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Democratic Party’s Divide On Education Policy Gets Worse

Political pundits who try to tamp down talk of divisions within the Democratic Party must not be paying any attention to education policy.

For quite some time, close observers of the nation’s education policy have been calling attention to the fault lines between education progressives in the Democratic Party and Third Way-style centrists, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Democrats for Education Reform, who lean toward a market-based, econometric philosophy for public education governance.

As Furman University education professor Paul Thomas recently wrote for Alternet, “While the Obama administration has cultivated the appearance of hope and change, its education policies are essentially slightly revised or greatly intensified versions of accountability reform begun under Ronald Reagan.”

But the Democratic Party’s divergence from real progressive values for governing our schools mostly went unnoticed in major media outlets until recently when a few light bulbs went off among political observers. Writing for Slate, Matt Yglesias noticed, “Education reform, not ‘populism’ divides Democrats.” Then, Connor Williams of the New America Foundation saw the light and explained for The New Republic, “In 2016, Democrats have good reason to run against Obama’s education record.”

Now, Jonathan Chait has penned a piece for New York Magazine, “Teachers Unions Turn Against Democrats,” in which he postulates that a “backlash” to President Obama’s education policies, energized by education historian Diane Ravitch, could lead to an alliance between teachers unions and, gulp, Republicans.

For sure, the divide on education policy within the Democratic Party has grown into a Rubicon, and now Democratic candidates and their operatives and supporters need to decide which side makes the most sense to ally with.

The President’s Great Day Goes Sour

The divisions over education policy were all too apparent recently when President Obama joined Secretary Duncan to introduce an ambitious new plan to place more highly qualified teachers in front of students who need those teachers the most.

As education reporter Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post wrote, “The Education Department is directing every state and the District to devise a plan by April 2015 to get more good teachers into their high-poverty schools.”

“This is a really important exercise for the nation to undertake,” Secretary Duncan said.

The White House had already lined up Beltway groups such as The Education Trust to ballyhoo the effort. There would be a press gathering, of course. And to highlight the initiative, Duncan and the president had scheduled lunch with a group of teachers. A grand day for sure.

But at the photo-op luncheon, it seemed the teachers hadn’t gotten the memo. Instead of gabbing about the new teacher equity plan, they apparently talked mostly about “frustration at the lack of resources at their schools and the regularly changing demands of their jobs,” according to Layton.

McClatchy reported the conversation similarly, referring to a North Carolina teacher in attendance who, “Told Duncan that teachers are frustrated because they’re being asked ‘to do something great with minimal resources.’”

And when reporters gathered, the question that was top of mind was not about the President’s new initiative at all. Instead, journalists wanted to know how the administration felt about the nation’s largest teachers’ union calling for Secretary Duncan’s resignation.

Delegates of the National Education Association, meeting in Denver at their annual convention, had just passed a resolution citing the teachers’ objections to the “department’s failed education agenda” and calling for Duncan to resign.

Duncan had initially “brushed off,” according to a report from Politico, the NEA resolution. But the issue is undoubtedly nagging him.

As education journalist Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post wrote, “Duncan can try to downplay the vote … But the NEA vote is a new sign of growing disenchantment with Duncan’s policies from the unions and well beyond them, as parents, principals, superintendents and others protest the Duncan agenda.”

How did the frustrations felt by everyday teachers and the growing resentment their organizations have with Secretary Duncan rule the day?

Frustration Rules The Day

The President’s desire to see the nation’s more experienced and educated teachers distributed in schools is a important for sure. Schools that serve poor, minority kids tend not to get the ones with the deepest resumes. As a recent article from The Huffington Post explained

  • The more affluent the district, the more likely teachers are to have received a master’s degree or higher.
  • Affluent districts tend to employ teachers with more experience.
  • The more white the school, the more likely teachers are to be certified in the subjects they teach.

That news outlet’s education reporter Joy Resmovits wrote in her report on the Obama initiative, “Students in high-poverty schools, a national survey has shown, are twice as likely to have their most important classes taught by teachers without proper certification. And federal data shows that minority students’ teachers on average have less experience than the teachers of their wealthier peers.”

What’s interesting though is that, as The Post’s Layton pointed out, the President’s initiative “doesn’t address the thorny problem of how to identify an effective teacher.” That challenge has been relegated to new teacher evaluation systems that Secretary Duncan has advocated for but teachers abhor.

