Will Staff Returning from Obama/Duncan Years Compromise Biden’s Public Education Promises?

At the end of his first hundred days, President Joe Biden deserves credit for taking important steps to help public schools serving children living in communities where family poverty is concentrated.

First, the President promised during the campaign to triple funding for Title I schools, and the federal budget he has proposed for FY22 would accomplish two-thirds of that promise by doubling the federal investment in Title I, whose funding has lagged for decades behind what is needed for equity.

Second, in the American Rescue Plan federal stimulus passed in March, the President expanded and made fully refundable the Child Tax Credit. In his new American Family Plan he has proposed to extend these urgently needed changes in the Child Tax Credit until 2025.  The expansion of the Child Tax Credit will make it possible for America’s poorest families with children to qualify for this program for the first time. We know that poverty is an overwhelming impediment for children, and ameliorating child poverty is an important step toward helping America’s poorest children thrive at school.

During the campaign, Biden also promised to move public school policy away from two decades of standardized testing.  That is a promise he has, at least until now, entirely broken.

In a letter, dated February 22, 2021, Acting Assistant Secretary of Education, Ian Rosenblum informed states they must test students this year on the mandated annual high-stakes standardized tests, the centerpiece of the test-and-punish school accountability scheme introduced in 2002 by the No Child Left Behind Act.  Rosenblum said the Department of Education would permit flexibility for states which applied for wavers, but Rosenblum described the flexibility in gobbledegook: “It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning. We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices… We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments.  A state should use that flexibility to consider: administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments; offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. This could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021 school year.”  Not surprisingly there has been enormous inconsistency in which some states have been allowed to cut back or delay or pretty much cancel testing, while others were denied their requests.

Rosenblum released the federal guidance on testing before Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was confirmed, and everyone hoped he would rescind the policy.  But instead, Secretary Cardona  justified demanding standardized testing in this COVID-19 year, despite overwhelming problems with the practicality, consistency, reliability, and validity of the tests. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss quoted Dr. Cardona: “He said student data obtained from the tests was important to help education officials create policy and target resources where they are most needed… Cardona said… that he would be willing to ‘reexamine what role assessments’ play in education—but not immediately. ‘This is not the year for a referendum on assessments, but I am open to conversations on how to make those better.'”

One would have hoped that Dr. Cardona would be familiar with the huge debate that has consumed education experts and also many parents who have been opting out for years now. He assures us that mandated testing during this school year, which has been utterly disrupted by COVID-19, will be used to drive federal investment into the school districts where tests show students are suffering most.  However, standardized tests, as mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, were not designed to drive a system of test-and-invest. Instead federally mandated standardized tests are now the very foundation of a maze of policies at the federal level—and across the states—to identify so-called “failing schools” and to punish them with policies that rate and rank public schools, punish so-called failing schools by privatizing or closing them, evaluate schoolteachers by their students’ test scores, and require states to remove caps on charter schools.

Now, as the Biden Administration and Cardona’s Department of Education staff up, it is becoming apparent that Education Department and White House staff will include key people returning from President Barack Obama’s administration—people who helped design and implement these test-and-punish policies,

Last week, Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa reported that President Biden will nominate Roberto Rodriguez for the position of Assistant Secretary of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development in the Department of Education. Rodriguez was a special White House assistant to President Obama for education policy. And before that, he helped formulate accountability-based school reform as staff to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee when the No Child Left Behind Act was formulated in 2001.

In 2012, Education Week‘s Alyson Klein quoted Rodriguez bragging about Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program: “Mr. Rodriguez, the White house adviser, argues that the Race to the Top has spurred big and lasting change, including helping to advance the Common Core State Standards, which 46 states and the District of Columbia have adopted. ‘We are going to take credit for helping to accelerate the adoption of these standards throughout the country.  Race to the Top clearly did  that.'” You will remember that in order to be able to apply for a Race to the Top grant, states had to promise to adopt formal standards, and after Bill Gates had funded the development of the Common Core, most states grabbed onto what was available.

