Education in the 2008 Election

[by Corey Mattson]

In this election year many teachers have put their faith in an Obama presidency to thwart the corporate attack against the public schools. Teachers understand very well that a McCain presidency would be bad for American education. McCain openly demonizes the teachers unions at every turn, supports the failed policy of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and gladly supports non-union charter and religious schools.

But from early on in his presidential campaign, Barack Obama has not shown himself to be a positive alternative to McCain on education issues. True to the pro-business character of the Democratic Party, Obama has put forward an education policy package that shows strong continuity with Bush’s education legacy. The change Obama stands for is the corporate education agenda: supporting NCLB, the standards movement, teacher merit pay, anti-union charter schools, and the philosophy that the primary role of education is to promote national security and global competitiveness.

More than anything else, Obama’s candidacy demonstrates the dire need for a labor party independent of corporate power to represent the U.S. majority, the working-class and the disenfranchised.

The Corporate Offensive of NCLB

In the last few years NCLB has been the main component of the corporate education agenda that has faced considerable resistance by teachers, school administrators, and parents. In 2007, this popular resistance forestalled reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which in its 2002 version included NCLB. Nonetheless, Obama still supports the policy of NCLB, albeit with revisions. McCain supports that same policy, but without revisions. But any difference between the positions of Obama and McCain are overstated; both positions ensure that the next president will continue with a policy that is fundamentally unsound.

A little bit of background on NCLB is necessary to understand why the policy is fundamentally wrong and should be eliminated, not reformed as Obama and other congressional Democrats propose.

The intent of NCLB is not to reform public schools. NCLB is designed to ensure that public schools will be labeled as failures and consequently be subject to top-down government or corporate control.

Under NCLB mandates, a school must administer state-sanctioned standardized tests on which students must pass for the school to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Schools must meet AYP to avoid negative sanctions and eventual corrective action. However, as part of making AYP, a certain high percentage of a school’s whole population must pass, and a high percentage of students in student sub-categories must pass as well. The government has defined 9 subgroups: 5 race and ethnicity groups (American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, Black, and White), Special Education, Limited English Proficient, Migrant Status, and Free and Reduced Lunch. Limited English Proficient refers to English language learners, and the Free and Reduced Lunch category attempts to assess students living in poverty. For a school to make AYP, all subgroups must also pass, a difficult feat for urban schools with many subgroups with disadvantaged students represented and thus more opportunities to fail.

Every year a school fails to make AYP, it faces sanctions; after five consecutive years of failing to make AYP, it faces corrective action. Some sanctions include the publication of AYP status in the press, the mailing of AYP notification letters to parents, and the invitation to parents of choosing another school. What counts as corrective action is still being determined by the states and the federal government, but some options include state take-over, privatization, turning the school into a charter school, reconstitution including the laying off of teachers and/or changing the student population, and the possibly less drastic, reprogramming of school curricula.

With this design, many suspect that the purpose of NCLB is to attack and eventually dismantle public schools as part of a corporate movement of school privatization, charter schools, and the introduction of corporate curricula through reprogramming efforts. So far, schools that serve disadvantaged children have been, for the most part, the recipients of sanctions and corrective action. In a few years, when the bar is raised until 100% of students will be expected to pass, more schools outside the urban communities will also fail to make AYP.

In its judgment of the urban schools, the NCLB testing regime is clearly unable to distinguish between the good and sub-par schools serving our most underprivileged students. All urban schools are greatly disadvantaged by NCLB because, due to their diverse student population, these schools oftentimes have many sub-categories counted for the test, which gives them them more opportunities to fail it. To highlight this inequity, an urban school in which I taught in St. Paul, Minnesota is assessed in seven subcategories plus the All Students group for a total of eight categories; since two tests were given, in reading and math, this school has sixteen possible ways it can fail to make AYP. At the small town school where I am currently teaching, the school is assessed in two subcategories plus the All Students category, giving it a total of six ways it can fail. In smaller town schools, there may be students of different races and poor students, but there must enough of them – for any particular test, at least fifty – to count statistically as a subcategory. It should be unsurprising that the St. Paul school has failed to make AYP for the past five years, and that small town school easily makes AYP every year.