Those evaluations rely, to varying extents, on how students score on standardized tests. As education historian Diane Ravitch asked when looking over the President’s new teacher equity plan, “Will the Obama administration ever figure out that test scores reflect socioeconomic conditions more than teachers? They might look at research or even the recent report of the American Statistical Association, which attributed 1-14% of score variation to teachers.”

Further, although the new teacher equity plan enforces requirements for states to put experienced and highly qualified teachers in schools serving high numbers of poor and minority students, the Obama administration has steered millions of federal dollars to Teach for America. TFA is an organization that places new teacher recruits from elite colleges and universities into some of the poorest schools in America – after only five weeks of training.

And Secretary Duncan and his supporters claim they want to see more experienced, better educated teachers serving in schools serving poor, black and brown kids. Yet they hail actions, like the recent legal ruling in the Vergara v California case, that undermine the job security of more experienced teachers.

If the President and his supporters really wanted to do more to help ensure more of the nation’s best teachers ended up in front of students who need them the most, they would have embraced guidelines put forth by the Opportunity to Learn campaign last year. OTL’s plan, Excellent Teachers For Each And Every Child: A Guide for State Policy, addressed the many factors that influence teaching quality and equitable distribution, such as learning conditions, school environment, and instructional resources. [Disclosure: OTL is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network and the Campaign for America's Future.]

Yet instead, Duncan has continued to blaze an education policy path that talks out of both sides of its mouth – pronouncing great beliefs in the value of experienced teachers but doing everything possible to undermine them with unfair evaluations, competition from less-credentialed recruits, and attacks on their job protections.

The frustrations teachers feel from these policies – while they grapple with the budget cuts imposed by conservative state governments – have been building for some time. And now they’re boiling over.

Should Democrats care?

Democrats Will Have To Choose

The list of education related legislation pending in Congress is not extensive and may not make any headway in a blocked up, unproductive House and Senate. So now the White House is relying on executive actions, such as its teacher equity initiative, to circumvent congressional gridlock.

But it’s hard to believe that executive actions will have much effect on the ground when the people on the ground, in this case classroom teachers, are not at all supportive.

The fact of the matter is that this presidential administration and some of its most ardent backers have never really gotten education at all.

Amy Dean asked in a recent piece for Truth Out, “Why does the Obama administration keep getting it wrong on education policy?” In her interview with Leo Casey of the American Federation of Teachers, she asked, “The priorities of the Obama administration’s Department of Education seem little changed from the failures of the Bush administration … What sort of policies should we be pushing for?”

In response, Casey outlined a more positive, more progressive way forward, “We need to look at a different way to do accountability that would not be focused on standardized tests, but that would really look at good measures of learning. It would focus not on punishing and negative sanctions, but on improving what’s going on in schools and classrooms. All of that is eminently doable on a national level and with a Democratic administration that is not so enthralled to the market model of reform.”

As my colleague Robert Borosage has argued, the divisions on economic policy among Democrats are “fundamental … grounded on very different perspectives that lead in significantly different directions.”

In the education arena, those fundamental differences have been stewing in the pot for a long time. What teachers and their unions have done now is to finally serve them up to the table.

Now, it’s mostly a matter of seeing who will be the first Democrats to understand those differences and use them as wedge issues to influence the increasingly angry electorate

And when the November election looms on the horizon, and you’re a candidate looking for volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls, organizations like The Education Trust are nowhere to be found. Your local teachers on the other hand?

  • Beth says:

    O’Bama’s policies will fail because they do not deal with the root problem in US public schools which is economic segregation. History has shown us when the achievement gap began to close. When schools were integrated the gap narrowed.

    July 9, 2014 at 2:40 pm
    • Jean Millay, PhD says:

      The child comes to school as a multidimensional being with hopes, fears, and needing friends. The only thing we test (aggressively – part of fear) is their intellect. However, their emotional state controls their focus of attention. So with the new mind toys, we can teach intelligence. first, we introduce them to biofeedback instruments that will help them learn to focus attention (and get at least some of the problems caused by prescribed drugs out of the system and out of the child’s idea that drugs are the answer to problems). We can teach remote viewing, coherence of brainwaves, etc. “Field wrote in Scientific American Mind: “The phenomenal abilities of the human mind arise not from neurons, but from the coherence of brainwaves.” Then we can introduce them to the whole electromagnetic spectrum chart to show where brainwaves and heart rates are related to the frequencies of sun, earth and sound. Some instruments can demonstrate how we are all connected electrically to the Consciousness of Life of the Whole Biosphere…. For a free 40″ chart in color to show that, http://www.i-asc.org and look for “Self-Discovery Science” … this is not an ad to buy anything. It is there for free to help our collective understanding of the whole of human consciousness.
      Jean Millay, PhD.

