Editorial: Frenemy of the people

Some of the Obama administration’s policies seem to contradict its stated goals.

Default Lines column, April 2011 edition of eSchool News—“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”: I was reminded of this phrase in attending the Education Department’s first-ever conference on strengthening school labor-management relations in February.

More than at any other education conference I’ve attended—and I’ve been covering these shows as a reporter for more than a decade—there was a real energy about this event that was palpable, and the superintendents, school board presidents, and labor union presidents who attended seemed genuinely excited about putting the concepts they’d learned into practice when they got back to their districts.

Teachers’ unions and district administrators both are feeling the heat from parents who want to see better results from their schools. They’re also under siege from a new army of education reformers—people such as filmmaker Davis Guggenheim and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates—who have never worked in a school system before but are convinced they know what’s wrong with U.S. public education.

It’s as if union and district leaders are fed up with outsiders telling them how to run their schools, and they’re now putting aside their differences and joining together in the face of this outside threat to prove they can do the job themselves.

Conference participants seemed grateful to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his staff for organizing the event, which brought together teams from 150 school systems to learn how a dozen exemplary districts have moved beyond what Montgomery County, Md., Superintendent Jerry Weast called the “ABCs—accuse, blame, criticize” to foster better labor-management collaboration in their schools.

At the same time, however, there was an undercurrent of distrust in Obama administration officials who have been guilty of practicing the “ABCs” themselves—such as in their “turnaround” model for improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools.

As education researcher Diane Ravitch noted in her keynote address at the American Association of School Administrators’ conference, held in Denver immediately after the labor-management event: “It’s not leadership when, instead of problem solving as a group, you point fingers, lay blame, and dismiss your staff. … These get-tough tactics destroy trust and wipe away morale.”

To many in attendance, the Obama administration’s get-tough tactics seemed to contradict its newfound focus on collaboration. But this isn’t the only example of how the administration’s policies appear in conflict.

As we reported in March, President Obama has requested $90 million in his 2012 budget for the creation of a new ed-tech agency that would “support research on breakthrough technologies to enhance learning.” The agency’s goal would be to transform educational technology just as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has transformed military technology.

While ed-tech advocates have expressed support for this proposal, they are deeply disappointed with the administration’s plan to eliminate the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program. The Consortium for School Networking, the International Society for Technology Education, the Software & Information Industry Association, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association say this plan would take away the only federal program dedicated to investing in technology and training for K-12 educators.

“Elimination of the program … is the surest way to devalue the billions of dollars invested over the last two years on improving broadband access to K-12 schools and directly undercuts ongoing state and federal efforts to deploy education data systems, implement new college and career-ready standards and assessments, and address the well-documented STEM crisis. Our educators and students deserve better, and we urge Congress to reverse course and fully fund the EETT program,” the groups said in a March 8 statement.

Here’s another example of the seemingly schizophrenic nature of Obama administration policy. As part of its efforts to boost college attainment, the administration has turned to online education to help meet this goal; in January, officials announced a $2 billion federal grant program encouraging community colleges to create open online courseware that can be used by other institutions free of charge. Yet, a new federal rule scheduled to take effect July 1 could have a “major chilling effect” on online instruction, its critics say.

According to the rule, colleges that offer online instruction would have to get approval from every state in which they operate, or those online courses could be shut down. The requirement has drawn the ire of at least 60 higher-education organizations, which sent a letter to Sec. Duncan on March 2 objecting to the rule.

Instead of paying fees to meet the legal requirements necessary to operate in multiple states, many institutions might stop offering online courses in those states—forcing students to find other ways to finish their education. For those schools that pay for state-by-state certification, the costs associated with compliance could lead to huge tuition increases, critics fear.

As educators and administrators band together in the face of opposition, it isn’t just vocal school reformers they need to worry about … but policies that undermine the administration’s own stated objectives as well.

Other recent columns by Editor Dennis Pierce:

This ‘Superman‘ doesn’t fly

Putting our ideas of assessment to the test

Public school employees under attack

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Dennis Pierce

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