To make matters worse for urban schools, some students are counted in a number of its subcategories. For instance, a newly arrived, non-English speaking African immigrant of low socioeconomic status would be counted in the categories of Black, Free and Reduced Lunch, and Limited English Proficient. If this student does poorly, all three categories are negatively impacted. And, remember, a school could fail on the basis of one subcategory. It is not surprising that the biggest predictor for why a school would fail is the socioeconomic background of the student population.

Lastly and most egregious, NCLB only punishes “Title 1 schools,” or those schools that have a high enough percentage of poor students to qualify for Title 1 federal funding. Therefore, non-Title 1 schools, or schools with socially advantaged students get a pass; schools with poor students receive the whole set of sanctions. In that way, the corporations attacking our public school system have avoided, at least initially, stoking resistance from mainstream, and largely, white constituencies. As the testing bar is raised until 2014 when every single student is expected to achieve up to grade level, perhaps that is when there will be more coordinated resistance between urban and rural districts and between minority and majority constituencies. But with all sanctions targeted at the poorest schools at least for now, they can be more easily marginalized and the likelihood of a common movement lessened.

With a little knowledge of how NCLB is designed, it is clear that it was intended as an attack on the public school system. Obama’s talk of its reform, therefore, fails to recognize that NCLB is not about helping our nation’s children. It is a political attack against schools, teachers, and ultimately students. With NCLB attacking our public schools, teachers, parents, and students naturally want to resist the corporate attack. So how do we, individually and through our unions and organizations, fight NCLB and other aspects of the offensive?

Organizing Resistance to NCLB and the Corporate Agenda

One very common idea among educators is to fight NCLB at the ballot box. This view understands the attack on public schools as a Bush conspiracy that can be reversed with Democrats elected to political office. But the history of NCLB and the corporate agenda in general suggests otherwise.

As covered in depth by education analyst Susan Ohanian (, NCLB fits into a policy framework pushed by corporate entities such as the Business Roundtable, an organization that supports and has been supported by both the Republicans and Democrats. With its reactionary educational policy, from misguided “one-size-fits-all” standards aligned with NCLB to the dismantling of the school board accountability, the Business Roundtable has successfully influenced both parties representing America’s corporate elite, and both Obama and McCain. Their agenda has been the standards movement tied to testing, school “accountability,” the hyping of science and math curriculum to meet the nation’s military-industrial needs, teacher merit pay, anti-union propaganda, and the dismantling of public accountability of the current system.

How is NCLB bipartisan? That the corporate education agenda of the Business Roundtable is bi-partisan is evidenced by Clinton’s Goals 2000 policy which largely set the stage for Bush’s NCLB, the inconvenient fact that NCLB was passed overwhelmingly in 2002 on a bi-partisan vote (more Republicans voted against than Democrats), and the continued support of many prominent Democratic Party politicians.

Despite NCLB’s loss of credibility among educators and the deadlock surrounding its attempted reauthorization in 2007, Barack Obama still offers his support. Even the two unions representing teachers, both which for years supported reform of the policy to avoid embarrassing their Democratic Party “friends,” declared in 2008 that the policy is too fundamentally flawed to be reformed and should be eliminated.

Yet Obama justifies his support of NCLB with idea that it needs reform. Many educators, however, fear that minor reforms to NCLB will not change the overall destructive effect it has on our public schools serving our most disadvantaged students. Tinkering with NCLB, such as pushing back the year by which all students need to be proficient or by implementing changes in how AYP is determined, will not make it a valid and fair assessment. Moreover, if the intent was indeed to attack schools as failed institutions, it must be assumed that the current capitalist politicians have no intention of implementing real accountability reform. According to his public statements and information posted on his website, Barack Obama has not detailed how he intends to reform NCLB. Instead he has decided to speak forcefully against NCLB’s shortcomings, which anyone familiar with the police would understand, without explaining how he would address them.

