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Monday, February 14, 2011

Obamas education disapointment continues

From the Washington Posts Answer Sheet

By Valerie Strauss

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan talk a lot about using “what works” in helping to improve public schools, but their proposed $77.4 billion education budget for 2012 unfortunately wouldn’t do that.

It would do the opposite if passed, but it won’t make it through Congress intact; the Republican-led House just took a meat axe to the administration’s 2011 budget (which hasn’t passed Congress yet), cutting some of the programs that Obama wants to boost.

The document, then, is really a restatement of the administration’s ineffective educational values: increased competition for funding rather than equitable distribution of resources, more dependence on standardized tests for evaluation, more punishment for lowest-performing schools and an expansion of charter schools.

The budget document boldly declares that the administration’s key education initiative thus far, Race to the Top, has achieved “difficult yet fundamental improvements to our education system.”

No, it hasn’t. There is no evidence whatsoever that Race to the Top has done anything to improve real student achievement. In fact, Duncan himself has criticized No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on standardized testing as resulting in narrowed curriculum and other problems, yet he still, inexplicably, wants more.

Is it at all surprising that people get cynical about school reform when everybody who launches an initiative declares it a historic success before the ink is dry?

In yet another example of saying and doing two different things, Duncan Monday told a group of reporters that we don’t need “another study to demonstrate the longterm benefits” of high-quality early education programs. That can only mean that he understands that these programs are seriously important in preparing kids to achieve in school. They work.

Yet the 2012 budget proposal provides a small amount for such programs in comparison to what they are spending on untested proposals. (see numbers below)

The same holds true for reform strategies that incorporate wrap-around social and health services for families living in poverty.

Obama has repeatedly singled out the Harlem Children’s Zone as a model for school reform because it does just that. When he talks about the zone, he acknowledges the important link between poverty and academic performance. But again, the budget provides little money compared to the cash it wants to provide for tests and other nonproductive initiatives. Failing to address this issue in education, when 23 percent of American children live in poverty, is tantamount to malpractice.

What the budget does make a top priority is the controversial Race to the Top competition, which offered cash for states that would enact reforms that the administration supported, including an expansion of charter schools, common academic standards and more standardized testing.

Now the administration wants to spend $1.4 billion to expand Race to the Top in K-12 but also extend the model to early learning and higher education. This includes:

a) $350 million to establish a new, competitive Early Learning Challenge Fund for states to target early childhood programs.

b) $900 million for a new K-12 Race to the Top that will extend the program to school districts rather than states, and that will include special funding for rural districts though how much is not yet known. This way, the federal government can get districts involved in Race to the Top in states that chose not to participate, such as Texas.

c) $150 million in a new initiative to increase college access and completion and, the budget document says, “to improve educational productivity,” whatever improving educational productivity means.

Here are more numbers in the 2012 proposed budget. The $77.4 billion proposed budget is an increase of about 4 percent from 2010 (the 2011 budget has yet to be approved by Congress) and includes:

*$26.8 billion in a reformed Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind (assuming that Congress agrees to reform it, which it has not yet). This funding would include:

a) *$600 million for School Turnaround Grants

b) $300 million in new Title I funding to reward schools that show the most progress in improving the achievement of at-risk students.

c) $300 million for the Investing in Innovation program (Teach for America recently got a $50 million grant from this fund)

d) $150 million in Promise Neighborhoods, "an initiative that integrates a rigorous K-12 education with a full network of support services across an entire neighborhood, so that youth successfully complete high school and continue on to college." (This is the Obama initiative modeled on the Harlem Children's Zone that the president thinks so highly of. Compare this amount to the next item.)

e) $372 million to expand effective charter schools and other autonomous public schools that achieve positive results. (The biggest study of charter schools shows that most charter schools do no better or worse than traditional public schools.)

f) $835 million to support "a well-rounded education, including reading; science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); and the humanities

g) $365 million for efforts "to promote school safety, health, and well-being."

h) $750 million to reform education for English learners.

Other programs, though, would be cut, including Career and Technical Education, which would get $1 billion, or $264 million less than last year.

You tell me what’s wrong with this picture.

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