By John Thompson.

Perhaps because I’m an incorrigible supporter of President Obama on almost every non-education issue, I grasped at straws hoping that his and Arne Duncan’s staffing of the Education Department with former Gates Foundation true believers in market-driven reform would not create a mess. Even though they flew in the face of a large body of social science and the professional judgments of teachers, I hoped the Race to the Top (RttT), School Improvement Grants (SIG), and other innovations wouldn’t be a waste of money – or worse.

Before turning to other recent criticisms of the Duncan administration’s alphabet soup of technocratic, top-down mandates, I must recall my most naïve response to the RttT, the SIG and, later, NCLB waivers. In 2009, the Obama administration was in the process of saving the nation’s schools and the entire economy from the Great Recession. It was (then) investing less than $10 billion on pilot programs, while pushing the $100 billion of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) bailout. In such a situation, the United States could afford a set of competition-driven experiments.

If the RttT and the SIG worked, that would be great. If they didn’t, we could learn important lessons. Such experiments, however, would require an objective evaluation of their outcomes, as well as a willingness of the administration to honestly confront the results. At the time, I couldn’t have known that Arne Duncan and his team of former Gates Foundation administrators would be so allergic to facing up to facts.

Now, we are getting the next best thing as conservative reformers, as well as educators, are calling them to task. One of the most recent examples of the pushback is conservative reformer Andy Smarick’s challenge to Joanne Weiss’s defense of the RttT. Weiss personified the administration’s overreach. As director of the RttT, she set out to impose corporate school reform on states and localities across the nation.

Weiss ignored the need for checks and balances of authority, and then she seemed to blame states and localities for the failures of her federal micromanaging of school policies. Smarick concludes, “even when federal education officials are pure of heart, their plans reliably underperform, as in the case of SIG, the backlash to NCLB and Common Core, the disappointing results of educator evaluation reform, and the disintegration of the federally funded testing consortia.” (I don’t agree that federal policies always under-perform, but it is a safe bet that grandiose federal social engineering always will.)

Some of the best critiques of Weiss’s spin can be found in the comments prompted by her article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Almost all of the fifty-plus comments were negative, and many were especially eloquent in criticizing Weiss and her innovations. My favorite commenters were Leonie Haimson and Christopher Chase. Chase fact-checked Weiss and in doing so he cited the pro-Obama spin by the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). DFER displayed an openness that contrasted sharply with Weiss’s current claims. It bragged, “President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan added the role of ‘venture philanthropist’ to the federal education policy wheelhouse.” The RttT and SIG, as well as Duncan’s NCLB Waivers were said to be transformative because previously:

There was a confederacy of education reform-focused groups and most were narrowly focused (often with frustrating discipline) in their own directions. President Obama, primarily through the launch of the Race to the Top competition, got this crazy constellation of reform groups united and pointed in the same direction for the first time.

DFER not only gloated about the way that value-added added teacher evaluations were imposed through the process, but it also cheered the rise of the charter management organizations that facilitated the mass closures of schools. According to DFER, it “wasn’t accidental” that “charter schools flourished more under three years of Obama than under eight years of George W. Bush.”

Also during the first years of the Duncan administration, I even tried to find comfort in the words of Arne Duncan and hoped that he would respect – not just cherry-pick – education research such as Mass Insight’s The Turnaround Challenge. Even though Duncan cited that study as his “bible,” it soon became clear that his SIG ignored some of its most important findings.

The best part of The Turnaround Challenge was its description of the “Readiness Triangle.” It explained that “turnaround is, at its core, a people strategy.” The triangle emphasized the need to address poverty, discipline and engagement, and creative responses to “constant unrest” in troubled schools. A foundation must be laid to build close student-adult relationships, to offer “personalized instruction based on diagnostic assessment, and flexible time on task,” and to create a “teaching culture that stresses collaboration and continuous improvement.”

The Turnaround Challenge sought rapid and dramatic improvement, but it also emphasized the need to build capacity. Laying the foundation for implementing sustainable change was one of the study’s “Three C’s.” Moreover, it indicted “NCLB’s unfulfilled impact” as a “classic example of unintended consequences. NCLB wrongly rushed efforts to turnaround at scale. The law failed to address the “perfect storm” of “individual and family risk, community and environment effects, and resource inequality.”

The Turnaround Challenge endorsed a “rounded engaging curriculum,” while acknowledging the additional “stressors” that could be added through more testing. It also proclaimed, “no buy-in [by teachers], no reform.”

To be fair, the study’s first C was “Control.” It was supposedly necessary for removing the small number of “culture killing” staff who impede efforts to change the way the school operated. But, it also explained that that control did not mean the “wholesale change” of teachers in struggling schools. The document advised restraint in asserting power over teachers because “one of the constraints in exercising any authority over people is due to concerns over supply of talented new staff.”

Moreover, The Turnaround Challenge asserted that, “the ecology of high-poverty schools is inherently much more unpredictable, variable, and irregular. … This turbulence is foundational; lying below symptoms like poor teaching and student misbehavior.” It concluded, “students and staff in high-poverty schools face more curveballs in a week than their colleagues in low-poverty schools see in a year.”

It never occurred to me that educators who drafted such statements, and/or read and endorsed them, could pretend that value-added teacher evaluations could be made reliable and valid for teachers in schools where the turbulence was foundational. But, then again, it never occurred to me that Duncan, Weiss, or other reformers could possibly believe that Common Core or any other college-readiness standards could be implemented in such schools without a) a multi-year effort to build student supports for learning for mastery, or b) in systems that use value-added teacher evaluations.

