Monday, November 30, 2009

Kudos to Obama. . . oh, wait

I'm often critical of President Obama, so when I get a chance to note something good that he's doing, I make a point of it. And so I've written positively of his championing of charter schools and his promise to insist that student performance be a component of teacher evaluations. It's true that I was cautious in my praise, since, up to now, Obama hadn't followed up his words with meaningful actions.

And, it appears, he won't be taking meaningful actions, as he's backtracking on all those positive ideas and promises:
The Obama Administration's education rhetoric, with its emphasis on charter schools and evaluating teachers based on student performance, has won plaudits from school reformers—and from us. But this month the Department of Education laid out in detail the eligibility requirements for states seeking federal grant money, and it looks like the praise may have been premature.

In the spring, when the White House announced its $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" initiative to improve K-12 schooling, President Obama said, "Any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways to compete for a grant." Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters, "states that don't have charter school laws, or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools, will jeopardize their application."

The Administration appears to be retreating on both requirements. The final Race to the Top regulations allow states to use "multiple measures," including peer reviews, to evaluate instructors. This means states that prohibit student test data from being used to measure a teacher's performance may be eligible for the federal funds, even though the President clearly said that they wouldn't be.

Nor are states any longer required to embrace charter schools to win a grant. In June, Mr. Duncan scolded by name some of the states, such as Maine and Tennessee, that don't allow charters or limit enrollment in these independent public schools. Under the final regulations, however, states that prohibit charters can still receive Race to the Top dollars so long as they have other kinds of "innovative public schools." That's an invitation for states to game the criteria by relabeling a few traditional public schools as innovative.

The requirement to eliminate caps on the number of charter schools has also been eliminated. If the caps are generous enough, Mr. Duncan now says, they might be okay—which also gives him political wiggle room to give a state a break. Charter caps are one of the ways that teachers unions limit competition and stymie reform.

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