Obama’s Reforms Lack Necessary Depth

Sitting in Seaver’s lecture halls or at Carnegie’s seminar tables, it’s easy to forget about the desks where we first learned to read and write. Yet while we learn about RNA polymerase and organizational theory, President Obama and Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, are reshaping the American primary and secondary educational system.

The 2008-2009 global recession provided impetus to the newest round of proposed educational reforms. As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the President signed into law the Race to the Top Fund, a $4.35 billion program designed to encourage reforms in state and local K-12 education. The $4 billion plus was the most money ever allotted by the federal government for the overhaul of America’s schools. Twelve states received funding during the two Race to the Top rounds in 2010, using all but $75 million of the initially allotted money for the fund. Given the estimated $16 billion shortfall for state education budgets in 2010, the President has requested $1.35 billion in the FY 2011 budget to extend the program. Under the Democratic-led lame duck Congress, only $550 million was approved and more cuts are expected with the deficit-cutting Republicans now in power.

In parallel to the Race to the Top program, the Obama administration has announced a sweeping overhaul of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the most recent reincarnation of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) which authorized federal funding for educational programs administered at the state level. On Mar. 15, 2010, the President unveiled his “Blueprint for Reform,” which focused on building new academic standards and having all students college- and career-ready by the time they leave high school. The Blueprint still relies on the use of standardized tests, but calls for a shift from measuring students’ performance to measuring students’ growth. It also shifted the reform’s focus from the 35,000 schools classified by NCLB as “failing” to the 5,000 truly failing schools and emphasized radical strategies for change, like dismissing ineffective principals.

Despite the rhetoric, the Race to the Top program and the new Blueprint have been criticized as essentially an adaptation and continuation of the NCLB. Three of the main pillars of the Obama administration’s proposed reforms—choice, competition and accountability—were also fundamental to NCLB. Many critics also claim that the Blueprint promotes reforms that are unproven or that have been unsuccessful in the past. Building new charter schools, for example, has not always proven to improve the quality of education in a community. Finally, the new Blueprint’s sustained focus on a standardized testing-based educational model provides no incentive for teachers to stop “teaching to the test.”

Still, in many ways, Race to the Top has been successful. Nearly every U.S. state, for example, adopted common educational standards for K-12 to be eligible for funding. The $4 billion invested in reforming America’s schools will take time to yield tangible results. Students’ test scores in 10 years will be better indicators of how effective the program has been.

Race to Higher Education

While the NCLB and Race to the Top reforms may not seem to directly affect college life, they do. College communities are shaped by the demographics of the college-ready population. The underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in the U.S. higher education system is a direct result of the relatively poor quality of the primary and secondary education often received by members of these groups. Unfortunately, the cycle continues today: according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress Report (NAEP) Report Card, there has been no change in the gap between white and black and white and Hispanic students in reading or math since 1992. A 2006 Harvard study showed that the schools in California and Illinois that don’t meet AYP have student bodies composed of 75 to 85 percent minority students, while those that do meet AYP have student bodies made up of less than 40 percent minority students.

Statistics on K-12 education directly mirror the statistics on higher education. The proportion of minority students in the overall higher education distribution is still shy of 35 percent, the proportion of minorities in the U.S. population. The graduation rates for blacks and Latinos lag far behind the graduation rates for whites and Asians. Though the difference is most pronounced in state schools, small liberal arts colleges are no exception. For example, in 2009 Middlebury College had a 14 percentage point difference between white and black graduation rates.

The diminished focus on learning for learning’s sake has also filtered into higher education from primary and secondary education reforms. By emphasizing testing in K-12 education, the U.S. education system, as Martha Nussbaum writes, has lost the “humanistic aspects of science and social science” in favor of “applied skills suited to profit-making.” The privatization of elementary and high school education, most prominently represented by the growth of charter schools, often translates into the “privatization” of skills gained from a university education. Similarly, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” write that as higher education gradually shifts toward a pre-professional model, the liberal arts education has become devalued. At all levels of the U.S. education system, the lessened focus on purely academic learning and the increased focus on market-driven learning has become a problem.

Yet students at the Claremont Colleges have largely been isolated from the negative effects of the education reforms in the past decade. The majority of students at the Claremont Colleges attended primary and secondary schools that offered excellent, well-rounded educations, and only a few attended schools that were branded by No Child Left Behind as “failing.” Now, as college students, we enjoy a great liberal arts education where purely academic learning and quality teaching are prized. While the fact that we have generally had great academic formations should be celebrated, we often fail to see the dark underbelly of an educational system that fails to provide for so many of our peers.

In one respect, however, even students at the Claremont Colleges feel the building pressure on the education system. Globalization means that increasingly we are competing for jobs with students around the world. China already produces more engineers than the U.S. An estimated two-thirds of the 8,000 PhD graduates in engineering in 2010 were not U.S. citizens. As the Race to the Top program begins to refocus American education on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), students at liberal arts colleges and state schools alike are already competing with their foreign peers for jobs. In this sense, the proposed reforms affect us only indirectly, as a response to the rapidly changing economic landscape.

Back to the ABCs

As liberal arts students, we have to push for educational reforms that defend the right to a holistic, liberal education, from kindergarten to college. The growing “global achievement gap” between the U.S. and other OECD countries may be real, but focusing solely on student growth in reading and math or offering more educational choices by building new charter schools are not the solutions. Arts and electives should not be cut in order to keep pace with the progress markers of NCLB, and learning a foreign language, if not in and of itself a pleasure, is almost a necessity in the 21st century.

President Obama’s goal of rebranding NCLB and redefining the U.S. education policy is a step in the right direction, but it is not a big or deep enough change. The new reincarnation of the ESEA will, in large part, determine the fate of America’s youth, but its effects will not be seen for at least a decade. Similarly, four billion dollars is a large sum, but it remains to be seen how effective the Race to the Top funds will be or how much more money Congress will be willing to allocate to education reforms given the budget deficit.

As highly-educated individuals, we often do not feel the changes to the U.S. educational system. As members of society, however, we do. If education reforms are to succeed, the Obama administration will have to figure out how to balance a liberal curriculum with a conservative checkbook.

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