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Why Does the Obama Administration Keep Getting It Wrong on Education Policy?

Albert Shanker Institute executive director Leo Casey talks about community schools, public education, teacher evaluation, standardized testing, Common Core, the political dimension of corporate education

Part of the Series

A Dialogue With Albert Shanker Institute Executive Director Leo Casey

Albert Shanker Institute executive director Leo Casey talks about community schools, public education, teacher evaluation, standardized testing, Common Core, the political dimension of corporate education “reform” and what policies are needed to revitalize public education.

Maintaining and directing the federal bureaucracy is one of the most important (and underappreciated) presidential tasks. When Barack Obama was elected, progressives had high hopes that, after eight years of Republican rule, federal agencies would take significant turns for the better. In some instances, this has been the case. But the priorities of the Obama administration’s Department of Education seem little changed from the failures of the Bush administration.

The administration’s signature policy, Race to the Top, is designed to help only those states (19 so far) that encourage the proliferation of charter schools and increase reliance on high-stakes testing. This is not entirely surprising, given that Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary, came to Washington with a suspect record. As Chicago’s public schools chief, he closed 44 public schools and opened over 100 charters, advancing a pro-corporate “reform” agenda while doing little to meet the city’s actual needs.

Why has the administration’s education agenda gone so badly awry? What should progressives be demanding at the present moment? And if Democrats and Republicans have very similar priorities for education, are there any improvements we can hope for under a future administration?

To answer these questions, I recently spoke with Leo Casey, a former vice president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Currently, Casey is executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank named for the iconic leader of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) who is credited with developing the high professional standards associated with today’s teaching profession.

Amy Dean for Truthout: I want to talk about what’s happening at the national level. Why is there so little distinction between the two major parties with regard to education policy?

Leo Casey: I don’t think it is anything separate from the general way in which many Democrats have taken a position that is very supportive of Wall Street and [adopted] an economic agenda which is not focused on working people. Over the last 30 years, there has been a process, not only of growing economic inequality, but also of growing political power for a corporate agenda.

For a while people in public education and people in public sector unions thought that somehow we were protected – that we weren’t going to face the same sort of onslaught which was being directed toward private-sector industrial unions. But insofar as teacher unions are the one part of the American labor movement that really has organized its sector for the most part, it was inevitable that guns would be trained on us sooner or later.

So how have the two parties converged on education policy?

There is a great deal of overlap. Teachers are the welfare queens of the 21st century in terms of representing a public image that politicians think they can run against. But there are important distinctions to be made. Even the most neoliberal of the Democrats are not supportive of vouchers, the most purist of market reforms. That is not an unimportant distinction.

But on issues like teacher evaluation, there’s really not much that distinguishes them. The Common Core is a really complicated piece because the underlying problem is not the standards themselves, but the way in which they’ve been implemented and how they’ve been connected to testing. We’ve skipped over all the intermediate steps – such as professional development for teachers, curriculum for teachers to teach [and] time for teachers to work with each other to develop new lesson plans and new classroom approaches. We skipped over all of those absolutely essential steps and went right to testing.

Given this context, how have the policies of President Obama’s education department compared with those of the Bush administration?

The policies have been basically the same. At the beginning, when Obama came in, we were still very much in the depths of the recession, and the government pumped a lot of money into school districts to prevent teacher layoffs. But after that, the policies have been basically the same as the Bush policies.

Right after Obama’s first election, the battle was fought over who was going to be secretary of education. Linda Darling-Hammond was the alternative to Arne Duncan. I think that once Duncan was appointed, they filled all of the top policy positions at the Department of Education with folks who were very much in favor of market reform.

For them, there’s just an echo effect. There’s not really an appreciation of the importance of teacher voice – of actually listening to educators about what’s happening in their schools. Within their political and educational view, it’s kind of inconceivable that you could do things in a different way that would respect the professional knowledge and expertise of educators.

What is your recommendation to people who are at the local level or state level and are trying to figure out how to maneuver in this policy environment?

It is important to be able to point to the fact that when you have growing economic inequality, that that has educational effects. Here’s an area where actually there is some positive overlap with the Obama folks: a focus on quality pre-K and on literacy development. [New York City Mayor Bill] DeBlasio has focused on that, and I do think there is some support within the Obama camp.

I also think it’s important to focus on the development of community schools, particularly in schools that are serving high-need populations. We need to make sure that students receive the social services, the health services, the mental health services that they need so that they can actually focus on learning. We’re really talking about questions of education and economic resources. We need to refocus on the fight for educational equity. This had some steam for a while, and then really got smashed in the last recession.

Can you describe what you mean when you use the term “community school”?

A community school is where students and their families would have access to a broad array of social services and health services. This would be important to the education of the young people. And there could be educational services for the parents in the schools, like night classes or classes in English.

There’s a broader definition, too, that talks not just about those services, but also about the relationship between school and community. The school is a vital institution that needs to be part of community life. One of the most damaging parts of the corporate education reform movement has been the mass closure of schools in places like Chicago, New York and Philly. In many cases, the school is the one institution in a neighborhood, however inadequate it may be, that’s still alive.

Could you imagine a new Department of Education that would be more responsive to the needs of teachers and students? What sort of policies should we be pushing for?

At the federal level, one would hope to have a Department of Education that says charter schools are fine as long as they are really public schools. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to make the very conception of a charter school into the enemy. But if you are a school receiving public funding, then you need to be a public school in the fullest meaning of the term. That means having transparent, democratic governance. It means taking all students, serving all students. It means having a voice for educators, for families and for the community.

Once we say that charter schools need to be public schools in the fullest meaning of the term then we’re no longer on the terrain of the battle that charter schools want. They want to say that district schools are failing and they’re the alternative. But we’re talking about the substantive issues: why are students with special needs, why are English-language learners, why are students in the deepest poverty, why are they being kept out of charter schools? And what does that mean for public education?

Second, we really need to have a way of dialing back on this obsession with standardized testing. This is being used as a bottom line in a market model. I think 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.

Are there more opportunities for reform at the local and state levels?

Particularly in urban areas, we’re beginning to see signs of real hope. The one thing I regret about having left New York City and coming to the Shanker Institute is that there’s now [with a new mayor in City Hall] a real partner for the union to negotiate with to move education forward in New York City. The folks that were there under Bloomberg were deeply invested in policies that systematically dismantled public education. One of the deputy chancellors under Bloomberg, Joel Klein, is now head of the Walton Family Foundation (the charity run by Walmart founder Sam Walton’s family).

I don’t think the point has been made often enough: a very significant part of the education reform movement is political calculation. That’s why Wall Street hedge funders are so heavily invested. And it’s why, for example, a Walton Family Foundation would be so heavily invested in charter schools.

How so?

When you look at who is capable of putting real troops on the ground in election campaigns, on a national level, you basically have four unions: SEIU, AFSCME, the NEA and the AFT. If you are able to cripple the AFT and the NEA, it’s not simply that you’ve been able to move a model in education. It’s also that you have really diminished progressive economic forces. There’s a connection between voter suppression laws and what I call union suppression laws. They both have fundamentally the same purpose, which is to try to diminish and undermine progressive electoral forces.

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