Superintendent's Corner

Obama’s education legacy

As our nation transitions power from the Obama to the Trump administration, this is both a time to look back and look forward to what may be on the horizon when it comes to federal education policy.

President Obama entered office in January of 2009 with the country still in the darkest days of the Great Recession. He selected Arne Duncan as his secretary of education, a Harvard alumnus and basketball player who had been the CEO of Chicago Public Schools and who had strong credentials as an accountability and market-based education reformer.

Obama and Duncan did not let the crisis that was the Great Recession go to waste, as they were given $4 billion in federal dollars through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to spend pretty much however they wanted. This remains the single largest federal expenditure on education ever.

Obama and Duncan should be credited for an innovative policy approach as they turned these dollars into a program they called Race to the Top, where states would receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid in exchange for adopting state level policies that Obama and Duncan wanted to expand across the country. This involved agreeing to evaluate teachers using test scores (and other measures), adopting common academic standards, removing barriers to charter school expansion, plans for turning around low-performing schools and building new state data systems.

On the balance, the Obama administration gets high marks for achieving significant political victories and moving their agenda forward, in my professional opinion. However, I wonder if it was the right work.

Race to the Top, with its focus on accountability and market-based reforms, was well received on both sides of the political aisle and states (who were cash starved at the height of the recession) eagerly put together hundreds of pages in plans and jumped through hoops to get the funds.

Race to the Top was incredibly successful in achieving its policy goal of getting states to sweep aside political barriers and adopt the preferred policies of the Obama administration in order to receive the significant financial incentive. In all, 17 states (including Colorado) representing 45 percent of students in the United States received Race to the Top funds

A second major policy effort was through something called waivers from parts of the federal education law, No Child Left Behind. When the money ran out, the Obama administration brilliantly shifted their approach to offering flexibility in complying with the law in exchange for states adopting teacher evaluation, test-based accountability and academic standards reforms. In all, 32 states made the trade of adopting these policies in exchange for increased federal flexibility.

Race to the Top and the No Child Left Behind Waivers might be considered the two signature policy successes of the Obama administration. Based on their goal of getting states to move and adopt the preferred policies of the Obama administration, they were both incredibly effective, as cash and flexibility proved to be a powerful incentive for states.

However, they were not without controversy and blowback. The education community (in general) reacted very negatively to being forced into the use of student test scores to evaluate (and fire) teachers. Little evidence exists that this policy is actually effective at increasing student achievement and it may have had corrosive and detrimental effects on recruiting and retaining professionals in teaching. Indeed, national test scores have languished or even declined and the number of individuals entering the teaching profession have plummeted.

Also, opponents on both the far left and the far right united against the heavy-handed federal involvement in education, pushing Obama’s reforms on schools across the country and running roughshod over the idea of state and local control when it comes to educational decisions. The far left and right also pushed back on the press toward common academic standards across the country and the double-downed on extensive student testing as a means to improve educational performance.

While the final reviews of Race to the Top and the Waivers are decidedly mixed, a clear positive that emerged during the Obama administration was reauthorizing (a fancy term for revising and re-approving) No Child Left Behind into a new law called the Every Student Succeeds Act. Almost a decade overdue, Congress struggled with when and how to change the law, in spite of its many critics and obvious flaws.

The Obama administration should be credited with getting the law reauthorized, but in many ways the new law is a counter-reaction against the actions of the Obama administration with Race to the Top and the waivers as it trims back federal authority, especially the power of the Secretary of Education and restores many decisions on accountability and where funds should be spent to the state and local level.

On the balance, the Obama administration gets high marks for achieving significant political victories and moving their agenda forward, in my professional opinion. However, I wonder if it was the right work.

Our country has been focused on improving education by rating and shaming schools based on test scores, firing bad teachers and opening more privatization options for nearly 15 years and we have little to show for it in terms of improved results. Even more telling, none of the highest performing global systems have achieved greatness following this American recipe, which the Obama administration pushed forward.

Time will indeed tell if it was the right work, but I don’t think so. The right work going forward needs to be focused on improving teaching and learning through quality relationships, engaging tasks for students and systems to mitigate the effects of poverty on learning. If we had a president who accomplished meaningful change in those areas, then we’d really have a legacy to celebrate.

Jason E. Glass is the Superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at jason.glass@eagleschools.net.