President Obama has a big problem in his second term in terms of education policy: his first term.

Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, pushed hard in their first term to have a major impact on changing public schools with a larger-than-ever federal role in school policy issues that affected every single classroom in the country. And they did, with rare bipartisan support.

They borrowed tactics from the corporate world, setting up the competitive Race to the Top initiative, in which states competed for federal funds by promising to implement specific reforms. Those included new accountability systems that linked teacher evaluation to student standardized test scores, new standards that became known as the Common Core initiative, and an expansion of charter schools. Only 11 states and the District of Columbia won in the $4.3 billion state Race competitions, but other states, in hopes of winning some of the cash, signed on to these reforms, too. The administration’s attempt at leveraging the money they had to get more bang for their buck worked.

In 2008, Obama campaigned on rewriting the 2002 No Child Left Behind law — which was supposed to be done in 2007 because even its authors knew it had to be improved due to its unrealistic requirement that nearly all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. But Obama couldn’t do it without Congress, which could never get its act together to rewrite the act, so Duncan issued waivers from the most onerous NCLB requirements to states that agreed to pursue his brand of school reform.

The administration gave many millions of dollars to other competitive grants too, and supported organizations such as Teach For America. There was money for an initiative called Promise Neighborhoods, intended to provide health, safety and support services in high-poverty neighborhoods, but these funds were competitive, too, and there was far less money for this than for Race to the Top.

And in an extraordinary bipartisan appearance in 2011, Obama shared the stage in Miami with former Florida Republican governor Jeb Bush and declared him a “champion” of public education. Obama did this at the very same time that Wisconsin teachers were fighting their Republican governor’s effort to strip them of most of their collective bargaining rights.

The agenda was ambitious, designed to shake up the status quo — and it did. But it has had major consequences for schools, students, teachers, principals and superintendents — some of them clearly unintended, and they threaten to consume Obama’s second-term education policy agenda.

Why? However fine the intentions were of the Obama administration officials, critics say that the reforms were not well thought out, not based in solid research and were rushed into implementation. They also say that the totality of the reforms have ignored the most basic problem in public education: equity in educational opportunity. Students from wealthy families continue to do far better than middle-class and lower-class families — and that gap keeps growing.

* The emphasis on standardized testing to evaluate teachers and principals has led to a growing grass-roots revolt against the testing obsession. An opt-out of testing movement has taken root in numerous states, and teachers, principals and researchers have written letters to Obama and Duncan saying that “value-added measures” that link student test scores to teacher/principal evaluations are neither reliable nor valid and shouldn’t be used. Yet in some states, as much as half of a staff member’s evaluation is based on this.

The insistence on evaluating teachers by test scores has led to situations in which teachers are evaluated by the scores of students they haven’t taught or subjects they haven’t taught (really), and there’s a move toward of the development standardized tests in every subject. A lawsuit was recently filed against the state of Florida by teachers who were being evaluated by scores of kids they never had. And in Florida, the testing obsession is so deep that the state is forcing a boy with a brain stem, but not a complete brain to take a standardized exam — really.


And there have been repeated scandals in various states with educators cheating on the tests, which culminated in the recent indictments of former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 other educators under a law used to prosecute mobsters.

We’ve heard nothing important from Obama or Duncan on these problems.

* The Common Core State Standards initiative is in trouble. Some 45 states and the District signed on to the initiative with the aim of having the standards in place by 2013-2014, with, of course, new standardized tests aligned to the benchmarks. There was bipartisan support for the initiative, which was aimed at raising state standards and allowing for a common way to assess student performance across the states. When the standards were issued, though, critics raised issues with specific standards; early childhood development experts, for example, said the standards ignored research on how children develop. Even Common Core supporters became concerned when implementation was rushed, saying that teachers were not given enough time to learn the standards, or to collaborate to draw up effective lesson plans.

Furthermore, the early standardized assessments aligned with the core standards have had problems. Now, a number of states are pulling back on them as a result. And experts say that the core-aligned assessments being developed by two multistate consortia with some $350 million in federal funds will not be the “game-changing” next-generation exams that Duncan said would better evaluate students abilities because of a lack of money and time. In the wake of growing opposition, Duncan recently asked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to do more to support the common core standards.

* There are problems with Race to the Top. Many of the states that collectively won more than $4 billion in Race to the Top money are facing big challenges in implementing them according to a February 2013 report by the Education Department. The biggest problems: implementing new educator evaluation standards and creating sophisticated student data systems that are supposed to be able to inform teaching. The whole notion of competitive grants in education has driven critics to say that the administration has ignored equity issues.

* The number of charter schools grew during the Obama administration, with the benefit of federal funding, but the notion that charters are a silver bullet to education’s problems has been debunked, given that research has shown that most of these schools are no better than the traditional public schools. Furthermore, the growth of for-profit charter management companies has highlighted the move toward privatization of public education, which many believe is damaging the country’s most important civic institution.

* Duncan’s NCLB waivers were highly controversial, leading Republicans and some Democrats to worry about federal overreach. The waivers also became part of the equity debate.

* Though the Obama administration does not support vouchers — the use of public money for private school tuition — its emphasis on school choice for parents has given cover for an expansion in some states of voucher programs that have become highly controversial. In Louisiana, for example, public money is going to Christian schools which teach that the universe is no more than 10,000 years old and that dinosaurs co-existed with man. There is no accountability for the public money being spent at private schools.

Enter the second term. The Obama-Duncan agenda in K-12 is aimed at universal preschool for children from low- and medium-income families, but federal budget cuts make that unlikely to be fully implemented.

What is most prominent is the mess from the first term.

This piece first appeared in commondreams.org