Obama Education Policies Face Scrutiny As School Year Wraps

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As the school year winds down, education remains a major part of the national agenda. A roundtable of education reporters �" NPR’s Claudio Sanchez, WBEZ’s Linda Lutton and WAMU’s Kavitha Cardoza �" offers a year-end assessment of the Obama administration’s effort to improve the nation’s education system.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

The end of the school year is upon us. The standardized tests are done or almost done. Grades are in, graduation parties are being held or planned. It's the end of a school year where education is not only at the top of most parents' agenda, it is, once again, a major part of the national agenda.

So we decided to check in on the state of education across the U.S., as well as on some education stories we've covered over the course of the year. To do that, we've called on Kavitha Cardoza. She reports on Washington, D.C. schools for WAMU, our member station, and has joined us on our program off and on throughout the year.

Also in the studio we have NPR education reporter Claudio Sanchez, and from WBEZ Chicago, Linda Lutton. She also reports on schools and education and she's been with us over the course of the year too, to tell us about some stories. So I welcome you all back. Thank you for joining us.


LINDA LUTTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Claudio, I'll start with you. This administration has set aside more than $90 billion for education. Sounds like a big figure, and I think it's fair to say that the previous administration, the George W. Bush administration, also had a big commitment to education in the form of No Child Left Behind. But does this represent a new level of federal involvement and investment in education?

SANCHEZ: It certainly does. And you could argue Secretary Arne Duncan is now the most powerful secretary of education in this country's history, since it's been a cabinet position. Money is power. Money is what gets things done. Unlike No Child Left Behind, Mr. Obama now has an enormous carrot to offer states, certainly at a time when states are scrambling for every penny.

So, here we have an administration that has used this money, some would say to coerce, but most people would say to encourage, to move forward with some pretty dramatic changes.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you that. What is the administration hoping to accomplish with this money? What are the changes that they want to see?

SANCHEZ: One very clear example: No Child Left Behind created this foundation in which by disaggregating data and essentially not allowing schools to camouflage the failure of some kids by averaging scores and things like that out. The administration has said that's something to build on. And what they've done is use that disaggregated data, breaking it down by race, by ethnicity, by income, to essentially identify the absolutely worse schools in this country.

And they've used this to essentially say, we are going to target our money, that new money, to turn these schools around. That's an enormous task, because it means in some cases starting over again, firing all staff if necessary, firing principals. There's been room here for private, for-profit, non-profits to come in and essentially change both the dynamics of school reform as well as the specific things that schools need to do to turn things around.

And so this has been very controversial because it's meant that the administration has to take on the teachers unions, which are often accused of dragging their feet, for not wanting to be held accountable.

MARTIN: Or for valuing seniority over performance.

SANCHEZ: Exactly. And that is where cities like Washington, like New York, Chicago certainly, have had some experience in knocking heads between teachers unions and this administration.

MARTIN: Linda, let's go to you. The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, came from Chicago. He was a superintendent of schools there. And so is it fair to say that some of these national reforms or changes are modeled on what Arne Duncan did in Chicago? And what are the results, how are the results that he achieved there being perceived now?

LUTTON: Well, without a question, some of the things we're seeing on the national level definitely have been tried here. And it's interesting to see from a Chicago perspective, because I think a lot of folks in Chicago feel like the jury is still out on many of these strategies - strategies, like Claudio mentioned, that involve maybe firing a hundred percent of the staff at a school, everybody from the principal down to the lunch lady.

So from a Chicago perspective, it's interesting to see these strategies being put forth as sort of the road map. Whereas in Chicago I think there's still a lot of doubt about what results have come.

MARTIN: I want to ask you to tell me a little bit more about that in a minute. But I want to bring Kavitha into the conversation. Washington, D.C. has been in the news because the chancellor of D.C. schools here, Michelle Rhee, has tried to implement a number of the suggestions, proposals and ideas that the Obama administration is championing right here. And it has also not been without controversy.

She recently seems to have won a major victory in implementing a new contract for teachers. Can you just bring us up to date on that? What will be different now?

Ms. CORDOZA: Teachers will get a lot more money. They're going to make 20 percent more as their base salary and then they also can opt into a pay for performance program, which could get them up to $30,000 more a year.

