There’s nothing new about President Obama giving speeches in which he
talks about school reform in ways that have little to do with reality
(see, for example, here and here), but there was something especially disconnected about the education rhetoric in his 2014 State of the Union speech.
He managed to criticize standardized tests in which kids simply “fill
in a bubble” without betraying any irony that it is his Education
Department’s policies that have led to their growth in number and
importance in public schools.
He said that “research shows that one of the best investments we can
make in a child’s life is high-quality early education,” but he failed
to mention that his administration only made it a top reform priority
last year when there was no chance he could persuade Congress to fund
any serious early-education proposal.
He talked up his signature education program, Race to the Top,
without a hint about the controversy its reform demands on states that
accept federal funding has stoked for years. He said the Race
has ”helped states raise expectations and performance” with “the help of
governors from both parties,” a reference to the Common Core State
Standards which he did not mention by name most likely because there is a
growing revolt against the initiative
in many parts of the country. Some states, in fact, are actually
changing the standards and dropping the Common Core name because they
don’t want to be associated with it.
He did make one apparent nod to the Common Core opposition when he
said “some of this change is hard,” but he did not note that one of the
reasons it is so hard is because the administration has promoted
untenable implementation policies with timelines that states say are
impossible to meet. He also said that change requires things including
“more demanding parents.”
He praised “the great teachers” who
helped a boy named Estiven Rodriguez learn to speak English and get an
education that is allowing him to go to college — without a hint of
acknowledgement that teachers around the country feel abandoned by his
administration as it pushes evaluation systems that unfairly evaluate
educators by student standardized test scores.
He noted that “we’re shaking up our system of higher education to
give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer
better value,” without noting that the administration’s proposal to
create ratings of colleges and universities based on criteria that may
include how much money graduates make has been met with a lot of
understandable opposition in the academic world.
He gave an awkward nod to Tennessee
and Washington D.C. Public Schools for “making big strides in preparing
students with skills for the new economy – problem solving, critical
thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math” — an apparent
reference to increased scores on the National Assessment of Educational
Progress. The NAEP scores don’t actually measure technology and
engineering, and there are big questions about whether his policies had
anything to do with the rise in the scores. In the District, for example, while there were rises in math and reading scores on the 2013 NAEP, the school system still has the largest achievement
gap among urban school systems, NAEP scores were rising well before
Obama became president, and there are questions about changing
demographics in the city.
There also seems something contradictory about
praising Tennessee for improving science and critical thinking skills
when at the same time it is one of the leading states in the country in
terms of numbers of public schools that teach creationism as a
legitimate alternative to evolution. The Tennessee and D.C. references came straight from an op-ed that Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently had published in The Washington Post in which Duncan said: “We
don’t know all the reasons why students did better in Tennessee and the
District in 2013 than in 2011. But it is clear that they shared a
similar approach to bettering education — taking common-sense, but
politically hard, steps to help students.” Actually, that isn’t clear, but never mind.)
Perhaps the biggest disconnect
between what Obama said and facts on the ground was this: “Change is
…. but it’s worth it — and it’s working.”
Working? How? For whom?
We’re all ears, Mr. President.