Tag Archives: race to the top

Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Zenith

(This is part 2 of my brief (hahahah) history of the rise and fall of modern education reform. This part is longer because much more happened. Unlike the events in part 1, I experienced the Obama reforms as a teacher, having graduated from ed school the year of his inauguration. I began blogging the year he was re-elected.)

Bipartisan Achievements

Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 while simultaneously blasting NCLB and praising charters and merit pay for teachers. In practice, he and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan kept giving reformers everything they wanted–although in fairness, reformers got increasingly nervous about their gifts as his presidency matured.

Ironically, given the general sympathy that the Obama administration had for education reform, a new version of the ESEA was impossible throughout most of the Obama presidency. This proves to be an extremely significant limitation.  Arne Duncan and Obama, rather than force states to live with the unpopular mandates, invited the states to submit waivers asking to be exempt from the penalties. This gave the Obama administration considerable power to force states to adopt policies the federal government wanted. Conservatives were unnerved by what most would considera a violation of Section 438 of the General Education Provisions Act banning any federal control over state educational choices.

Bribing the States, round I: Race to the Top, Waivers

First up was Race to the Top, enacted as part of the economic stimulus plan of 2009, in which over $3 billion was set aside for rewards to competitive bids. Compared to the moon shot by Arne Duncan, the competition demanded compliance with most key aspects of education reform. Of the 500 points awarded,  313 of them (63%) were for teacher effectiveness (138 points), adopting “common core” standards (70 points), supporting the growth of “high quality” charters (55 points) and intervention into low-performing schools (50 points).  Schools that didn’t promise to  fulfill ed reformers’ wildest dreams didn’t stand much of a chance. From the link above: “Between 2001 and 2008, states on average enacted about 10 percent of reform policies. Between 2009 and 2014, however, they had enacted 68 percent. And during this later period, adoption rates increased every single year.”

Around 2010, it became possible to observe two developments that were in fact completely forseeable to everyone back in 2001, when NCLB was signed.

First, NCLB allowed states to define proficiency and then penalized schools that didn’t meet that definition.  That might not have been a problem except for the second development:  no matter how easy the tests got, 100% proficiency never happened. And the gaps were the usual ones.

But now  2014 was squarely in sight and closer and schools well outside the usual urban dystopias were getting hammered into program improvement.

Since a new ESEA was still politically impossible, the Obama administration began offering “waivers” from the consequences of extended failure to meet NCLB,   in exchange for setting their own higher, more honest standards for student success:

  • State must adopt college and career ready standards
  • Schools must be held accountable
  • Teacher and principal evaluation systems

Some education reformers (the conservatives) were concerned about the quid pro quo nature of the waiver requirements.   Other education reformers (the neoliberals) pishtoshed those concerns, saying (much as they said later about immigration) that Congressional gridlock made the waivers and demands logical and reasonable. A typical debate, in which  Andrew Rothernam, neoliberal reformer from the Clinton administration, rationalized the Obama waivers  “This dysfunction matters because when NCLB was passed in 2001, no one involved imagined the law would run for at least a decade without a congressional overhaul.” (translated, good god, no one took that nonsense about 100% proficiency, we expected to modify it before then!)

Obama announced the waivers in February, 2012, and by July of that year 26 states had waivers, with another 9 awaiting approval. A year later, all but seven states had waivers. Jerry Brown and the California team flatly refused to intervene in “failing schools” or evaluate teachers by test results and never got a waiver (although a few districts applied separately and got one).

While we refer to the testing consortiums (consortia?) as the Common Core tests, I was surprised to learn that the original competition for the grants was part of Race to the Top. Arne Duncan announced the winners, PARCC, which had 26 states signing on, and SBAC, which had 33 (some states joined both), in 2010.

The tests, almost more than the standards, excited education reformers. No more would individual states be able to dumb down their tests to reach NCLB standards. All the states would be held to the same standard.

But it wasn’t federal mandates, of course. No, no. This was all voluntary!