On the flip side, if there have to be firings in schools or principals want to let teachers go, it's not going to be based seniority the way it traditionally has. And also, Claudio was talking a while earlier about how students' test scores have been desegregated. It seems now that teachers too are going to be held accountable because depending on how their students' scores have improved they could earn money under the pay for performance program.

MARTIN: Now you say that this is optional, that teachers have the choice of opting into this pay for performance program.

Ms. CORDOZA: And all the details...

MARTIN: Is this still considered a victory, though?

Ms. CORDOZA: It is considered a victory by both sides because, Michel, we had first proposed it as red-tier - green-tier, whereas if you opt in you can be fired and that's it, but you get more money.

SANCHEZ: You know, let me give you my sense of it. What has happened here is really important because it's no loner seniority that helps schools decide whether the teacher is doing his or her job. That's really a watershed moment. I think that what Michelle Rhee got is crucial and what the union, and certainly the union President George Parker has said he's gotten is that the reassurance that there will still be a due process as part of this, where a teacher can defend his or her record.

The other thing is that the union was very happy to get some of the enormous amount of benefits. And it's not just money. It's training. It's the ability to deal with discipline in the classroom a lot more swiftly. And I think teachers are now kind of getting this really benefit of the doubt.

MARTIN: Linda, you started to tell us a little bit about test scores and Chicago is seven years in to some of these ideas that Arne Duncan was advancing and is now advancing on the national level. And the question always is what have you see over the course of the year? Is there a sense of progress in Chicago and in educational achievement?

Ms. LUTTON: Well, as I mentioned, I mean I think it has been a mixed bag and some of the things that the district has tried have netted results. But its very hard to make generalizations. You know, we have the turnaround school model, which again, is being pushed nationwide now. This is the one where you fire everybody from the principal to the lunch lady. That's the way it's done in Chicago. And the schools that are being run by an outside group, there will be 18 of those schools being run by an outside organization, a nonprofit, beginning in the fall. They have shown some gains.

Then again, the schools that have been turned around by the district itself have not showed the same gains. Weve seen elementary schools make gains faster than high schools, for instance. And, you know, we also see charter school saying, interestingly, measure me by something else other than my test scores. They're saying our culture is better. Weve improved attendance rates, for instance. We're getting more kids to graduate but forgive our test scores, if you will.

MARTIN: Claudio, talk to me about that, if you would, the whole charter school thing. And new data came out of the course the year about the performance of charter schools in some places. And obviously, its very hard to make comparisons across jurisdictions. But tell me, is the bloom off the rose of charter schools or is there still...

SANCHEZ: I dont think there ever was a real bloom. I think that it is very much a mixed record. Clearly, you have people who are proponents, including the Obama administration, claiming that this is the great hope for public education in that it gives parents a choice. It gives parents, in some cases, a smaller setting in which teachers can be more nurturing, can be more helpful and where teachers can work way outside the boundaries of collective bargaining and D.C., Chicago are probably very good examples of that.

I do have to say though that the overall reaction, certainly in D.C., is that if you ask the typical parent, all that those parents really want is they want their kids to be safe. They want to make sure that their kids are reading at grade level. Whether the public schools give that to them or not, or whether they get it from a charter school, often it doesnt really matter to them.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and we're marking the end of the school year by looking back on some of the educational stories that have made news throughout the year, and getting the big picture of the Obama administration's moves on education and what we can expect in the upcoming year.

I'm speaking with NPR education reporter Claudio Sanchez. Also with us Kavitha Cardoza, who covers education in Washington, and Linda Lutton, who covers education in Chicago.

Claudio brought up school safety. I do want to talk about that because there are two stories that Kavitha and Linda covered this year that spoke directly to this issue of school safety.

Linda, I'll go to you first. There was this very highly publicized story of a young man who was going home from school, was caught in the middle of a fight, to everybody's knowledge an innocent bystander, and lost his life in an after school fight. This caused, you know, a tremendous reaction around the country to the point the attorney general and Arne Duncan traveled back to Chicago to have part of a community forum on this.

Could I just ask you, what has been the upshot of this? Has there been any further legal developments? And have there been any changes made in to how school security is addressed in the wake of this terrible incident?

Ms. LUTTON: Well, you were talking about the Derrion Albert incident, of course. And exactly in the same month that Derrion was killed, at the beginning of the school year, School CEO Ron Huberman had announced a very bold plan to try to cut down on youth violence.

