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Obama Defends Sweeping Education Reforms in Face of Criticism from Minority and Teachers’ Groups

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President Obama took on critics of his administration’s sweeping education reform plan on Thursday in a nearly hour-long speech at the National Urban League’s 100th anniversary convention. His address came on the heels of news that New York public school students are not performing nearly as well as prior state tests had revealed. We speak with Diane Ravitch, the former Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, and Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama took on critics of his administration’s sweeping education reform plan on Thursday in a nearly hour-long speech at the National Urban League’s 100th anniversary convention.

Through the $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative, Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan has prodded states to lift caps on charter schools and link student achievement to teacher pay. The administration has also succeeded in getting at least twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia to sign on to common academic standards that would for the first time set shared performance goals for math and reading.

In his address, Obama said his plan for education is working, but he acknowledged it has come under criticism.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But I think the single most important thing we’ve done is to launch an initiative called Race to the Top. We said — we said to states, if you are committed to outstanding teaching, to successful schools, to higher standards, to better assessments, if you’re committed to excellence for all children, you will be eligible for a grant to help you attain that goal. And so far the results have been promising, and they have been powerful.

    I know there’s also been some controversy about Race to the Top. Part of it, I believe, reflects a general resistance to change. We get comfortable with the status quo, even when the status quo isn’t good. We make excuses for why things have to be the way they are. And when you try to shake things up, some people aren’t happy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama’s education program and the Race to the Top initiative have come under fire from civil rights organizations, community groups and teachers’ unions. Obama took on some of the specific criticisms in his address.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we’ve got to make sure that we’re seeing results in the classroom. If we’re not seeing results in the classroom, then let’s work with teachers to help them become more effective. If that doesn’t work, let’s find the right teacher for that classroom. So, for anyone who wants to use Race to the Top to blame or punish teachers, you’re missing the point. Our goal isn’t to fire and admonish teachers; our goal is accountability. It’s to provide teachers with the support they need to be as effective as they can be and to create a better environment for teachers and students alike.

    Now, so far about thirty states have come together to embrace and develop common standards, high standards. More states are expected to do so in the coming weeks. And, by the way, this is different from No Child Left Behind, because what that did was it gave the states the wrong incentives. A bunch of states watered down their standards so that school districts wouldn’t be penalized when their students fell short. And what’s happened now is at least two states, Illinois and Oklahoma, that lowered standards in response to No Child Behind — No Child Left Behind, are now raising those standards back up, partly in response to Race to the Top. And part of making sure our young people meet these high standards is designing tests that accurately measure whether they are learning.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Obama’s speech came on the heels of news that New York public school students are not performing nearly as well as prior state tests had revealed, for more than half of public school students in New York City failed their English exams this last year. Last year’s tests had claimed more than two-thirds were passing.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined here in New York by Leonie Haimson, a public school parent and executive director of Class Size Matters. And joining us on the phone from Long Island is Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at NYU, New York University, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She’s the former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. Her latest book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Let’s begin with you, Diane Ravitch. Your response to President Obama’s major address yesterday on education?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I think that what happened in New York City is — shows that the direction he’s taking is wrong, because everything he is proposing in Race to the Top and also in his blueprint will rely on exactly the kinds of methods that led to a massive fraud in New York state — that is, that Race to the Top is requiring states to judge teachers by the student test scores, and we now know, based on this immense fraud in the city and in the state of New York, that the test scores are not reliable. So teachers will be judged by unreliable data, and we’re going to dismantle the teaching profession in pursuit of this mechanical fix that won’t work.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Diane Ravitch, one of the reasons President Obama gave that particular speech was that he’s coming under increasing fire even from civil rights organizations who are questioning not only the emphasis on testing, but the push for more and more charter schools regardless of the quality of those schools. And your sense of how the ground is shifting around the country, among parent groups, among civil rights groups, around the whole issue of school reform?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, you know, I think this week, in the last week of July of 2010, turns out to be a pretty momentous week. First of all, six civil rights groups came together and issued a joint statement that blasted Race to the Top and also the blueprint, the Obama blueprint, because he is building — although he doesn’t admit it, he’s building his education agenda right on top of the Bush education agenda, which is to test and punish, to close schools, to evaluate teachers in ways that are unfair and unsound from a research point of view, to increase the number of privately managed charter schools. All this is going to be immensely destabilizing, and it’s going to hit hardest on minority communities, because most of the schools that will be identified as the lowest-performing schools will be in poor Hispanic and black communities. And there will be massive — excuse me, massive destabilization. This is not good. And the civil rights groups recognize this.