Bribing the States, round II: Common Core

The Common Core initiative was originally the brainchild of Janet Napolitano when she heading up the National Governor’s conference, documented in 2007’s Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring US Students Receive a World-Class Education (note: it’s kind of amazing how hard this document is to find. All the links to it reference the NGA doc, but that’s been deleted. I think this is the only existing online copy). She convened a group, and they came up with a set of five action items, three of which you can see reiterated above in the Obama waiver, because they were basically copied.

But it would never have gone anywhere had not Gene Wilhoit (head of school superintendant organization) and David Coleman, described in the link ahead as “emerging evangelical of standards” but actually little more than an ex-McKinsey guy with an assessment display (display. not design) startup  went to see Bill Gates, whose enthusiasm should have been a big neon light of warning, given his track record. Gates funded the development of standards. Coleman used the money to start “found” Student Achievement Partners and hire Jason Zimba, an ex-business partner who now worked for Coleman’s mothert(or, was a professorat Bennington College, where Coleman’s mom was president). Zimba, Phil Daro, and William McCallum wrote the math standards. Coleman and Susan Pimental wrote the ELA standards. The original Benchmarking report stated that the standards would be based on the American Diploma Project, but for reasons I don’t understand and might be interesting for someone else to explore, Coleman and crew rewrote a lot of it.

As the history shows, education reformer groups–those involved with accountability and choice–weren’t directly involved in the birth of Common Core, although it’s also clear from the verbiage in the Benchmarking report that education reform initiatives like teacher value-added measurement, charters, and school takeovers were very much in political parlance at that time, and very much bipartisan.

But education reformer groups loved the Common Core because they saw it as a way to bail them out of the two serious failures of NCLB described above. As Rick Hess observed in a five-year retrospective of Common Core, “The problem with that is if you had hard tests or hard standards you made your schools look bad. So there was a real, kind of perverse incentive baked into NCLB [to make the tests easier]“.  Hilariously, Michael Petrilli, who was in the Bush administration and was a key bureaucrat in the passage, has often said he disagreed that the 100% proficiency goal but “his boss” forced it on him. So now that NCLB was in a bind, the ed reformers were all for Common Core bailing them out.

The waiver process is often blamed for the rapid adoption, but in fact every state but Alaska, Texas, Nebraska, and Virginia had adopted Common Core standards by  2012, and all of those but Wyoming had done so long before Obama announced the waivers. Apart from the conservatives “in principle” objections, the original hullaballoo over heavy-handed federal interference was teachers’ outrage at a president–a Democrat, no less–using money to bribe states into evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores.

Regardless, states eagerly adopted the Common Core standards and in 2012, all seemed right in the world of education reform.


Technically, all of the above was the Obama Administration’s bribes to the states to change their governance.  These are just some specific cases or other items of interest.

Tennessee won the Race to the Top, getting $500 million to enact First to the Top. Initiated by Governor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, carried through by Bill Haslam, Republican. Tennessee’s application promised two things of note, First, it would use its existing, longstanding teacher evaluation system (TVAAS) and use it as a formal evaluation tool, responsible for 35% of teacher evaluations. Then, in order to invervene in “failing” schools,  it set up a state-run district, the Achievement School District, creating a  as opposed to a state taking over a district. The lowest performing schools were simply placed in that district. The stated goal of the ASD was to take schools from the bottom 5% and “vault” them to the top 25%.  In 2011, Haslam appointed Kevin Huffman, ex-TFA teacher and executive, as well as Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband,  as Commissioner of Education.  The first ASD superintendent was Chris Barbic, former TFA teacher and founder of Yes Prep, another charter system in Houston.

Mark Zuckerberg went on Oprah in 2010 and, with great fanfare, donated $100 million to Newark, New Jersey schools.  Chris Christie appointed Cami Anderson, alumni of TFA management,  as superintendent of the district in May 2011. A year later, Anderson signed a contract with the Newark Teachers Union giving bonus pay for higher test scores or teaching math and science (although teachers could choose to be paid traditionally). The pot was sweetened with a lot of back pay which, to put it mildly, was not what Zuckerberg wanted the money to be spent on.