      July 9, 2014 at 9:44 pm
  • James E. says:

    I disagree with the idea that placing experienced teachers in front of a class in a high poverty level school will make a difference. This would imply that the teachers who are currently in front of those classes don’t care, or don’t try, or are not well trained. I am a very experienced High School science teacher, with a very strong track record of success. I have Masters degree in a physical science, and I have been nationally recognized for my work. I worked in a rural high school in southern Oregon with a high level of poverty, but motivated students who wanted to better themselves.
    Sadly, the School Board was taken over by Tea Party types (one of them a convicted criminal- assault on a minor) and working conditions became so bad that I left the state and moved to CO. I worked last year in a very tough urban high school. I had some great kids, and some terrible ones. I assure you that almost every teacher in that school worked hard every day to help those students succeed. We were handicapped by being forced to teach a curriculum based on the Common Core that actively prevents students from learning.
    For example: one math teacher was dismissed for teaching math facts to her students- memorization is now forbidden. Students are given calculators to use so that they can pass the elementary math standardized tests, and they never learn how to do arithmetic, so they can not learn algebra later (you can not solve 2 times 3x, if you do not know what 2 times 3 is). The are spoon fed science. The English department was apparently not able to teach them to write a basic paragraph, despite a full year’s worth of practice (I am unable to account for this, but it is likely, given the other curriculum issues, that Common Core type decisions may be at the root of it).
    This next year, I have chosen to teach in a small urban public Charter school, serving a very difficult group of students- limited English abilities, lack of previous success in school, and very high poverty. I hope to be successful with them. New teachers coming out of education schools now are far better prepared than I was only a few years ago. They get classes in how to teach and support students such as the ones that I will be working with. A good school needs not just experienced (old) teacher like me- that will not ensure success. You need motivated teachers who are allowed to try methods that will work, and not hamstrung by top down curriculum that actively prevents learning. The idea that simply putting previously successful teachers in front of a classroom full of students who cannot read or do math will magically transform education is wrong. The teachers need to be allowed to use methods that actually promote learning, not just high test scores. Also, one teacher cannot make up for years of neglect and lack of motivation. I can not fix poverty, and that is the number one indicator of a school’s lack of success. It is not race, nor is it language, the indicator is poverty. Fix that, and you will fix our schools. Sorry for the rambling nature of this post, I think that I tried to address too many issues at one time. This is a huge problem, and there are no easy fixes.

    July 9, 2014 at 3:08 pm
    • Jeff Bryant says:

      Thanks so much for this comment James. It is a big problem and I appreciate your sharing of multiple perspectives on how to approach it.

      July 9, 2014 at 4:25 pm
  • Theresa Mitchell Dudley says:

    Don’t think there will be an alliance between NEA and the Republicans.unless the Republicans turn 180 degrees. Obama has been a conservative on education. He was very clear before he was elected what his education policy would entail including Incentive pay and charter schools. The impasse in Congress between the parties has left the re-authorization of ESEA in limbo and the policies have created a test the child to death mentality. What would have happened to public education if his children had gone to public schools?

    July 9, 2014 at 3:17 pm
  • Danne Absher says:

    When President Obama ran in the 2008 election, he told the story of his mother waking him at 4:00 in the morning because he hadn’t finished his homework. I thought he understood the importance of the attitude toward education that students bring from home. To pin students’ failure to meet test standards entirely on poor teaching is a gross oversimplification of the problem.

    July 9, 2014 at 3:41 pm
  • Bruce Smith says:

    Schools in low income communities must have lower class sizes and more support staff for students with greater needs and less support available at home; parents often not there, at work, and with less than college education themselves. In my opinion, the difficulty is finding a funding formula that will make it through Congress and state legislatures.

    July 9, 2014 at 5:01 pm
  • Bruce Eggum says:

    We need Federal Funding for our Public Schools. Teacher evaluation should be based on the students improvement considering student at start and after a year of education.

