The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece where notable Democrats offered what they would like to see come out of a second Obama Administration.
For education, the WSJ chose our pal Andrew Rotherham. Rotherham leads Bellwether Education Partners and runs the Eduwonk blog. I love Andy because his writings provide insight as to what the education deformers are thinking and doing.
Rotherham gets right to the point:
President Obama had a pretty good run on education policy in his first term. Even Republican governors frequently cite the issue as one where they can agree with the president. The bad news? Education special interests are pushing back and momentum is slowing.
Rotherham is saying essentially the same thing as Diane Ravitch and many others: there is no difference between the Democratic and Republican vision for education. Rotherham himself is listed as a “Democrat”, yet is one of the most strident apologists for charters, testing, Common Core and the rest of the corporate reform agenda.
What concerns Andy here is the fact that “education special interests are pushing back” against his beloved policies. By “special interests”, does he mean the Chicago Teachers’ Union, who will most likely begin an extremely important strike today? Does he know that the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators won control of the CTU after tireless organizing of not only school staff, but of parents and students as well? Should the parents and students of Chicago be categorized as a “special interest”? What about the hundreds of students, parents and teachers who showed up to Brooklyn Tech this past February to protest another round of Bloomberg’s school closings, a protest that the actual “special interest”, the United Federation of Teachers, failed to support?
Categorizing actual members of the communities that are being destroyed by education reform as “special interests” is a clever sleight of hand on Rotherham’s part. People tend to associate that term with self-interested bigwigs, like our union here in NYC, with no real interest outside of themselves. It is Andy’s self-serving narrative that pits heroes like himself against entrenched mossbacks like the big bad teachers’ unions. The only union pushing back is the CTU, and they have been all but disowned by their national parent, the AFT under Randi Weingarten.
Rotherham flips the narrative here. He lauds Race to the Top which continues to be a boon to “special interests”: testing companies, charter operators and hedge fundies. A “special interest” is an organization that tricks people on the internet into signing a phony pledge so that organization can count your click as actual membership in their organization (StudentsFirst?). A “special interest” is a charter school operator that goes outside of the school district they wish to invade in order to get “parent signatures” (Eva Moskowitz?). Special interests are astroturf organizations, the ones for which Rotherham shills so effectively.
Congress is now five years behind schedule to update the No Child Left Behind law. That impasse led Mr. Obama to provide some flexibility to states struggling with the law’s requirements. But this has created a highly uneven accountability system. Virginia, for instance, was given approval for a plan that held its schools accountable for passing less than 60% of African-American and low-income students by 2017. After a public outcry, the administration is now forcing Virginia to raise its ambitions—but other states are quietly lowering expectations. The president will need to insist upon a rigorous accountability floor for students currently underserved by public schools. Without one, little else in federal policy will matter.
So it seems that not only do Republicans approve of Obama’s education policy, but “Democrats” like Rotherham approve of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. Rotherham admonishes us for being “five years behind schedule” of the goals set for us by the testing companies and textbook publishers about a decade ago. Virginia is failing 60% of its black student body, a statistic that obviously is the fault of the school system. They are being “underserved by public schools.”
Rotherham is able to write in such thick, simplistic terms because he is allowed to do so. To most of the country, this is what the education debate is about: pass rates, test scores and failing schools. It is not the poverty of that 60% of Virginia’s black population, nor the system that spawned such inequality. No, our socioeconomic system is just fine. It is the schools’ fault, and the lazy teachers that are nothing more than a “special interest”.
This is not a policy discussion. This is escapism, a fantasy land where all things are equal except the schools. Pass rates are ripped out of context and placed in a vacuum. It is in this vacuum where reformers like Rotherham excel. There is nothing to see here but the same old “failing schools” tripe that has been fed to us for the past 10 years. I guess the fact the country is “five years behind” is not in any way an indictment of the NCLB law that Rotherham supports. Accountability for everyone except the people who formulate and support the same failed policies year after year.
The Race to the Top competition led states to compete for federal education money by designing ambitious improvement plans. The first and second rounds were genuine, but the third round was little more than a guaranteed consolation prize for the also-rans. Meanwhile, a Race to the Top competition for early-childhood education was so small that no state made dramatic policy changes to win it. But a competitive model can encourage policy innovation. A second-term Obama administration can apply it elsewhere in education—for special education or English-language learners, for instance—but only if the competitions are real and the dollars large enough to give states an incentive to change.
The sterile words that Rotherham uses masks the fact that he is pushing educational poison in this paragraph. First, why should schools compete for federal funding in the first place? Is there any nation on earth with a successful school system that does this? (The answer is no, by the way.)
And the Race to the Top, the competition that Rotherham wants to ramp up, is competition based on test scores. It is funny how nowhere in this entire piece does Rotherham use the term “standardized test”, even though this is exactly what he is pushing. This I take as a minor victory. The advocates of real public education have successfully branded that term with the negative connotation it deserves. Notice how Rotherham does not get anywhere close to using it.
If he did, then people would be able to realize that he is advocating standardized exams for kindergarten. That is what he means when he says the “a Race to the Top competition for early-childhood ed was so small that no state made dramatic policy changes to win it.” He is encouraging Obama to force schools to get to testing as soon as children fall out of the womb.
He does not stop there. At the end of the paragraphs, Rotherham advocates for using standardized exam scores to determine funding for English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities. He wants every last federal dollar slotted for our neediest students to be based on a nationwide competition for the highest exam score. What if a group of special needs students fail the test? They get no funding, obviously.
Finally, Rotherham wants to tackle public universities head-on:
The president rightly began to regulate for-profit colleges in his first term because the data are starkly clear that many students are ill-served by these schools. In a second term, Mr. Obama should seek to apply similar accountability to all colleges and universities. Too many for-profit colleges are bad actors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t the same problems among traditional public and private colleges and universities.
Forget about the for-profit colleges, the ones who run TV ads in the middle of the day offering viewers the world. Forget about charging the poorest people in the nation upwards of $60,000 for fake internships, online classes and minimum-wage school staff without the standing to call themselves “professors”. Rotherham believes Obama has regulated them. The real problem are those other universities with the tenured faculty. They need to be “regulated”. I suppose that means more laws from the Obama administration making online courses for universities more widely available, qualified professors less available and tuition even more expensive than it is now. After all, that is exactly what “regulation” brought us in the for-profit college sector.
Or, maybe like David Brooks, he wants all college students to take standardized exams and all professors to be judged on a “value-added” metric. For Rotherham, it is about cradle-to-grave testing. The next step is to force senior citizens to take an exam before they can collect their first Social Security check.
This is why I love Andrew Rotherham. Nobody advocates such extreme and evil policies with such innocuous language. You would think he actually cares for education in America if you did not know the layer of meaning contained just below the surface of those words.
Despite his benign delivery, Rotherham is an extremist, an educational Jihadist with a one-track mind. Unfortunately, he reflects the educational policy for the Democratic Party. A Republican could not have such a forked tongue without being called out on it.