As conservatives and liberals finally come together to hold the Duncan/Obama/Gates reign of error accountable, we will often be able to grin at the language with which the administration’s social engineering is described. Rick Hess, as usual, is especially quotable; he describes their overreach as a “product of executive branch whimsy.” A commenter referred to Joanne Weiss as “a dilettante.” But, the policy wonk in me seeks a narrower explanation. How did the smart people – who imposed the full corporate reform agenda – do so while mandating policies that were so different than the principles they espoused?

Weiss’s micromanaging, for instance, imposed the full laundry list of the corporate reformers’ simplistic “silver bullets.” Her answer for the complex and interconnected problems in our low-income schools was an impossibly long and contradictory list of quick fixes: test-driven teacher evaluations, the undermining of teachers’ due process, Common Core, mass closures of urban schools, the mass dismissal of teachers, and subsidies for charter management systems.

In the context of mass closures, Weiss should have known, the abrogation of seniority rights would encourage districts to dump the salaries and benefits of veteran teachers, replacing them with often-ineffective novices. Her value-added mandates and need to meet extreme and immediate test score targets would incentivize bubble-in malpractice. One would think she would understand that her RttT would treat teachers as disposable, and thus kill the chances to build trusting and collaborative relationships. But, did Weiss not also realize that she was inviting a mass pushout of struggling students? It seems inconceivable that she wouldn’t recognize the opportunity costs of her RttT, undermining the capacity to build the student supports that readiness-to-learn requires in high-challenge schools.

Weiss later claimed that her RTTT wanted to get education out of “discrete silos.” But, she did so because the administration “wanted to mold entire systems.” It supposedly sought to help states implement “interconnected policies and work streams” and make them “move forward in tandem.”

And, that suggests an answer. Duncan staffed the USDOE with smart people who knew little or nothing about the inner city or high-challenge schools. What they knew was theories about incentives and disincentives. They were experts at the big “C,” control. They understood paperwork. They understood profits and privatization. Duncan, Weiss, et. al may have been clueless about real world schools, but they understood grant-making, rule-making, drafting criteria, subcriteria, memorandums of understanding, and regulations. They did what they knew how to do – creating work streams of interconnected policies that were disconnected from actual reality.

As DFER explained, they pushed through the entire wish list of a “crazy constellation of reform groups.” It never seemed to occur to these corporate reformers that they might want to play out the chess game and ask how this huge list of contradictory policies could possibly be implemented in the real world.

What do you think? Are non-educators recognizing the reasons why the Obama administration’s education policy failed? Were its architects merely oblivious to the facts of education life? Or did they just not care very much about schools as they pushed their entire agenda?


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. Sergio Flores    

    It is for agents like teachers associations, NEA or AFT, to point out to the failures, analyze them, find the causes, and determine what happened. Right now, there is no authority that want or can do the job of holding corporate reformers accountable for what they have done. That is not surprising when considering that they have control the power, political and economic, in this country for decades. They decide and do. In this socio-economic context, teachers associations have been reduced to limbs of these corporate reformers powerful ally: the Democrat Party.I have hope for teacher association leaders to elevate themselves as stakeholders of the institution of public education. If they so, teachers can analyze objectively and pronounce judgement.

    1. Sergio Flores    

      In the current political environment, where the neoliberal elite rules, whatever the corporate reformers do is beyond judgement! In such frame, it would correspond to stakeholders of the public education institution such as teachers associations, NEA and AFT, to emerge as the voice of reason to point out to the failures, analyze them, find the causes, and determine what happened. Right now, there is no authority that want or can do the job of holding corporate reformers accountable for the terrible damage they have done to teachers and students. That impunity is not surprising when considering that the neoliberal elites have controlled the powers, both political and economic, in this country for decades. They practically decide what is the course of action and coerce until imposing it. In this socio-economic context, teachers associations have been reduced to appendages of these corporate reformers powerful agent: the Democratic Party.I still hope that teachers will ask their associations’ leaders to reclaim their role as stakeholders, and become defenders of the institution of public education. If they so, teachers can analyze objectively and pronounce judgement. That would be a sight because they would expose those who have lied, mislead, and profit from a deception.

  2. Daun Kauffman    

    Education “reform” sounds so different when we actually talk about the children…

    In the “reformers’” paradigm, they are crusaders for Eli Broad (and Milton Friedman and Adam Smith).

    All the above espouse very faulty and self-focused, “invisible hand”, marketplace paradigms, now being even more faultily applied to education. Public education.

    In their paradigm, Public Education becomes private. A very conscious, very intentional disaster for the children’s education, (“the 99%”).

    It’s not at all about the children. Zero. In fact, the children will be collateral damage, in “reformers'” pursuit of (“reformer” perceptions) of a “greater good” (for “the 1%”).

    It’s about the idolization of a system, a political paradigm, followed very shortly be degradation of our democracy, all of us.

    Meanwhile, most of us are involved, even invested, with the children for directly opposite motivations…

    Put the children at the center.

  3. Daun Kauffman    

    A “second chance” waiting with ESEA . . maybe . . .

    See “Common Sense” at LucidWiness blog, or click below:

  4. Jesse Turner (@readdoctor)    

    We are all guilty as long as we we are silent and apathetic about Ed Reform focusing on testing and standards, and not on the vast inequalities in our public schools

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