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What will be Obama’s lasting education legacy?

January 3, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
President Obama and his former education secretary Arne Duncan exercised more power and influence over education policy than many predecessors. The administration placed a focus on testing, trying it to federal funding. In higher education, he emphasized the importance of college and reducing student debt. Alison Stewart talks to Education Week’s Alyson Klein and Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik.
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ALISON STEWART: We continue our look at the Obama years and his legacy.

Tonight, we focus on a subject that often gets less attention, public education.

Much of what happens in the classroom is decided at the state and local level. But the federal government can also be a big player in some of the most personal issues for families, which is also the focus of our weekly segment Making the Grade.

Throughout most of his term, President Obama and his former education secretary, Arne Duncan, exercised far more power and influence in education than many of their predecessors.

One major focus, a demand for greater student testing tied directly to teacher evaluation and, crucially, federal money for schools. Duncan was essentially the gatekeeper of billion of stimulus money known as Race to the Top.

Districts could qualify if they agreed to meet those criteria. Initially, many states joined in. But, over time, resistance began building to testing, data-driven metrics, and whether teachers were being judged unfairly.

The president himself addressed those concerns.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When we talk about testing, parents worry that it means more teaching to the test. Some worry that tests are culturally biased. Teachers worry that they will be evaluated solely on the basis of a single standardized test. Everybody thinks that’s unfair.

It is unfair. But that’s not what Race to the Top is about. What Race to the Top says is there’s nothing wrong with testing, we just need better tests applied in a way that helps teachers and students, instead of stifling what teachers and students do in the classroom.

ALISON STEWART: It also led to a backlash of state standards known as the Common Core.

JULIA SASS RUBIN, Save Our Schools New Jersey: They’re impacting the kind of education kids are getting, because they’re eating up a lot of introduction time with test preparation and test drilling.

CAROLEE ADAMS, Eagle Forum: On this issue, we are shoulder to shoulder, parents, conservatives, progressives, the teachers. We’re all opposed to this because this is not about learning, this is not about education.

ALISON STEWART: The administration promoted the expansion of charter schools, and pointed to a national graduation rate topping 83 percent.

At the same time, the president’s team took a bigger role in higher education. It became the direct lender to students, instead of having the loans made directly by banks. Savings were used to expand Pell Grants. And the administration took aim at the world of for-profit colleges, cracking down on federal funds and contending that students were frequently not well-served by the schools.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the Obama legacy in education with two people who have covered it extensively, Alyson Klein of our partners at Education Week, and Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed.

Thanks to both of you for being here.

Let’s talk about what the Obama administration wanted to do when it first got into office.

Alyson, what was one thing that they wanted to tackle about through K-12 education immediately?

ALYSON KLEIN, Education Week: So, they were in a very fortunate position when they first came into office, in that the Obama administration was given $100 billion for education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus.

And with some of that money through a program known as Race to the Top, they were able to prod states to adopt college and career-ready standards, better known as the Common Core, new forms of teacher evaluation that relied in part on student test scores, and dramatic ways of turning around the lowest performing schools, including getting rid of principals and many teachers.

ALISON STEWART: All right, we will unpack that in a little bit.

Same question for you, Scott, about higher education. What did the Obama administration wanted to tackle right away?

SCOTT JASCHIK, Inside Higher Ed: Sure.

In President Obama’s first state of the union, he said something no president had said before, which is that every American needs at least one year of post-secondary training to succeed in today’s economy. And you see that priority reflected in much that the administration did, proposals for free community college, putting more money into aid for low-income students.

The key difference between past administrations is that I would say, historically, the focus of higher ed policy has been on helping middle-class families who were already going to send their children to college to do so in more affordable ways.

President Obama focused on the students who weren’t going, those who needed higher education, but were not seeking it.

ALISON STEWART: Alyson, let’s unpack a little bit of what you talked about.

Testing became a buzzword among K-12 education, associated with Common Core state standards. The Common Core was obviously an idea, a way to have a federal standard, so that students in Nevada could be compared to students in Texas.

What happened in theory with Common Core and testing vs. what happened in practice?

ALYSON KLEIN: So, the Obama administration didn’t tell states that they had to adopt the Common Core standards, but they did give them, a number of states, money who chose to do that.

And they also used some of the money from the stimulus which I talked about to help states develop new, more innovative forms of tests aligned with those standards.

But they were really demanding a lot from states at once. Teach had to adjust to brand-new standards that were much more rigorous in many cases than the standards they had before and brand-new types of tests. And it just put a lot of pressure on a system.

ALISON STEWART: And also on teacher evaluations. That became a very difficult subject, because you had teachers in certain schools with certain sort of support and scaffolding being compared to teachers in other schools perhaps in more affluent areas.

