President Obama showed up at the National Urban League's annual conference yesterday to take on the civil rights groups that have become top critics of his education initiatives. He discussed Race to the Top, his administration's controversial $4.35 billion competitive grants program that hands out money to states that adopt the Obama reform agenda, blaming resistance to Race to the Top on a "general resistance to change; a comfort with the status quo."
Earlier this week, the National Urban League, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the NAACP issued a 17-page report criticizing Race to the Top as exclusionary and short-sighted. They charged that the very idea of forcing states to compete for money runs counter to our nation's promise that a quality education is still every child's civil right:
"By emphasizing competitive incentives in this economic climate, the majority of low-income and minority students will be left behind and, as a result, the United States will be left behind as a global leader."
The civil rights groups also take issue with many of the fundamentals of Obama's education agenda that further solidify the centrality of standardized test scores for gauging success and initiatives that bolster charter schools while shutting down so-called "failing" public ones.
But Obama focused yesterday on the most controversial aspect of his reform agenda: his efforts to institute what he calls systems of "accountability" that tie a teacher's salary and job security to students' standardized test scores. He had sharp words for those who believe his tactics amount to teacher bashing. "So, for anyone who wants to use Race to the Top to blame or punish teachers - you're missing the point," Obama said. "Our goal isn't to fire or admonish teachers. Our goal is accountability. It's to provide teachers with the support they need to be as effective as they can be. It's to create a better environment for teachers and students alike."
Try asking those in Rhode Island. Obama applauded the state's move back in February to fire every single teacher at a high school with a lower than 50 percent graduation rate. Obama's critics have asked: what happens when a town runs out of teachers to fire? And if the teachers are the problem, the students are left in a lurch while Obama soldiers on to keep firing every other ineffective teacher.
Last Friday D.C. school chief Michelle Rhee announced she'd fired 241 teachers in her district and put another 737 on notice. They'll have a year to raise their students' test scores or risk termination, too. The New York Times reports Rhee fired 79 teachers in the 2007-08 academic year, and another 96 in the 2008-09 school year before hiring another 500 new teachers in 2009, and then firing 266 teachers in the fall of 2009 because of budget problems. Teacher unions have called it the "hire-fire-rehire" syndrome.
There's little proof of how well this crusade against so-called ineffective teachers will pay off. But Obama insisted that he hasn't got it in for teachers:
I want teachers to have higher salaries. I want them to have more support. I want them to be trained like the professionals they are - with rigorous residencies like the ones doctors go through. I want to give them career ladders so they have opportunities to advance, and earn real financial security. I want them to have a fulfilling and supportive workplace environment, and the resources - from basic supplies to reasonable class sizes - to help them succeed. Instead of a culture where we're always idolizing sports stars or celebrities, I want us to build a culture where we idolize the people who shape our children's future.
All I'm asking in return - as a president and as a parent - is a measure of accountability. Surely we can agree that even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we need to make sure they're delivering results in the classroom. If they're not, let's work with them to help them be more effective. And if that fails, let's find the right teacher for that classroom.
All lofty and uncontroversial ideals, of course. But the National Urban League and its civil rights partners have said judging teachers' merits on their students' test scores as Obama demands is unsatisfactory. The groups' report argued teacher evaluations must be based on a teacher's experience and skills and individual contributions to the school environment. The groups called for an end to zero-tolerance policies that criminalize young boys and men of color and Obama's drastic turnaround models that shut down the poorest schools without replacing them with better schools or offering long-lasting solutions to the communities they're in.
The education reform discussion is long from over. But Race to the Top--along with the controversy that surrounds it--likely will not disappear soon either.