Rather than rely upon the two capitalist parties to counter this corporate agenda, and with no viable labor or socialist party to represent the interests of working people, the only immediate defense is the building of a social movements against NCLB. In 2007 we witnessed the beginning of such a movement when NCLB was up for reauthorization. Initiated by educator organizations outside the mainstream such as the Educator Roundtable ( and with the momentary participation of the two national teacher unions, the AFT and NEA, the movement was able to paralyze the reauthorization process and postpone it until 2009 after this year’s November election. Unfortunately, only the Educator Roundtable, and individual leftist educators such as Susan Ohanian and Jonathan Kozol, have worked to maintain that momentum into the 2008 election year. The teacher unions dropped the issue with the logic that NCLB reauthorization will not be considered in Congress this year. In a campaign cycle that is largely devoid of issues, dominated by glitz and smear tactics, our job is to revive now this important issue and build a movement around it.

Obama and Merit Pay: Change We Can Fear

Obama agrees with McCain on other aspects of the corporate agenda, including merit pay for public school teachers.

The issue of merit pay is a controversial topic. Divisions exist in both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA on the desirability of implementing merit pay proposals.

In February 2008, Randi Weingarten, now the AFT president, negotiated in the state of New York a merit pay plan that is partly based on standardized test scores. In many local school districts across the nation, the student learning objectives required by teachers under merit pay plans include standardized test scores.

One serious problem with merit pay is the fact that most plans rely heavily on student test scores on standardized tests. The likelihood of devising a rational merit pay plan tied to test scores is low given the complex factors behind the academic success of students. For example, a high score on a science test may not be attributable to the school’s science teacher, but to a competent reading teacher, or any other array of variables extending back to earlier school experiences and social factors outside the influence of the school. Determining the cause of student success is impossible because teaching is a collaborative activity. Also, iteachers who work with academically disadvantaged students, such as English language learners or students with a learning disability, might find themselves at a clear disadvantage compared with teachers who work with more privileged students.

Moreover, when teacher pay is oftentimes low, the expectation that teachers will jump through the necessary bureaucratic hoops for a little more pay is insulting to the profession and amounts to one more attack on teachers. In many such instances, the extra work performed by teachers in such bureaucratized systems actually detracts from their real work. Many teachers are opposed to merit pay, regardless of terms, for precisely this reason.

We know that McCain is highly supportive of merit pay. Obama has been supportive of merit pay as well. At the 2007 NEA Representative Assembly, Obama was booed when he praised the Minnesota Quality Compensation for Teachers (Q Comp) plan, which to its merit does not tie pay bonuses to test scores and leaves it up to local unions to negotiate merit pay plans with school districts on an equal footing. Many teachers, however, fear that the Minnesota’s Q Comp is a Trojan Horse that will tear apart hard-won union benefits.

Fear of a Trojan Horse is not unfounded. As reported in the September 10th Boston Globe, Obama has come out strongly in favor of merit pay in general terms. Given the way that it is being implemented in urban districts around the nation, such plans will likely include test scores as important variables in determining teacher pay. Given its problems, merit pay should be opposed outright.

Education and the 2008 Election

One thing is for certain in the 2008 election cycle. Real education reform will not be the subject of debate between the two corporate candidates.

Leftist educators have outlined through the years what it would take if were to have real reform of the education system. A redistribution of funding from the richer districts to the poorer, and more funding in absolute terms, would go a long way in improving the educational system in the United States. In the most powerful country in the world, there is no reason why such great disparities exist between schools serving the advantaged and disadvantaged. More money on social need, diverted from the bloated waste of military spending, would do much to level the playing field.

The possibilities for real educational reform are endless: more funding in abolute terms for education, equitable funding between states, equitable education funding between districts within states, reduced class sizes, more democratic workplaces for teachers, improved teacher training programs, high quality staff development opportunities, more time for teacher collaboration and planning on the job, and the list goes on and on.

But more is needed than just the reform of educational institutions. The single biggest factor affecting our students is poverty. Universal single-payer health care, living wages, backed up by a stronger union movement and social movements, would improve the well-being of the nation’s children and their educational attainment. Both parties fail in offering a working-class platform that adequately addresses these issues.

Improving our nation’s schools is long-term struggle. We must build movements that directly confront the corporate education agenda, pushing for needed reform, but without subordinating those movements to the capitalist parties. As long as we lack a party that represents and fights for working people, we must build independent social movements to advance our cause.

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