Gluttons for Punishment:

The NEA’s Early Endorsement of Obama

By Jane Weinkrantz

7/18/2011

Given what a colossal disappointment the Obama administration’s education policies have been and how disrespectful of teachers Secretary of Education Duncan has been, it should come as no surprise that the NEA delegates meeting in Chicago this summer voted to communicate to President Obama “aggressively, forcefully and immediately” their utter dissatisfaction with Arne Duncan. Their thirteen criticisms of Duncan are spot-on and I recommend you read them. (http://www.nea.org/grants/33354.htm) However, the NEA’s subsequent early endorsement of Barack Obama for re-election made criticism of Duncan window-dressing. Could we not have postponed endorsing President Obama until he had compelled his Secretary of Education to re-think some of his policies and attitudes towards teachers and unions or, failing that, replaced him?

            President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan is a man whose background includes six years as a professional basketball player in Australia followed by some half-dozen years working for the Ariel Education Initiative in Illinois which funded college educations for one class of inner-city children. He was then appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago school system by Mayor Daly and then Secretary of Education by President Obama.  Duncan has no time in the classroom, other than working for his own mother as a tutor after school during high school and for one summer after that. His biography frequently stresses his credentials as “coming from a family of educators” as though education is in his blood. Trust me, I come from a family of technology and science wizards, but you don’t want me programming government databases. Duncan ’s lack of hands-on experience hasn’t stopped him from applying his basketball values to education and turning American education into the ridiculous competition, Race to the Top. Fundamentally, the problem with any race is that there are winners and losers. Why should the children living in certain states automatically be losers? Would a more cooperative and less competitive Secretary of Education been able to devise a system that helps all American students, not just Georgians or New Yorkers? Now, states have to jump through or dunk Duncan ’s hoops of merit pay, tying teacher evaluation to test scores and increases in charter schools to get federal funds. Not surprisingly, states that won RTTT are having trouble implementing the changes they promised. Education Week reported this week that ten of the winners have already submitted 25 changes that were approved by the Department of Education. ( New York submitted a 32 page amendment that wipes out $10 million in funds for charter schools, a smart move when one considers that though increased charter schools were a requirement for RTTT, there is no evidence to support their results being any better than public schools. Not only that, but The New York Times recently reported allegations that charter schools are weeding out special needs students in order to keep their passing rates higher.) Were these changes fair to the states that lost RTTT? Will the amendments encourage states to submit cynical proposals they know can’t be implemented in order to “take the money and run?” Is that ethical if we agree that RTTT is unfair in principle and that every state has to do what is best for its children?       

            I imagine Arne Duncan with his hands over his ears, singing “La La La, I’m in my happy place,” as problems with RTTT are brought to his attention. Obviously, Duncan still has faith in the program because he is expanding it to pre-schoolers. States will compete for $5 billion in resources for early childhood education with an emphasis on helping high-needs children. Here is a description from the Department of Education: “The competition will focus on key reforms, including aligning early childhood resources and systems and improving early learning and development standards and assessment, program standards, tiered rating and improvement systems, and early childhood educators. We will be looking to fund applications that demonstrate courage, commitment, capacity, and creativity.” (http:www.ed.gov/early-learning/elc-draft-summary)  While the last sentence is charmingly alliterative, it is more than a little vague and did I mention how I cringe whenever I see the phrase “looking to?” Follow the links and you find that the first priority of RTT-ELC is “Using Early Learning and Development Standards and Kindergarten Entry Assessments to Promote School Readiness.” So, Duncan plans more standardized tests for 4 and 5 year-olds! What kind of pre-school experiences end with assessments? Pre-school is time for creative play and socialization.  Pre-schoolers learn to separate from their parents, listen attentively, keep their hands to themselves, play interactively, dress up, sing songs, draw and color, practice taking turns and taking care of class pets. They don’t take tests. About 64% of American kids attend pre-school. Only Oklahoma funds early education for all of its kids. Otherwise, the likelihood of a child attending pre-school diminishes as family income decreases. While funding pre-school for all children in a worthy goal, why must we force our youngest students into the assessment experience to obtain it? Yet, Duncan ’s out of touch, one-size-fits-all solution continues: Compete and test. Repeat. Why did we endorse a president who has shown no dissatisfaction with this strategy?

Kenneth Bernstein, A.K.A. Teacherken and a blogger at the Daily Kos, had this to say about the NEA’s early endorsement, “I am a building rep for the NEA.  I actually spoke personally with about 2/3 of my unionized teachers when the early endorsement - the first such in NEA history - was proposed.  Out of the more than 80 teachers with whom I spoke only one supported the early endorsement.  Many did not like giving up what little leverage the union had with the administration.

Of greater importance - the endorsement implies that the NEA believes there is a difference between Duncan and Obama on educational policy.  I am sorry to say that I do not believe there to be any substantial difference between the two men.  Obama explicitly agreed with Duncan 's support of the firing of all the teachers at Central Falls , to cite just one example.  

Unfortunately, the administration is likely to ignore the strong criticism of its policies contained in the resolution on Duncan and the press will go along with portraying the endorsement as "overwhelming" or "strong" support when in fact the historical record shows it to be very weak.”

The NEA’s early endorsement of this administration and its very questionable reform record and very poor treatment of educators reminds me of the 1978 comedy about fraternities, “Animal House.” Those who have seen “Animal House” may remember the scene in which the Omega fraternity begins its hazing. The fraternity president says, “We now consecrate the bond of obedience,” as an Omega pledge, played by Kevin Bacon, kneels before him and is whacked on the bottom with a wooden paddle.  He says, “Thank you sir. May I have another?” and is whacked again.  I fear the NEA may have just said the same thing.

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