ALYSON KLEIN: Yes, that’s right.

And one of the big issues with teacher evaluation is that teachers felt that it didn’t necessarily reward them for taking on more challenging groups of students. And, as I mentioned before, the tests and the standards were changing at the same time that teacher performance was being held to those tests.

So, they really felt like that was an unfair situation for them.

ALISON STEWART: Charter schools was another big part of the Obama administration’s push. I believe there was something like $208 million for charter schools in 2008-2009. And that’s up to $333 million, approximately, now. Why the focus on charter schools?

ALYSON KLEIN: So, charter schools are one of the few areas of K-12 education policy where Democrats and Republicans really see eye to eye for the most part.

The Obama administration in particular really pushed states that had lowest — low-performing schools to consider turning those schools into a charter. But they also asked states to set a high bar for charters, make sure that charters were serving all different kinds of students, students in special education and English-language learners, and were being held to the same standards as regular public schools.

ALISON STEWART: Scott, let’s bring you into the conversation.

SCOTT JASCHIK: Sure.

ALISON STEWART: You mentioned bringing new people into the higher education population.

How did the president and his administration make this possible? Were they successful with bringing people in to the higher population, higher education population that wouldn’t have been there before?

SCOTT JASCHIK: Many times, they were successful, but not the way he proposed it.

ALISON STEWART: What does that mean?

SCOTT JASCHIK: So, take free community college.

President Obama proposed a state-federal partnership that would make community college free. Congress never touched it. So, you could say, on one hand, nothing happened. But the reality is that districts all over the country took the idea and ran with it.

And so there are free community college programs in individual districts all over the country. Also, I would say, by talking about the issue, President Obama put much more emphasis on that choice than you ever saw before.

President Obama and also Michelle Obama used their bully pulpits to say, hey, it’s important to go. And they said — they linked it over and over again to jobs that students would need for the future.

And in that sense, I think he changed the conversation. Community colleges used to be sort of a side issue. He made them much more central. He also focused a lot on endorsing alternative ways to go to college. He’s a fan of online education, competency-based education, all kinds of new approaches that, again, he used the bully pulpit to promote, not so much federal legislation, but with attention.

ALISON STEWART: How about dealing with income inequality? We see that in secondary education. Kids who come from well-to-do families often go to college. It’s a very small percentage of people who come from lower-income families.

What did he do and his administration do to help those folks?

SCOTT JASCHIK: So, early on, he promoted large increases — and he got some — in Pell Grants, which is the largest federal program for low-income students.

He wasn’t thrilled with the results, though, because a lot of the money ended up going to students at for-profit institutions, where he questioned the quality.

So, I think that’s part of what led him to free community college, to focus attention on another sector. He also focused a lot on the quality of institutions. He wasn’t, you know, looking at community colleges through rose-colored glasses. He talked about the need for them to improve their graduation rates, to improve their — the connection between their job training programs and actual careers.

So, he was putting attention there, not on Harvard and Stanford.

ALISON STEWART: What about attention about what’s going on, on campus? There were so many stories about sexual assault issues on campuses in the past year-and-a-half.

SCOTT JASCHIK: I think this is an area where the Obama administration played a very significant role.

One, they talked about it a lot, not just the Education Department, but President Obama, Vice President Biden, in repeated events. They also, the administration changed the rules. They told colleges to change the burden of proof when colleges were considering these cases, saying it had to only be a preponderance of evidence. So, that’s a lower standard than, say, guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

And they empowered the Office for Civil Rights at the Education Department to have resources to do more investigations, so, attention and policy, at the same time that activists on campuses were raising the issue more than ever.

ALISON STEWART: A final question for both of you.

What do you think will be the lasting impact of his education legacy, the thing that will stick around, regardless of what’s going on in terms of politics?

ALYSON KLEIN: That’s a great question.

I would say one of the big focuses of the administration was on turning around the lowest-performing schools. And that’s something that’s been enshrined in a law called the Every Student Succeeds Act.

States will still have to focus on schools that are just at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to performers. So, that’s something that I expect to continue no matter who’s in the White House.

ALISON STEWART: What do you think, Scott?

SCOTT JASCHIK: I would say this idea of free college, even though he didn’t get it.

Today, New York’s governor proposed free public higher education. That comes out of the Sanders and Clinton plans, but I also think it comes out of the Obama proposal about free community college. Eight years ago, people were not talking about the idea of free college. Now they are.

ALISON STEWART: Scott Jaschik and Alyson Klein, thanks for joining us.

ALYSON KLEIN: Thank you.

SCOTT JASCHIK: Thank you.

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