Under Obama: no child left unmonitored

Obama’s plan to use education as a tool for social engineering exposes the elitist strain in his ‘Change’ campaign.

Alex Standish

Topics USA

A close look at Barack Obama’s education policies exposes the myth that the 44th president of the United States will point the country in a brand new direction.

Reading Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s Plan for Lifetime Success Through Education, one well-worn word just about sums up their plans for education reform: ‘expand’ (1). They plan to take just about every education initiative and policy utilised by the Bush administration and do more of it. In essence, their plan for education will expand state intervention into school life, furthering trends towards marketisation, managerialism, standardisation and testing, external accountability, intervention in family life, and making education subservient to the needs of the economy.

In the US, the most significant piece of legislation for school reform in recent years was the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed under George W Bush in 2001. Although the law is now tainted by its association with Bush, it was by no means his idea. The roots of standardised testing and external accountability go back to the 1980s and the government report A Nation At Risk, which highlighted falling educational standards in American schools and warned of a knock-on effect for the American economy and prestige more broadly.

Back then, Reagan took up the cause of education reform in the service of the economy. In 1989 a meeting of governors and President George HW Bush in Charlottesville, Virginia, discussed setting common standards for education across states. Despite resistance from teachers, in 1994 states were mandated to set common standards, test students and hold schools accountable for results through the reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act under Bill Clinton.

NCLB, which is in many ways the culmination of the shifts in education since the 1980s, was different in that it gave the federal government the power to hold schools accountable through the annual testing of reading and math (that’s mathematics or maths to those of you outside of America). This law signalled a growing role for federal government in an education system that historically has allowed school governance to be determined at a state and local level through school districts.

NCLB has become unpopular in recent years because it is seen as unfairly punishing failing schools, and is considered to be inadequately funded and too narrow in its education measures. It will likewise fail, critics argue, in its target to raise the reading and math skills of all students to ‘proficient’ by 2014. In California, for example, presently only 43 per cent of six million school students are proficient in reading and 41 per cent proficient in math (2). A recent National Science Foundation report predicted that all of California’s elementary schools will fail to reach their Adequate Year Progression targets by 2014 (3). Hillary Clinton in particular jumped on the anti-NCLB bandwagon during the primaries this year.

So what is Obama and Biden’s plan for NCLB? Responding to popular scepticism they suggest that teachers ‘should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardised tests’ (4). Instead, their plan is to expand standardised testing and external accountability by implementing a ‘broader range of assessments that can evaluate higher-order skills, including students’ abilities to use technology, conduct research, engage in scientific investigation, solve problems, present and defend their ideas’. In other words, they won’t just test on basic literacy and math skills; they will also test so-called vocational and analytical skills, which are increasingly replacing the teaching of academic subjects and knowledge.

I have nothing against a standardised curriculum which outlines the important subject knowledge and skills that all students need to learn; no, the problem comes when such standardisation becomes less about education and more a political tool through which schools are managed and disciplined by external observers. Standardised testing in recent years has reduced education to a very narrow set of objective measures, which schools have tended to focus on at the expense of broader open-ended educational goals and depth in subject content. In the absence of discussion and clarity about the meaning and content of education, policymakers have reduced education to a set of measureable outcomes; hoops that children must jump through. This is the only way they can conceive of keeping tabs on what schools are doing. But of course education is a much more creative and open-ended pursuit, or at least it ought to be – and for that reason, assessment in most subjects needs to take account of education’s subjective nature, and is best left to teachers or professional examiners.

It is not only the curriculum that is being reduced to filling in boxes – so is the job of teaching. Increasingly, the accreditation of teacher education institutions by appointed accreditation bodies is also seeking to measure the abilities of trainee teachers by a checklist of designated competencies. This is another educational reform that Obama and Biden want to expand. Presently, accreditation is optional for teacher education institutions. Under the Obama presidency all teacher education programmes will be mandated to undergo ‘accreditation’. Yet as any teacher, and most students, know, the act of teaching is highly subjective and varies according to personality. Some teachers teach in a quiet and calm classroom; others will be loud and energetic. Very different techniques and styles can be effective for different teachers. Checklists turn teaching into a banal list of can-do statements that do not capture the essence of what makes a good teacher.