Michelle Rhee got a lot of attention, bragging of giving DC schools a “clean sweep”, dumping all the “bad” teachers and administrators who didn’t get test scores up. Eva Moskowitz was dumping students who didn’t get test scores up. Joel Klein left his NYC post in 2011; Bloomberg’s pick of Cathy Black, a woman with no teaching or administrative experience, was extremely unpopular. Bloomberg gave up on Black after four months and appointed Dennis Walcott, who was accepted at face value as an improvement. School turnaround consultant Paul Vallas ran the Louisiana Recovery District (mostly New Orleans Schools) for 4 years.

Education reform generally became more popular in Democratic circles, given Obama’s strong support.  Steven Brill’s article The Rubber Room called attention to NYC’s practice of housing teachers who’d been removed from the classroom but couldn’t actually be fired.  Waiting for Superman, a documentary promoting choice and blasing unions and tenure, opened to universal praise by media, politicians, and other thought leaders. In 2010, Obama openly supported the dismissalof a Rhode Island high school’s entire staff, saying, “our kids get only one chance at an education, and we need to get it right.”

All this criticism kept building. 2012 was a nadir year terms of establishment discourse about public school teachers, although their reputation among the public seemed largely unchanged. It became increasingly popular to attack teacher tenure, again by both Democrats and Republicans, and certainly in the generally left of center media. Many states had agreed to evaluate teachers by test scores and both major unions had signed onto the Common Core standards, although teachers themselves were very doubtful.  A preponderance of politicians and academics were more than willing to agree that teacher quality needed to improve, that tenure might be problematic, and that teachers should be judged at least in part on test scores.  The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike, pitting union president Karen Lewis against Rahm Emmanuel, and media sympathies were entirely with Rahm. Governor Scott Walker ended collective bargaining for public workers (except cops and firefighters!).

One major setback: DC’s 2010 election, in which black voters booted Adrian Fenty, the media-popular mayor, largely because they wanted to get rid of Michelle Rhee, who stepped down the day after the election. Her successor, Kaya Henderson, kept firing teachers, but she’s black, which might have made a difference. Rhee immediately announced a new organization, Students First, and let Richard Whitmire write an admiring biography.


In 2008, California made algebra I the “test of record” for eight graders, meaning that 8th graders would take an algebra end of course test or the schools would receive a penalty towards average yearly progress.

High school exit exams mostly held constant; this 2008 Edweek article actually says that fewer than half of the states required exams, but that may be because of lawsuits. California, for example, was sued constantly about the use of the CAHSEE in the early 2002.

Charter Growth, Choice, TFA

Just one state, Washington, authorized charters during the Obama administration. Absolute growth was still slow through  2011,  but then recovered from 2012 to 2017. As a percentage, though, the decline from 2001 to 2011 was steep, slowed slightly but still declined through 2017.  By 2012, charter advocates began pushing the suburban progressive charter, realizing that growth would continue to slow if they couldn’t disengage white folks from their beloved public schools. Suburban charters were (and are) popular with whites in racially diverse areas, particularly in the south; for example, Wake County charter schools were 62% white in 2012.

When the 2007-2008 meltdown hit, TFA recruitment soared ever higher as elite grads sought shelter from a horrible job market. Relay Graduate School began in 2011, basically providing a teaching credential for new hires of inner city charters.

In 2010, Douglas County (major Colorado suburb) began a highly contested investigation into a voucher program, one that would give public money for all private schools, including religious ones. The school board ultimately supported a move forward, despite a split community.

And that’s the end of the very nearly straightforward rise of education reform. It’s impossible to cover every major development, but I really tried to look at advances in every major area.

I’m going to call 2012 as the peak of the era, for reasons I’ll go through in the next post. It’s not that all progress stopped. It took four more years before education reformers even began to consider how badly they’d been beaten. But most of them would realize that they were now fighting significant opposition that they couldn’t easily dismiss.

Something I’ve mentioned before: it’s amazing that Republican media folk, as opposed to education reformers and even politicians, still talk like it’s 2008-2012. There’s really no understanding in the pundit world how badly they’ve been beaten.

Working on the next; hoping to get it done before the new year. I will go back and edit these if something significant occurred to me.