There was a second report out that came out this week from a group of community — from an organization of community groups from across the country, echoing the same complaints: we don’t want more community schools, we don’t want more charter schools, we want better public schools — help our public schools get better, not by more testing, not by more charters, but by sensible approaches like more pre-kindergarten, smaller class size, more support for the people who are teaching in those schools — commonsense approaches, which this administration seems to be avoiding and looking for the quick fix that George Bush pursued and that Mayor Bloomberg pursued, and it didn’t work. So I think there are immense implications here.

And we also saw in the Congress where Congressman Obey tried to strip money away from Race to the Top, away from merit pay and away from charter schools. And the administration’s response was, “Don’t take money from Race to the Top. Take it away from food stamps.” And Joel Klein said to take it away from Title I. These are all programs that benefit the neediest families in our society, and there were prepared to harm people who are in need of help in order to preserve the President’s favorite program.

So I think that the implications of this week, with the test score explosion, the blowup of the fraud in New York City, and these two grassroots groups saying, “This is not working, and take a more commonsense approach, and stop this destructive test and measurement and punishment approach,” this is big, because up 'til now everybody seems to have gone along with the rhetoric of President Obama. But you have to separate his rhetoric, which is always very elegant, from what his administration is actually doing, which is just more Bush, more No Child Left Behind.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Leonie Haimson, I'd like to ask you — in my column in the Daily News today, I zeroed in particularly on one of the big arguments that’s been raised about these testing programs and these school reforms, that they were going to close the racial — the achievement gap between black and Latino kids, on the one hand, and white children, on the other. And here in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have been claiming for years that they’ve been closing the gap. Now, all of a sudden, these new test scores are revealing that the gap has actually increased since 2003, when Mayor Bloomberg began his school reforms here in New York. Your sense of how the impact of these particular scores here in New York State and New York City and what it means for the rest of the country?

LEONIE HAIMSON: Well, I hope it provides another example about why test-based accountability as the primary method for school improvement just does not work. When you put all this pressure on testing, without giving students the tools and the teachers the tools to learn more, all you do is put pressure on schools and elected officials to game the system. And so, for over, you know, the last five years or so, we’ve all known that the state tests have gotten far easier and that the scoring has gotten far easier and that you could actually just randomly answer questions and pass. And, you know, we’ve been making that clear, and yet there hasn’t been any political will to do about it since — until now, because the state officials and the city officials and the principals and the parents all want to believe that our schools are getting better, even in the face of tremendous evidence that they aren’t.

So the same sort of policies, as Diane says, that have been predominant in New York City for the past eight years are the same sort of policies that Obama wants to now impose nationwide. They simply do not work, and they lead to very devastating impacts, especially on our highest-need students, who tend to be in the schools that are going to be closed, transformed or turned into charter schools. One of the schools that’s — there are over a thousand schools on the list nationwide that they want to either close or fire half the teaching staff or turn over to a charter school — is the Hawaiian School for the Blind and the Deaf. Where are those kids going to go? If you fire half their teaching staff, where are they going to hire, be able to recruit, trained people in terms of being able to reach deaf and blind children? It simply doesn’t make any sense. We need a whole new set of policies that’s actually going to improve the quality of instruction in the classroom, like, for example, smaller classes.

