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Dana Goldstein: Hillary Changes Direction from Obama on Education Policy

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Dana Goldstein, veteran education journalist, reports that Hillary Clinton is striking a very different note with teachers and their unions than Obama did.

Obama’s education policies were shaped to cut the power of unions and to reduce teachers’ job protections. His administration was openly hostile to public schools and teachers. In response to the hedge fund managers at Democrats for Education Reform, whose favorite he was, and to the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, the Obama administration invested heavily in privately managed charter schools and forced thousands of public schools to close, based on their test scores. The burden of school closings fell mainly on poor communities of color, which were destabilized by his punitive policies.

Goldstein says that Hillary is taking a very different tack:


Clinton’s speech to the NEA was notable both for what she said and, perhaps even more so, for what she didn’t say. She promised to expand access to child care and pre-K, pay teachers more, forgive their college debt, construct new school buildings, and bring computer science courses into K-12 education. While a brief mention of successful charter schools (most of which are not unionized) was met with scattered boos, for the most part the audience of activist teachers greeted Clinton ecstatically, chanting “Hillary, Hillary!”

Following eight years of federally driven closures and turnarounds of schools with low test scores, which have put union jobs at risk, it was music to the NEA’s ears when the presumptive Democratic nominee promised to end “the education wars” and “stop focusing only on quote, ‘failing schools.’ Let’s focus on all our great schools, too.” And in a big departure from the school-reform rhetoric of President Barack Obama, the only time Clinton referenced “accountability” was to refer not to getting rid of bad teachers, but to giving unions a bigger voice in education policy. “Advise me and hold me accountable,” she said. “Keep advocating for your students and your profession.”

This speech, the first big moment for K-12 education in this general election, signals a potentially meaningful shift in Democratic Party education politics. The Obama era has been, often, a painful one for teachers-union activists. Obama launched his presidential campaign in 2007 as an ally of Democrats for Education Reform, a group of philanthropists (most with ties to the financial sector) who support weakening teachers’ tenure protections, evaluating teachers according to their students’ test scores, and increasing the number of public charter schools.

Obama held many positions with which teachers’ unions agreed, like helping teachers improve through peer mentorship programs and pushing states to embrace the Common Core national curriculum standards. Still, he represented a wing of the Democratic Party that thought unions held too much sway over education policy, and in 2008, the NEA chose not to endorse in the Democratic primary, while the other national teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed Obama’s primary challenger, Hillary Clinton.*
As president, Obama followed through on his promises to union critics. He created a $4 billion program, Race to the Top, that tied federal education dollars to policies like evaluating teachers according to student test scores and weakening tenure protections, so underperforming teachers could more easily be fired.

Goldstein’s conclusion is premature:

It’s safe to say it is a new day for the Democratic Party on education policy. But here’s hoping that Clinton’s turn toward the unions doesn’t mean she lets go of some of the Obama administration’s more promising recent ideas.

It is too soon to say whether it is a new day for the Democratic policy on education policy. DFER has not gone away, nor have the billionaires who want to crush teachers, unions, and public schools.

And I wonder what the Obama administration’s “more promising recent ideas” are. I haven’t heard them. John King was known in New York for his zealous embrace of Common Core, high-stakes testing, opposition to opt out, and commitment to evaluating teachers by test scores. His brief tenure as Education Secretary does not show any disposition on his part to abandon those policies.

So, as the saying goes, time will tell. We should all give Hillary Clinton a chance to change direction. Heaven knows we can’t continue with the federal government making war on public schools and their teachers. If that’s what she means by ending the education wars, I am all for it.

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