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Monday, February 21, 2011

Is Obamma hurting or helping education

From the Washington Posts Answer Sheet

By Valerie Strauss

For two years, President Obama has been pushing school reform that has demonized public school teachers. Now he has injected himself on the side of teachers into the confrontation in Wisconsin, where the new Republican governor is trying to pass emergency legislation that would drastically cut collective bargaining rights.

Obama’s support is ironic, given that teachers’ collective bargaining rights have already been undermined by his education reform policies.

Obama, a few days ago, threw his political machine onto the side of teachers who are helping to lead a protest movement in Wisconsin over Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to cut benefits and take away collective bargaining rights from labor. Madison public schools have been closed for several days because teachers called in sick, and the state Capitol building has been filled with protesters.

The public rationale for the assault on collective bargaining rights -- which is moving to other states as well -- is based on the premise that unions are at least partly responsible for the fiscal problems states find themselves in. My Post colleague Ezra Klein shows how untrue this is in this post: “Blame the banks. Blame global capital flows. Blame lax regulation of Wall Street. Blame home buyers, or home sellers. But don’t blame the unions. Not for this recession.”

The thing is that it has become all too easy to blame public school teachers. They and their unions have become the chief villain in the “what went wrong with public education” narrative under the Obama administration. It matters not that the problems in public education found in union states are identical to the problems found in non-union states (which you can read about here in a post that looks in depth at this).

In a number of ways, Obama’s education policies have gone a long way toward undermining the position of public school teachers and, separately, their unions. The two largest teachers unions in fact did not invite Obama or Education Secretary Arne Duncan to their 2010 conventions because they have been so upset at what they see as the administration's anti-union, anti-teacher policies.

The Obama administration, through its Race to the Top competition, dangled federal money to encourage the expansion of charter schools, which are largely non-union. It has provided verbal and cash support for teacher training programs that have as their distinguishing feature not the fact that they are anti-union (which they are) but that they believe a young person with little training is “highly qualified” to teach the neediest students.

And it has made standardized tests the main measurement of students, schools and, now, teachers. This obsession has bastardized the entire learning process, narrowing curriculum, fostering cheating scandals, harming real student achievement and putting teachers in a position of being blamed for things for which they are not responsible.

The administration has squeezed unions into accepting assessment schemes that link student standardized test scores to a varying but significant percentage of a teacher’s pay -- even though research shows that outside influences play at least as much a role in how a student does on a test as a teacher. Also ignored: Research showing the unreliability of systems that use scores to evaluate how much “value” a teacher has brought to a student.

What Obama’s policies have not done to any serious degree is provide support so that teachers are properly trained and developed, and so that teacher assessments fairly evaluate whether a teacher belongs in a classroom.

The popular perception of unions is that they have flat-out fought the administration at every turn. Not true. Local unions have in fact worked with management around the country to experiment with such “value-added” systems in an effort to cooperate with management and to avoid being seen as opposing modern reform.

Such cooperation was praised by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a conference he convened in Denver to showcase cooperation between teachers unions and management in districts around the country.
Why anyone thinks it is a positive for local unions to cooperate on an assessment model shown to have serious flaws is a mystery to me.

If Obama can help teachers unions keep their collective bargaining rights from disappearing under Republican assault, good for him and them. That doesn’t eliminate the harm his policies have done already to teachers and their profession.

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