Dana Milbank of the Washington Post recently wrote an article claiming that, in short, President Obama’s education policies are a continuation and expansion of President Bush’s policies that emphasized testing. John Podesta, President of the Center for American Progress responded in the Post that the President is using a variety of policies that challenge the “status quo.”
We think that John Podesta got it right: President Obama has a robust education reform agenda that is broader than testing.
However, we also think Dana Milbank is right: the President has used the bully pulpit to emphasize a limited set of reform strategies, especially more testing.
So where’s the disconnect? We think it’s in the messaging. The Administration has offered a limited set of priorities in public appearances and the media. At the same time, they have been quite willing to very publicly challenge teacher unions, civil rights groups, and anyone else they claim is protecting the so-called “status quo.”
Yet, less known is that they have a broader strategy that supports comprehensive approaches to school reform. The Administration supports and has sought funding for comprehensive strategies such as community schools and Promise Neighborhoods. They are also working to create stronger collaborations across federal agencies (e.g., HHS, Department of Agriculture, HUD) to ensure that our youth and families have the supports and opportunities they need to be successful.
Further, they have allocated a great deal of money to support local innovations through i3, RTT, and SIG. Districts, states, CBOs, and higher education institutions will have resources to develop innovative strategies that meet local needs of students, families, and communities. In Evansville, IN, one school is using its SIG grant to engage the community, to provide more time for student learning, and to provide social services for families and students. In Massachusetts, their winning Race to the Top application includes funding for “Integrated community support for students’ social, emotional, and health needs.” Secretary Duncan said, “Grant programs unleash creativity and innovation.” The Administration is counting on and funding local innovations that go beyond testing to improve outcomes for students.
We hope that the President and Secretary will highlight these innovative strategies to fully shed light on the reforms they truly want – reforms that go beyond an over-reliance on testing. Unless they do so, the strategies that they’ve chosen to highlight thus far will continue to send the message to Milbank and many others, including key supporters of the President who expected change in education policy, that the Administration is stuck in producing more of the same. The Administration must use their bully pulpit to vocalize a broad results-based framework that includes achievement, but also other outcomes we care about for our children including health and employment. We need a comprehensive set of strategies to solve our most complex problems. The President and Secretary, believers in a comprehensive approach, need to do a better job communicating that to an education reform community looking for direction.
Shital C. Shah