For Obama and Biden, measuring teachers’ competencies will not be confined to those entering the profession for the first time. Once on the job, beginner teachers will be appointed mentors and assessed again through an induction programme.

Other proposals in the president-elect’s education plan will further place schools in the services of the economy. Obama and Biden propose encouraging better school leadership through ‘rewarding and training’ schemes, the introduction of 40,000 ‘service scholarships’ for ‘high-need’ subjects (that is, ‘high need’ for the economy), and by making math and science education a national priority because ‘over 80 per cent of the fastest growing occupations are dependent upon a knowledge base in science and math’ (5).

In particular, Obama and Biden support the charter school movement and parental choice of schools. Charter schools are autonomous and can be based around organised religion or run by a private company. They are celebrated by Obama and Biden in the name of diversity and choice. While opting out of government control has breathed new life into some schools, and led to some interesting initiatives, the charter school movement runs counter to the notion of a universal education for all, which is why some Democrats rightfully object to it. The debate about education in America is currently stuck between a rock and a hard place: between an education system that is being denigrated by continual federal meddling on one hand, and the rise of ‘independent’ schools that eschew both standardised curricula but also the notion of universality on the other.

Obama and Biden place a significant emphasis in their plan on early childhood education programmes and childcare. Again, this is not something new; they aim to expand programmes such as Head Start and Early Head Start. It has become almost accepted wisdom in American education that school needs to start before kindergarten (age five). Pre-school or pre-kindergarten programmes are growing rapidly, many of them state-funded. There are now lists of the skills and competencies that children should have even before they begin school.

At one level, state provision of pre-school childcare sounds progressive, in that it allows parents more freedom to work or to do something else. Yet the motives behind the current lowering of the school age are not so positive. Upon closer inspection, it is clear that these initiatives are targeted at some children and not others. Many of these programmes are offered to children in cities but not in the suburbs. Obama and Biden suggest that ‘the failure to address early learning needs is most apparent with disadvantaged children’ (6). Hence, investing in ‘early learning’ makes economic sense because it leads to a ‘decreased need for special education services, higher graduation and employment rates, less crime, less use of public welfare systems and better health’ (7).

In other words, these schemes are aimed primarily at working-class or lower-income families whom the state does not trust to bring up their children in a decent fashion. Such interventions are not motivated by a concern for parents and their ability to contribute to society – instead, they seek to take children away from parents and situations that might have a negative impact on them. Even before children are born Obama and Biden would like to ‘expand evidence-based home visiting programmes to all low-income, first-time mothers’. This creeping regulation of early childhood and family life can potentially undermine the spontaneous and most intimate relationships nurtured in the home. Obama’s policies will potentially further harm education and provoke suspicion in families and local communities. How healthy will that be for children?

While schools and teacher education institutions continue to struggle with the meaning and content of education today, Obama and Biden have no original insights on education, let alone a plan for a new direction. Instead, their proposals will accentuate education’s demise in American schools by expanding state regulation, which in practice means reducing learning to banal measurable outcomes, turning the profession of teaching into a technical set of competencies, and focusing on social engineering at the expense of academic goals. A progressive plan for changing American schools for the better would aim to contract, rather than expand, the role of the state in education and families, leaving these jobs to the people who know best: teachers and parents.

Alex Standish is an assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University and author of Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the moral case for geography to be published by Routledge in October. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s Plan for Lifetime Success Through Education.

(2) California Schools Hit the NCLB Wall, Teacher Magazine, 29 September 2008

(3) All Students Proficient on State Tests by 2014? National Science Foundation, 25 September 2008

(4) See Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s Plan for Lifetime Success Through Education.

(5) See Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s Plan for Lifetime Success Through Education.

(6) See Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s Plan for Lifetime Success Through Education.

(7) See Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s Plan for Lifetime Success Through Education.

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Topics USA


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