goals of adequate yearly progress. The culture of shaming schools has been lessened. There is no longer a hidden agenda of privatizing all of our major public institutions. These changes should not be dismissed.
But even with this more flexible approach, Race to the Top continues some of the same tendencies that made No Child Left Behind so deeply problematic. We still have corporate-style accountability procedures, the employment of divisive market mechanisms, the closing of schools, an uncritical approach to what counts as important curricular knowledge, the weakening of teachers’ unions, and strong mayoral control of school systems.
The policies advocated by Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan aren’t as aggressive as before. They don’t see schools as simply factories producing workers and profits. But overall, these policies still bear some of the hallmarks of the neoliberal agenda that has been pushed on schools for years. Competition eats cooperation. Nationalist rhetoric dominates as well.
Throughout the last decade, we repeatedly were told that public is necessarily bad and private is necessarily good. Powerful groups argued that the more that schools mirror the goals and procedures of the corporate sector, the more that we hold teachers’ and schools’ feet to the fire of competition, the better they will be. These arguments are almost religious, since they seem to be nearly impervious to empirical evidence.
States and school districts face a serious economic crisis, so federal stimulus dollars tempt them to engage in these problematic reforms, a key part of Race to the Top.
In Obama’s plan, competition will still be sponsored. But rather than an emphasis on vouchers and privatization—the ultimate goal of many on the right during the Bush years—the focus is on charter schools. Choice will largely be limited to the public sector. This is clearly an improvement over the ways in which public institutions and public workers were vilified during the Bush years.
However, the research on charter schools shows that their results are mixed at best. While some good charter schools flourish, charter schools as a whole have often fared worse than regular public schools. And they seem to be even more racially segregated than regular public schools.
But unlike a number of other progressive commentators who have been quite critical of nearly all of the major aspects of Obama’s educational policies, I believe that our criticisms need to be a bit more subtle and open.
This is a short excerpt from Michael Apple’s story in the February issue of The Progressive. To read the story in its entirety, simply subscribe to The Progressive today.
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