After serving in the Obama White House, Rodriguez became CEO of an organization called Teach Plus, whose website claims its mission is “to empower excellent, experienced, and diverse teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that advance equity, opportunity, and student success.”  Progressive educator and writer,  Steve Nelson reads that mission a little differently: “On the surface it is dedicated to developing ‘teacher leaders.’ The clear sub-text is to inculcate the values of anti-union reform in a generation of young teachers. Sort of like Teach for America, graduate school edition. They rail against seniority as job security, asserting with no basis that subpar teachers are retained in times of cost cuts because of union protection. They also claim that unions stifle innovation. Teach Plus has received more than $27 million from the Gates Foundation and has among its donors the Walton Family Foundation and an all-star roster of philanthropic sources dedicated to so-called reform… For several decades public education has been a battlefield between committed educators with little money or power and committed non-educators with lots of money and power.”

Roberto Rodriguez will face Senate confirmation to his new position. But if he is confirmed, he will join an administration that includes a former Obama era colleague now serving in the Biden White House.  Diane Ravitch reports that Carmel Martin holds the the same position—Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy—that Roberto Rodriguez held in the Obama Administration.

The 74‘s Kevin Mahnken provides some background on Carmel Martin: “Carmel Martin is one of the most powerful education experts in Washington, a top Democratic policy adviser…. So why haven’t you heard of her?  ‘Carmel’s a ghost,’ said Andrew Rotherham, a longtime education commentator and founder of the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners. ‘You’re not going to find lots of published stuff by her. She’s that archetype that you can work with on various issues, an inside-game person, but she’s set herself up for this moment because she doesn’t have this crazy-long paper trail.'”  Martin also was staff to Senator Ted Kennedy back in 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act gathered bipartisan steam. Mahnken describes Martin as a defender of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and the Common Core standards when she served in Obama’s White House and of Arne Duncan’s policy demanding that states evaluate teachers by their students’ scores.

Secretary Cardona’s has kept everyone’s eyes myopically focused on school reopening after COVID-19. But we all need to pay closer attention to the other policy initiatives that will emerge from Cardona’s Department of Education. Diane Ravitch worries: “that Rodriguez and Carmel Martin will make policy, not Secretary Cardona or Deputy Secretary-designate Cindy Marten. Biden is looking to the future with his sweeping domestic policy plans. But in education, he is looking in the rear-view mirror to the architects of Obama’s failed programs.”

5 thoughts on “Will Staff Returning from Obama/Duncan Years Compromise Biden’s Public Education Promises?

  1. Thanks much, Jan, for highlighting the positives of the Biden Administration. These are noteworthy achievements!
    Your analyses of the challenges of ‘educational justice’ are excellent in pushing us to the next step: drilling down to the details (and down-the-line appointees), where the rubber meets the road.
    Perhaps, hope lies in the chameleon that Biden has become. Perhaps, like him, these previous ‘mistaken’ (and disastrous to Public education) administrators will change their stripes.
    But what is likely is the opposite. As beneficiaries and full participants in undermining public education in the past and in their recent jobs, they will continue similar policies. And this is built into so much of Biden’s and the Democrats failed re-birth. They lack vision that can sustain democracy in any meaningful way. They have a truck-load of money, but a divided heart about their commitments. Like Obama, who was so much the neoliberal, they can’t move beyond capitalism and its variants for public education. Using market-models for public education (privatization in its various forms with its subsidies) is its death-knell, even if it’s a slower life-support version.
    My hope lies in Biden’s administration being a first tentative step, despite its too many mixed motives, and failed commitments. Whether the Democrats can keep moving to develop a better pace or consistent path for its commitments to pubic education is way too wide open to my mind.

  2. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss quoted Dr. Cardona: “He said student data obtained from the tests was important to help education officials create policy and target resources where they are most needed…”

    What more proof do we need that the adults in charge have accepted the commodification of our children. This could have been in an annual report to stockholders. If one had any hope that those in charge were focusing their attention on what is best for children, this quote should serve to dispel that notion. And adding insult to injury, almost 40 years of gathering data to “help education officials create policy and target resources” has gotten us flat scores, disruption of neighborhood schools, and significant increases in student stress, anxiety, and depression. Just what we need… a continuation of policies to help education officials rather than children.

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