News

Critics: Obama’s ed policies no better than Bush’s

By Dennis Pierce, Editor
March 12th, 2010

Critics are saying that the 'new' NCLB is nothing new at all.

A trio of education experts take on high-stakes testing and accountability in interviews with eSchool News.

When it comes to education policy, President Obama is repeating the most grievous errors of his predecessor, charge a trio of venerable education policy analysts, including one—Diane Ravitch—best known for her past support of conservative positions on testing, accountability, and choice.

As Congress begins to rewrite No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Obama administration has offered its own vision for how the revised law should look, including a focus on tougher academic standards and more flexibility for schools. But a growing chorus of critics contends that too many of the administration’s policies follow the same punitive cycle of high-stakes testing and accountability ushered in under the presidency of George W. Bush—and that these policies are actually hurting students.

Both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have acknowledged the need for better standards and assessments to ensure that students graduate from high school ready for college or 21st-century careers. But critics of their approach toward education reform say it continues to rely on a flawed system of high-stakes exams and accountability measures that has narrowed the curriculum, fails to take into account the various social and economic factors that influence a child’s learning, and does a disservice to those students it purports to help most.

Rather than tinkering around the edges of NCLB, they say, policy makers should rethink the very assumptions that underlie the nation’s education law.

Such concerns over high-stakes testing and accountability aren’t new; they’ve existed since NCLB became law in 2002. But what is new is that the chorus of critics now includes some unlikely characters—including education historian Diane Ravitch, who worked in the Education Department under President George H. W. Bush and was a staunch supporter of the younger Bush’s policies as well.

Ravitch has a new book out called The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Its thesis marks a radical departure from her earlier views on education—and in an interview with eSchool News, she explained what transpired to change her mind.

“This represents a big change for me, because for many years I have been associated with things like testing, accountability, charter schools, merit pay, et cetera,” Ravitch said. “But as I saw the evidence accumulating, I began to think … that I was wrong.”

She added: “The Obama administration, although it promised change when it came to office, in effect has picked up precisely the same themes as the George W. Bush administration, which are testing and choice—and I think we’re on the wrong track.”

Click below to watch Ravitch’s interview with eSN on eSN.TV

Ravitch was one of several education experts who spoke out last month during the American Association of School Administrators’ National Conference on Education against the Obama administration’s continued reliance on high-stakes testing and accountability to drive school reform. Other critics of the president’s policies included Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and former education columnist for the New York Times, and David C. Berliner, Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University.

Under the nation’s current accountability system, Ravitch said, “we’re only measuring what we can, and not what matters most.” As a result, she said, we’ve narrowed the curriculum to the exclusion of other important subjects by focusing primarily on making adequate yearly progress in reading and math.

If you look at what is working in other successful nations, “it tends to be a far more holistic approach to schooling than what we are doing now” in the United States, she declared.