Will President Biden Support Public School Teachers and Abandon Awful Obama-Duncan and Trump-DeVos Education Agendas?

There is widespread anxiety about President Elect Joseph Biden’s choice of a Secretary of Education and his public school policy priorities. Yes, we are bidding farewell to Betsy DeVos, which certainly must be celebrated, but something much more consequential may be happening. Two excellent articles this week explore where education policy has been lodged for two decades and what kind of change seems possible with a new administration.

In a interview for The Progressive, Jeff Bryant poses an important question to Derek Black, the constitutional scholar and author of the new book, Schoolhouse Burning: “You write in the book’s introduction that the nation is in the middle of a battle for the long-term viability of public education. How might this battle continue under a Biden presidency?”

Black responds: “It’s going to be great to be rid of Betsy DeVos, at least psychologically, if nothing else. In some respects, she was more of a cheerleader than an executioner (of public schooling) but she cheered on the executioners, especially on the state level. It’s going to be nice that those folks don’t have a friend in Washington, so when they attack public education, they have to do it on their own political capital not hers or the president’s. The other layer to this is that it’s not as though the Obama administration was good. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, had problematic charter school policies and policies that were part of the war on teachers. Biden hasn’t sounded like he plans on resuming Obama policies, but we will see.”

Looking back to Arne Duncan’s tenure under President Barack Obama, The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss picks up the same theme. She even tried to interrogate President Obama’s views about his own public education policies by exploring Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land: “On one important issue that proved to be a flash point—education policy—he doesn’t have much to say.  The memoir’s index shows references to education policies on only four of 701 pages—and none are more than a few sentences. What he doesn’t address says at least as much as what he does… Is it possible Obama didn’t know the full consequences of his education policies when he was writing the book? Did he know and think the criticism has been unfair? Did he just not want to deal with it?  What we do know is that his memoir says almost nothing about his education legacy—and there’s no clue as to why.”

Like Derek Black, Strauss, who publishes regular commentaries on education policy, realizes that Biden’s presidency follows not only four pro-privatization, pro-religious education, pro-family–anti-government years of Betsy DeVos’s ranting, but also the pro-charter, anti-schoolteacher years of Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan. Beginning in 2009, the Obama administration elevated what the No Child Left Behind Act had already established in 2002 as necessary for holding schools accountable—a massive regime of standardized testing.  Strauss diagnoses why educators and parents worry about the direction of Biden’s education policy: “Biden has so far laid out an education overhaul agenda that does not resemble Trump’s or Obama’s, and he has promised to be a friend to public educators—but many are waiting to see what he actually does after they were disappointed by Obama.”

Strauss summarizes the ways President Obama damaged education policy: “Obama’s education agenda surprised many of his supporters, who had expected him to address inequity in public schools and to de-emphasize high-stakes standardized testing, which had become the key metric to hold schools accountable under the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law. But Obama did not. Instead, he allowed Education Secretary Arne Duncan to push a strident education overhaul program that made standardized testing even more important than NCLB had…. Critics called it ‘corporate reform’ because it used methods more common in business than in civic institutions, such as using big data, closing schools that underperformed, and eliminating or weakening teacher tenure and seniority rights.”

Strauss believes Obama’s policies failed because they were based not on solid research but instead on misguided ideology:  “Some of the policies had no chance of working to improve schools. For example, the effort to use student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers was slammed repeatedly by assessment experts as being neither reliable nor valid.  It led to a continued narrowing of the curriculum, which had started under No Child Left Behind, and to some cockamamie teacher evaluation plans where some educators were evaluated by students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach… In 2011, for example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina spent $2 million to field test on students a new testing regime that included 52 new standardized tests, one on every subject so that all teachers could be evaluated based, in part, on the test scores of their students. In New York City, standardized tests were only given in English Language Arts and math, and so schools were allowed to assess teachers in other subjects on students’ math scores or English Language Arts scores.  In Washington, D.C., public schools, the star schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, decided that every adult in every school building should be, in part, graded by student test scores—including the custodians and lunch workers.”

Strauss concludes: “Race to the Top did not make systemic improvements in public education in part because it failed to address some of the most important reasons for low student achievement. It did nothing to tackle the fundamental inequity of America’s education funding, which has historically penalized high-poverty districts and rewarded wealthy ones.  It also did not address out-of-school factors that affect how children perform in school—even though research shows that most of the achievement gap is driven by factors outside school.”

One of the most damaging policies accelerated during the Obama-Duncan years was the intentional growth of privately operated charter schools at public expense.  In his interview with Derek Black for The Progressive, Jeff Bryant asks Black about school choice, specifically whether poor and African American and Latino-Latina parents who feel their children have been left behind shouldn’t have the right to choose a privatized alternative. Black responds: “I do not second-guess minority low-income families who feel they need to try an alternative to public schools. Schools have failed a lot of these communities… But there’s a flip side… We will never fix (public education) by abandoning the system. There is no private system of education out there waiting to save all of our children…. The further away we get from the public system, the less equipped we are to protect our children.  Although there is the right to enroll in a private school regardless of race, children do not have protection from racial discrimination once they enter those doors. The same for students with disabilities. And in a privatized system, children have no protection from sexual orientation or identity discrimination. If somehow we think that we can solve the problem of discrimination and inequality by throwing children to the wolves, that’s the most fantastical thing I’ve ever heard of.”

Betsy DeVos has looked to her religious tradition as a guide for her education priorities along with a long libertarian distrust of government itself.  Arne Duncan looked to standardized testing and corporate accountability to enforce the establishment of national standards and as a check on teachers who were expected to work harder and smarter.

It has fallen to teachers themselves—the educational professionals who work with our children all day, every day in buildings most of us never have an opportunity to visit—to expose the absurdity of these policies. In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black explains how, “In 2018, teachers finally reached their breaking point and started talking about strikes and walkouts. Media attention then helped educate the general public on what had happened to education funding and the teaching profession over the past decade.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 244-245)  “In the spring of 2018, teachers across the nation waged a full-scale revolt, shutting down public schools and marching on state capitals in the reddest of red states. From West Virginia and Kentucky to Oklahoma and Arizona, teachers went on strike over the condition of public education. Stagnant and depressed teacher salaries were the initial focal point, but as the protests spread, it became clear that teachers were marching for far more than their salaries. They were marching for school supplies, school services, class sizes, and more. They were marching for states to reverse the massive budget cuts of the past decade and stop funneling more resources into charters and vouchers.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 23-24)

President Elect Biden has said he trusts public school educators themselves as the best guide to what is needed in America’s public schools.  He has pledged to begin using federal dollars to support the nation’s most vulnerable public schools with added Title I and IDEA dollars.  And he has pledged that high stakes standardized testing will not be the centerpiece of education policy during his tenure. We must give him a chance to do that work and hope that he can muster support in Congress for his declared educational priorities.

2 thoughts on “Will President Biden Support Public School Teachers and Abandon Awful Obama-Duncan and Trump-DeVos Education Agendas?

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but during the Obama administration my aging memory recalls that a good many Democrats supported Race to the Top and were mum or supportive on the encouragement of charter schools that Duncan seemed to love. I’m wondering if Mr. Obama says very little in his latest book, which is only Part 1 covering the first term, about education is because he now realizes that may have been one of the weakest components of his cabinet and his administration. I remember how shocked I was when he let Dr. Linda Darling get away, a true educator, and brought along from Chicago the businessman and former Supt. of Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan. I hope, nay pray, that President-elect Biden will offer the cabinet position of Sec. of Education to an educator, preferably someone who actually taught!

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