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  June 25, 2012

Obama's Education Policy

First in a three part series about education policy in the US Presidential elections
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Mark Naison is a Professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, and the founder and principal investigator of the Bronx African-American History Project. He is the author of four books, and over one hundred articles on African American History, labor history, sports and popular culture. Professor Henry Louis Taylor, Jr., is one of the nation’s leading authorities on distressed neighborhoods and inner city development. A historian and urban planner, this internationally known scholar is a full professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo. He is coordinator of the Department’s Community Development and Urban Management Specialization and is the founding director of the University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies (CENTER), a research, neighborhood planning and community development institute that focuses on the regeneration of distressed communities.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.

As part of our coverage of the presidential elections that will be taking place in November in the United States, we're going to be deconstructing some of the policy of the two leading candidates. Now let me qualify the word leading: they're leading because the United States has more or less a two-party system. It's very difficult for other parties to get into the game. There are in fact other parties and we have interviewed their leaders and we will do other pieces about other parties, but the reality is either a Democrat or a Republican is going to be in the White House in November, barring something apocalyptic. So we're going to spend some specific time focusing on their policy.

So today we're going to start with education. We're going to do three segments with a couple of our policy experts. We're going to deconstruct President Obama and his policies on education in part one, we'll be doing Mitt Romney in part two, and in part three of the little miniseries we'll be asking our policy experts what they think should be public policy when it comes to issues of education.

So without further ado, now joining us from the Bronx, New York: Mark Naison. Mark is a professor of African-American studies at Fordham University, founder and principal investigator of the Bronx African American History Project. He's the author of four books and over 100 articles on African-American history and labor history and more. And he joins us now from Bronx, New York. Thanks very much for joining us, Mark.


JAY: And I've already cracked some jokes off-camera. I would have loved to have been at the meeting where you got the job as head of the department on African studies. At any rate, we can talk about that another day, 'cause now we're talking about education policy.

So now joining us from Buffalo, New York, is Henry Louis Taylor Jr. Henry's a professor of urban and regional planning at the University at Buffalo, New York. He's also the director of the Center for Urban Studies. He's coauthor of the book Historical Roots of the Urban Crisis: African Americans in the Industrial City, 1900-1950. Thanks very much for joining us, Henry.


JAY: So, Henry, I'm going to start with you. So, you know, give us what your assessment is, going through sort of the main features of President Obama's policy on public education and what you think of it.

TAYLOR: I think Obama's policy can be characterized as a policy anchored by a big 800 pound gorilla and a couple of small midgets. The 800 pound gorilla is the Race to the Top Policy, which essentially oscillates around what we call high-stakes testing. And that's based on the idea in principle that the way in which you can evaluate standards, whether or not kids are reaching standards and whether or not you can determine the effectiveness of teachers and the effectiveness of schools, is through a process of high-stakes testing. And how kids perform on these tests, which are for the most part designed by states, or how they fare on those tests will determine whether or not the schools become what they call persistently low-achieving schools, or PLAs. And if they become PLAs, it means that their schools can be put on probation, undergo radical transformations and changes, or they can be forced to close. At the same time, based on the performance on these tests, the quality of instruction at these schools will be determined, and that could impact in a very negative way. Teachers and/or principals can be eliminated. That's the heart of it.

JAY: Okay. Well, let's focus on that Race to the Top to start with, and then we can move on to some of the other issues. Mark, so what's your take on Race to the Top? I mean, I assume President Obama and his defenders would argue that it wasn't just the problem of education funding when he took office; it was some sense of accountability that kids were actually getting educated. And there's been so many complaints over the years that the kids are actually even graduating and can't read and write properly. And don't you need some objective assessment of what's going on? So what's wrong with Race to the Top, if you think there is anything, Mark?

NAISON: Race to the Top has succeeded in creating immense stress on teachers and administrators in high-poverty schools because getting the federal funding requires that schools whose students don't perform well on those tests have to be closed and replaced with a new school and 50 percent of its staff fired.

Now, what that means in practice in the Bronx is if student test scores are going to be the basis on which a teacher and a principal's career is determined, you are going to do nothing but teach to the test. You are going to eliminate trips. You're going to eliminate plays. You may even eliminate recess. You may spend your time in the afterschool program studying for tests instead of doing sports and the arts.

The result is that in the schools where you need kids to love school the most, you're making them sit still and study for tests all the time. And if you think this policy is going to produce equity, it will produce the opposite, because in a high-performing district, the schools will not fear being closed, because the test results will be good enough so they can still have the art, they can still have the music, and their kids will have an enriched curriculum.

JAY: Right. Okay. Henry, so—but the problem I assume President Obama was trying to solve is what I was saying, that you have kids going through school, even graduating high school, and often don't have even basic arithmetic and grammar and spelling and such skill set, so that maybe you don't have the school trips and the art and all this. But is it not the case that with this testing, at least you'll get kids graduating who have some basic functionality?

NAISON: No. The tests are simply to evaluate what has gone on inside of—your way of determining whether or not the kids have actually met the course standards. The larger problem is that most of the research that has been done on the relationship between schools and neighborhoods indicate that many of the problems and difficulties that you see getting manifested within the framework of schools are really problems and issues that have origins within the framework of the neighborhoods and the communities in which the kids live.

