Monday, March 29, 2010

Obama's Blueprint for Education - Richard Rothstein criticizes

cross posted from Daily Kos

I have already weighed in on the Blueprint, in Obama's "Blueprint" for education - why this teacher cannot support it. Today I want to call to your attention a very important critic by Richard Rothstein, whose current position is as a research associate at the Education Policy Institute, but who spent 1999-2002 as the national education columnist for The New York Times

On March 23 he posted A blueprint that needs more work at the EPI website. His is a balanced examination, but one that is nevertheless more critical than complimentary. I am going to urge that anyone interested in public education carefully read his entire critique. I am going to focus on several issues that caught my attention. I invite your continued reading.

A major focus of Rothstein's critique is the administration's emphasis on students being college ready upon graduation from high school. He actually begins by discussing the funding of college, something addressed in the recent reconciliation bill on health insurance reform. He compliments the administration for recognizing the need to make college more affordable/accessible, writing
It would be foolish to try to re-organize elementary and secondary education to make students “college-ready” if college itself becomes less affordable.

But let's take a look at the goal of having students college ready. The Blueprint calls for all graduates to be college or career ready by 2020. This replaces the requirement of NCLB that all students be 100% proficient in reading and math in 2014. Let me quote how Rothstein embarks on exploring this topic:
The Blueprint’s overall theme is that by 2020 all students should graduate from high school “College and Career Ready.” Administration officials have explained that this entails the ability to gain admission to an academic college program without having to take remedial courses. (The addition of “Career” to “College Ready” is meaningless, because what the Administration intends to convey is that some students may choose to pursue a non-college career, but would still have gained the qualifications to enter an academic college program if they wished.) This is, perhaps, the most disturbing aspect of the Blueprint. It indicates that the Administration may have learned little from the NCLB experience.
He goes on to quote Duncan as describing the 100% proficiency requirement of NCLB as "utopian" and it is worth noting that those in the Congress knew it was not achievable, but did not believe you could move forward with a more achievable goal of say 75 or 80% proficient, certainly not in legislation labeled "No Child Left Behind." Then after noting that a level of proficiency cannot be simultaneously "challenging" for students at the top and bottom of normal distribution, Rothstein offers three powerful paragraphs, which I think need to be offered in their entirety:
But aside from ridicule, NCLB’s adoption of this goal did great harm to public education. It created incentives for educators to lie to the public and claim that they could achieve something that they knew was unachievable. It created well-known incentives to “define down” proficiency, to make it possible for more students to pass themselves off as proficient. It engendered a culture of cynicism in public education, and it discredited public education in the broader community, as it became apparent that school leaders could not deliver what they were promising.

Any institution that sets an impossible goal runs the risk of such cynicism and loss of legitimacy.

The goal of all students college-ready by 2020 is just as fanciful as the goal of all students proficient by 2014. Today, perhaps 20 percent of all youth graduate high school fully prepared for academic college. It should certainly be higher. Aspiring to make it higher is a worthy ambition. But basing policy on a promise, or even an expectation, that we will quintuple this rate in a mere decade is laughable.

Thus, the key selling point for the Blueprint, the idea that all students will be career or college ready, is as unachievable - or if you will, false - as was NCLB's goal of 100% proficiency. We are now at 20% ready for college. But basing policy on a promise, or even an expectation, that we will quintuple this rate in a mere decade is laughable. Which in my mind makes the entire proposal laughable.

There is so much more in this superb analysis of the Blueprint. Just on this point, while the administration tries to divert criticism by calling the goal aspirational, Rothstein cuts quickly to the chase. He notes that schools serving disadvantaged children will be most likely to fail this aspirational goal and continue to suffer sanctions just as under NCLB.
For these schools, the same cynicism, the same false promises, the same gaming, will be stimulated as occurred with NCLB.
Rothstein argues that middle class schools will be harmed by this, that the pressue to dumb down standards of readiness will parallel what happened to standards of proficiency, and then warns
Promising to make all students college-ready by 2020 is, in effect, an attack on the quality of America’s institutions of higher education.

Remember, this is on a key selling point of the administration's education proposal. While Rothstein offers some compliments on parts of the Blueprint - funding some states to broaden their curricula and assessment, providing funds for support outside the regular school day - on the whole he is at least skeptical if not downright critical. Those who have read my post will again encounter criticisms of the administration's shift away from formula-based programs, especially in a time of economic distress and pressu4e (and Rothstein properly credits the education funding in ARRA for having perhaps prevented the laying off of a third of a million teachers and other school employees).

There is more, much more in this 3219 word piece, which originally appeared as part of the group "blogging" effort on education at National Journal. As noted, I strongly urge people to read it.

In his penultimate paragraph, Rothstein offers this:
We can hope that the Administration thinks further about its proposals, and revises them as they proceed through Congress. It is, in any event, virtually certain that the Blueprint will not be adopted in its present design by this Congress, and perhaps not even by the next.
He may be correct. While the House (Miller) and Senate (Harkin) chairmen of the relevant authorizing committees might be inclined to give Obama what he wants on an issue he has said is important to him, they cannot control what their members think. When Duncan appeared on the Hill, most of the senior members of the House Committee were more than a little skeptical and challenging in their questions and commentary, and there were similar concerns offered by some of the senior Republicans, including ranking members Kline (House) and Enzi (Senate). Further, even if authorized, the proposal would have to be funded and House Appropriations Chair David Obey of Wisconsin made clear in his questioning of Duncan his unwillingness to go along merely because the President wants it. He is a 41 year member of the House, a close ally of Speaker Pelosi, who was trusted to preside over the House voting on the Senate Health Insurance Reform bill.

So perhaps I should end as does Rothstein. Here is his final paragraph:
This suggests an unintended benefit of the Blueprint. For the foreseeable future, Arne Duncan will continue to be responsible for administering NCLB. Having now gone on record that its provisions are seriously flawed and that compliance with them is doing American education great harm, the Secretary will have no coherent choice but to begin issuing wholesale waivers to states from compliance with the old law. If it accomplishes this much, the Blueprint will have done a great service.

In other words, like me, Rothstein really does not think much of the Blueprint.

So, what do you think?


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