Reclaiming Our Freedom to Teach: Education Reform in the Obama Era

Summer 2009

Source: Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 79, Iss. 2; pg. 240-247 (Summer 2009).
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The author is a high school teacher who reflects on the impact of Obama's election on the students in her high school classroom. Obliged to temper her students' joyful exuberance on the morning of November 5, 2008, she found that the election enthusiasm highlighted for her the ways that schooling under NCLB has constrained both educators and students.

The Cost of NCLB: Taking Away Teachers' Freedom to Teach and Students' Freedom to Learn

No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), passed in 2001, ushered in an era of "teaching to the test." Unfortunately, this era was marked by a loss of freedom for both teachers and students: as NCLB forced teachers to focus instruction on test taking rather than learning.
Students and teachers are evaluated solely on the data they produce, and schools are penalized for failing on the basis of arbitrary standards that they never had the resources to meet. Meanwhile, crucial discussions about funding inequalities and research-based reforms, such as smaller class sizes, are swept to the side.

The era of high-stakes testing in New York City has led to the creation of a plethora of predictive assessments geared at measuring students' progress toward the goals laid out by NCLB. As a result, teachers now give tests to teach students how to take more tests.
Not only do these tests rob students of valuable instructional time, but they support punitive measures for schools that fail to meet the arbitrary and unrealistic standards - measures that serve to demoralize both students and teachers and increase the vast inequalities in our educational system.

However, threats of school closings and harsh penalties imposed on schools deemed "failing" under the law have not closed the achievement gap; rather, these threats have forced schools to reduce education to scores on a test, punishing educators and students for failures that are frequently beyond their control. Schools that are classified as "in need of improvement" are required to institute reforms such as allowing student transfers or providing supplemental services, often from private companies.

Furthermore, NCLB has opened the door to the privatization of public schools through some of the more insidious penalties imposed on "failing" schools. Under the harshest penalties of NCLB, schools designated as failing have to contract their management to outside entities, turn over governance to the state, or reopen as charter schools.

In addition, New York City has also begun implementing a pilot "performance pay" program, in which bonuses are tied to improvements in a school's citywide progress report. The test scores on high-stakes exams are used as the primary means of evaluating schools. While higher salaries might encourage teachers to stay in the profession, performance pay is not a solution. It is not "incentive" that is lacking in the classroom; rather, it is resources.

Obama: Returning Freedom to Education?

While Obama's election may bring hope to learners of all ages, especially to many teachers who had been beaten down by eight years of NCLB, his vision of education remains largely unclear. The proposals outlined in his March 10, 2009, address on education - including more charter schools, tougher standards, and performance pay - echo much of the worn-out rhetoric of accountability that has only served to exacerbate the inequalities in our schools (Obama, 2009). While the proposed increase in funding for early childhood education is a welcome development, it does not go nearly far enough toward providing universal access to this crucial program. For many teachers, these proposals were a stark reminder that the fight for real education reform is far from over.

The author advises skepticism toward the changes education secretary Arne Duncan might bring, since Duncan has been a major proponent of mayoral control, charter schools, and performance pay initiatives that increase the pressure on teachers to teach to die test. He has overseen a punitive regime in Chicago, closing schools that fail to meet the flawed standards imposed on them by NCLB and firing teachers and staff and forcing them to reapply for their jobs.
The author calls on teachers, families, and unions to collaborate in demanding the freedom to nurture true learning.

Obama, B. (2009). Remarks by the president to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on a complete and competitive American education.

Updated: Sep. 14, 2009