In these neighborhoods and communities, you've eliminated many of the early childhood enrichment programs. For example, Head Start has not received new funding that would allow you to expand that program in years. Many other enrichment programs in the early learning years are not there. In many instances, the kids who live in these neighborhoods don't have computers. They don't even have quiet places to study at home. And there are not library facilities and other things that could lead to enriched experiences at the neighborhood level. So to eliminate all of the causality in terms of the enrichment activities that occur outside of the school environment and focus in the school is a problem.

The second part of it is that in many public schools, just as they are in Buffalo, the conditions vary across the public school front. We have, for example, in Buffalo what we call criterion schools. In criterion schools, these schools have the capacity to set entrance standards that other schools don't. So we have some schools that we call dumping grounds where all kids have to go.

But the evaluation system treats each school the same. It treats the magnet schools, the criterion schools the same as the dumping schools, and it says that they're all operating on the same level. So the teachers are evaluated the same way, the principals are evaluated the same way, when the conditions are very different. That's like taking a professor at Harvard, looking at their students, then taking a professor at a small community college in Mississippi and looking at their students, and saying, well, these students are doing better at Harvard because they're getting better instructions and everything else, without looking at the differences in the schools. So that's one of the problems we see with the evaluation system.

JAY: Right. Mark.

NAISON: One of the problems is President Obama appointed as his secretary of education a person who never taught a day in his life. He called an education summit where not one teacher was invited. It was all foundation and corporation executives. And I think the policy is well intended in the way that you suggest. We need to give these children basic skills.

But the result will—but you still have to work through teachers. And if you put teachers in low-performing districts under pressure to raise test scores, two things are going to happen. One is people will be under tremendous pressure to cheat on the results. Secondly, the best teachers will want to leave those schools and go to a school where there's less pressure.

So what is actually happening is that schools in poor neighborhoods are going to be made worse by these policies. You get a constricted curriculum. You lose your best teachers.

And this is a result of not bringing teachers into the conversation, because any teacher can tell you exactly what Henry did, that the vast majority of the forces shaping the fact that students are having trouble learning basic skills are not what's going on in the school; it's what's going on in the home and the neighborhood. In the Bronx, 20 percent of the children are being brought up by grandparents. Five to 10 percent are living in foster care. Large numbers of families are doubled and tripled up.

If you do not try to address conditions in the neighborhood and the schools together, what you're going to do is put such pressure on the school to do a job it can't do that you're going to make those schools worse. And that in my mind is what Race to the Top is doing. It's making schools in poor communities worse.

JAY: Yeah. Henry, in a lot of big cities—Chicago, Philadelphia, New York—it's happening in many cities—they're doing what they call turnaround schools, where they essentially kind of fire everybody and start again. I mean, isn't there a sense of frustration that nothing was fixing the schools? Is there any evidence that this turnaround schools is going to make a difference?

TAYLOR: No, I don't think it will. I mean, I really don't, because the problems that created the issues are not really being addressed, and that is, you've got to create powerful linkages between what's going on in the neighborhoods and the communities and the schools themselves.

Now, I want to make it very clear: I think evaluations are important. I think you've got to be able to make some determinations of whether or not kids are moving toward achieving the types of skills that you want them to do. I think you have to be able to make some evaluations of the effectiveness of teachers and the like.

But I think that you don't do that through this process of high-stakes testing. So saying that you're opposed to the process of high-stakes testing on the one hand, and saying that you have to develop a strong system of evaluation, monitoring, and tracking, and making sure that the kids master the skills that they need represent something else.

So, again, I think that you've got to look at both what's going on in the neighborhood and what's going on in the schools. And I'm familiar with a number of the turnaround programs. And the schools that we're working with in the city of Buffalo are both—all of them are involved, and I'm working with two elementary schools and two high schools, and they're all involved with some type of turnaround strategy and some type of turnaround program. And the thing that we—I believe will be necessary is that in addition to changing issues inside of the school, you've got to make changes in those neighborhoods and communities, create new levels of investments at those places, as well as strengthen the enrichment and academic support programs.

JAY: Okay. So is there anything in President Obama—Henry, just a quick take—anything in President Obama's education policies you liked?

TAYLOR: Absolutely. I think I said that it's characterized by an 800 pound gorilla and a couple of midgets. The midgets are the choice neighborhood initiatives and the promised neighborhood initiatives. I think those are two exciting programs that create the connection between schools and neighborhood reform that have enormous promise. And in a certain odd sense of the word, these two initiatives have created grave diggers for Race to the Top. Now, these two gravediggers are very weak, very fragile, and very frail, but nonetheless they exist, and they create opportunities for neighborhoods and communities to work together to come up with some very innovative ways in which to alter the process of schooling and education.

JAY: Okay. We're going to get more into this in part three when we talk about the solutions you'd like to see. But before we do that, Mark, anything about President Obama's education policies you like?

NAISON: He actually does believe that public education should be preserved, which, given our next discussion, is a plus. And it should be said that the stimulus funding given in the beginning of the administration allowed many teachers to keep their jobs. I think that if a lifetime educator were appointed as secretary of education and if teachers were brought into the conversation at the federal level, I think the Obama administration education policy could be rescued along some of the lines that Henry suggested and along some of the lines that teachers themselves would suggest. I don't think it's a hopeless cause.

JAY: We'll get more into that in part three. So remember, the next part, which will be in a day or two—you'll see it soon—will be about Mitt Romney's education policies. Part three will be all focused on solutions outside of all the partisan rhetoric. So please join us for that on The Real News.

But don't forget we're in our spring/summer fundraising campaign. We have a matching grant that will take us to $100,000. So if you like what you're seeing and you want to see more, please click on the "Donate" button. Every buck you give will trigger another dollar. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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