    July 9, 2014 at 10:27 pm
  • glenn martin says:

    The growth of Western Civilization is the key to quality education.You can not expect children ,and young adults to receive education when these young people do not exist in this western civilization world .Plan and simple ,40 to 60 % of these Americans ,have no idea what education is and how to be a party to these class room built initiatives,to become educated ..What I find in America in 2014 is that the people of America are not part of Western Civilization and they should remain citizens of America and not partake in intellectual education.Books are not for every one ,no matter what you do ,books are for a group of book lovers ,plain and simple. .This group needs to be honored for the life they offer to America. Plane and simple do not expect them to achieve more then they are aware of .Let them off the hook and make education standards to fit the need of the individual .This will limit class participation and allow the smarter group to excel and the the remedial off the hook .Stop forcing the education on those who do not respond .You will not get a response . Let them partake in education that leads to a sustainable life, form all….thank you gjmars

    July 10, 2014 at 2:39 am
  • Andrea Lancer says:

    Duncan needs to figure out how to entice successful, experienced teachers to put their salaries and careers at risk by teaching in a poor neighborhood where the test scores are low when their evaluations are connected to test scores.

    July 10, 2014 at 4:27 pm
  • Julie Stroeve says:

    On this very day, Students First, Michelle Rhee’s union-busting scheme, left the State of Minnesota due to lack of public traction. Minnesotans support public education, public education teachers, and public education students.

    July 10, 2014 at 6:48 pm
  • Katherine says:

    The division in the Democratic Party became real to me last week when I read that President Obama, supposedly a Democrat, had enlisted Robert Gibbs, his first press secretary, to lead a NATIONAL effort to dismantle teachers’ unions. I was aghast I am waiting for nationally known Democrats to speak out against this but if it’s being done, the media hasn’t picked it up. No matter what people, including
    Obama, may think of unions, state legislatures have always had the power to regulate unions. Why would a Democratic President do such a thing? Because he is listening to the wealthy Wall Street donors in the Democratic Party. He has chosen to be in their camp. They belong in the Republican Party and they should all be tossed out of the Democratic Party. One thing is sure: none of them, including Obama, know anything about how to educate children and should not have sway over education policy.

    July 11, 2014 at 2:35 pm
  • Julia B says:

    I have only been a teacher for 3 years but I have taught in both low income and affluent schools and it is evident that the issue is a socital/ cultural issue. Students do what they want to do when they want to do, Administrators cow tow to parents. There is a sense of entitlement and no accountability for actions. Of course there are many students with great parents who have taught them to be humble, kind, curious and hungry for knowledge, however they are handicapped by their few-many classmates who have been taught that the world revolved around them or have never been taught at all how to behave properly. Classes of 25-35 students are ridiculously ineffective. There will always been problem students who drain all the teachers resources and energy and therefore leave the other students with less of an education then they deserve. It is going to take a village. There needs to be a societal shift in America. Our value system is way out of whack. We are an over indulged, entitled, conceited, yet simultaneously impoverished nation and we need to pull our heads from the sand and realize we have been doing it all wrong, in many respects, but definitely where education is concerned. Parents need to be more accountable for their children’s educational success and teachers need to stop being expected to perform impossible feats. I feel some days as if I am expected to be an illusionist rather than an educator. Educate 25 students, many at different reading, writing, reasoning levels. Make sure they all get individualized attention and lessons if need be. Check them all for understanding. Make sure they can work independently but also in groups. Allow them to use phones and technology in the classroom but make sure you watch all 25 of them at all times to make sure they don’t jump on Facebook and start cyber bullying each other because as soon as they do you will be held accountable. And that’s just a small sample of my day to day, The expectations on teachers are exhausting and getting more extensive every day, which is why teachers rarely last past the 2nd year of teaching anymore. If we do not do something about the state of education in this country schools will be forced to lower their standards to those without degrees soon because no educated person will take the job. Please believe me when I tell you that it is a dier situation. Educators and parents we have to get loud and get organized and demand more for our students and children. We are ranked 33rd in the world in education. That is not only an embarrassment but it should be a call to action because that is our countries future. We are on the track to become a third world nation if we don’t figure this out. It should be #1 on the presidents agenda, sad that it is barely talked about.

    July 14, 2014 at 2:45 am

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