You know, the idea that Huberman had was a very provocative one. He said we could predict who was at most risk of being a victim of gun violence. He went through the school rolls and did that. And I would say a school year later, the lesson has been that programs like this take a very long time to get up and running. And so, I think it highlights how complicated some of the school issues can be in the sense that, you know, there's a lot of moving parts here. And even folks who envision these plans aren't always sure what is moving numbers.

MARTIN: And Kavitha, you know, one of the interesting things about Washington is a number of students go to charter schools, this means they go to schools outside their neighborhood. And then one issue that emerged is that some of these kids outside their neighborhood felt that they were being targeted for assault and there had not been deaths as has occurred in Chicago but there have been a number of kids who've been beaten up. Is there any movement on that story?

Ms. CARDOZA: There has. It was interesting, because the Metropolitan Police Department took responsibility for security around traditional public schools but not charter public schools even though they both are financed by the public. What happened shortly after we spoke the last time is that the city council reviewed that and decided that yes, that was unfair and now MPD officers are around charter schools as well helping keep discipline.

MARTIN: Claudio?

SANCHEZ: You know, Michel, it would be important to note that under No Child Left Behind, one of the 37 things that schools had to be evaluated on was school violence, and yet it's fallen off the radar. In terms of actually acting on policies that does affect safety, it really has not been on people's radar.

MARTIN: You know, Claudio...

Ms. LUTTON: Well...

MARTIN: Oh go ahead, Linda.

Ms. LUTTON: Well, I was going to say, you know, it's interesting to point out, you know, much of the youth violence that we see, you know, the Derrion Albert beating for instance, was a half mile from school and the district had calculated that most of the youth violence that takes places and the youth killings for sure, are happening actually well outside school hours or after school hours even.

And so in Chicago, the school system has said we are going to address this problem even though we dont believe this is a school related problem, right? The violence is not taking place on school grounds or necessarily during school hours or even in the time immediately after school hours.

MARTIN: Claudio finally, give us a final thought, if you would, about what's next. I mean clearly, the administration has made a big splash in a number of these areas. So what's next, I'd like to ask. What's the next thing? What's around the bend?

SANCHEZ: I think that there are two, maybe three big issues to watch for. Number one, remember that No Child Left Behind alienated states and governors who saw it as a power grab and certainly as just a series of unfunded mandates. As we said earlier, President Obama now has an enormous amount of money to play with. But he also faces opposition and resistance from some states - last I heard it was nine states - because they still see it as an intrusion.

Texas is a good example. Ironically, they were the genesis of No Child Left Behind. But here's a state that says we dont want any part of that because we feel we can do as good a job. The other thing to watch is the governors have -and state education commissioners have just agreed on what I think is a historic change and that is an agreement to create common standards in math and English and reading.

This is enormous because this is a jumping off point that it very much helps the administration make its case, which is: Why should a child in Maine receive a more inferior education than a child in California or vice versa? And so I think that this is going to be important to watch.

And finally, I think that weve also seen an enormous change in how the federal government funds schools. Weve gone from a formula that said regardless of consequences, we the Feds are going to provide up to 10, maybe 12 percent of your funding. Now, Mr. Obama has introduced a totally new concept: competitive grants. And that is something that ties money to consequences or to results.

Innovation, let's get more experimentation, let's get these schools to turn around. And that has, I think, changed and could be risky because it has changed the whole rationale for federal funding of schools. And I think there's an argument to be made that a lot of schools that either decide not to compete or that can't compete for this money will be left. And now this is big because every state right now faces a real tough economic situation with very few prospects that education funding is going to be able to see more money.

MARTIN: Well, something to watch. Thank you for that.

Claudio Sanchez covers education for NPR. He was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Kavitha Cardoza who reports on education in Washington, D.C. from member station WAMU. And with us from Chicago, Linda Lutton who reports on education from member station WBEZ.

Thank you all so much for speaking with us. Let's talk again next year.

SANCHEZ: All right. Thank you.

Ms. CARDOZA: Thank you.

Ms. LUTTON: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Remember, at TELL ME MORE the conversation never ends. If you are a parent or a teacher or a student we'd like to hear from you. We'd like to know how your school year went. What worked well? What didnt work so well and what do you want to see better next year?

To tell us more, call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522. Please remember to tell us how to pronounce your name. Or you can check out our website. Just go to npr.org, select TELL ME MORE from the program page and blog it out.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

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