AMY GOODMAN: Diane Ravitch, you were Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. You were a supporter of charter schools; now you are not supporting them. How does this picture feed into President Obama’s plan?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, President Obama has proceeded with the belief that charter schools are some kind of a miracle cure. And, in fact, Secretary Duncan says, “Well, we recognize that there are some bad charter schools, but we’re only going to encourage good charter schools.” Well, that’s sheer nonsense, because what we will see in the next few years under Race to the Top is hundreds, if not thousands, of new charter schools, and the research is very clear that the overwhelming majority of charter schools are not excellent charter schools. And the interesting thing that happened with the score collapse in New York City was that the charters saw a bigger decline in their test scores than the regular public schools. And now, in reading, charters don’t outperform public schools at all; they’re at exactly the same point. And they barely outperformed them in math.

So, what we’re going to see is — under his plan, is a massive privatization, particularly inner city. These are communities of color that have been targeted for the charter school invasions, where public schools will be converted to charters, where public schools will be closed in large numbers and replaced by privately managed schools. Some of them will be opened by greedy entrepreneurs. Some of them will be opened by incompetent people. And this is not educational improvement. It’s really — it’s really tragic, because the Secretary and the President are using Chicago as their template, and yet no one looks at Chicago and asks is Chicago a successful city. And the answer is no. If you talk to anybody who lives in Chicago who doesn’t work for Mayor Daley, Chicago is not an example of school reform. It’s an example where communities of color experience all the things that I’ve just been describing — school closings, indifference to parent views about anything, and opening lots of new schools, opening lots of charter schools, massive infusion of money from the Gates Foundation, and yet Chicago remains today one of our lowest-performing urban districts. And that, unfortunately, is the model for the nation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Leonie, what’s going to happen now here in New York State? All these parents that had been told that their children were doing well, were meeting state expectations, are now suddenly — will suddenly discover in the next few weeks that their kids are in need of help, that their scores were not what they were before. What is going to happen in terms of the kind of remediation that New York City and New York State are going to have to now do for students that they weren’t recognizing before?

LEONIE HAIMSON: Well, I think parents are rightfully going to be devastated when they find out that the whole thing was a fraud and that their children are not doing well and not succeeding and not learning. Unfortunately, I don’t see any evidence, either on the state level or the city level, that they’re prepared to give any more help to these kids to really make sure that they succeed. Our budgets are being cut back radically. Class sizes are going to go up hugely in the fall. A lot of the support systems, the after-school programs, the tutoring, the interventions programs, are being cut. So it’s going to get worse, not better. And the only policy that this administration has in order to supposedly help these kids is holding them back. And the overwhelming research shows that holding back kids does not help, it hurts, and it leads to higher dropout rates in the end. So, we have no culture of helping to support schools in this city, and it looks like, across the nation, we again have no culture and no expectation that the Obama administration really wants to help our schools improve. They just want to shut them down, fire the teachers, privatize them, and impose other sort of test-based accountability reforms that simply don’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: And Leonie Haimson, can you talk, back in Chicago, about the new leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union, CORE, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, and the significance of their victory?

LEONIE HAIMSON: Right, well, in Chicago, as Diane mentioned, they’ve been experiencing these sorts of policies longer than anywhere else in the country. Under Mayor Daley, who has total mayoral control and is sort of mayor for life, it’s been over twelve —-

AMY GOODMAN: And Arne Duncan.

LEONIE HAIMSON: And Arne Duncan, who was -— yes, who was the head of the Chicago schools under — for a long period of time. Those teachers have seen the failure of these policies, have seen their schools destabilized, have seen no progress, have seen teachers scapegoated as the source of all problems in the schools, which is, you know, of course, ridiculous. And so, a new faction in the teachers’ union has taken control and won the election, which has a much more aggressive posture towards these reforms and at every single moment is protesting, is pushing, and not taking any of this for granted, and saying, “No, this does not work. There’s a better way. And you have to listen to not just teachers, but parents,” who are also extremely disaffected in Chicago and who have shown up in huge protests to the closing of their neighborhood schools, because they don’t see that they’re being offered a better option.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there for today, but of course continue to cover this issue. Leonie Haimson is with us, public school parent and executive director of Class Size Matters. And thank you to Diane Ravitch, professor of education at NYU, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, former Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush. Her book is called The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

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