By Dick Morris on March 16, 2010

To date, the only area in which we have found ourselves in agreement with President Obama was over his announced intention to enforce strict and elevated education standards and move toward paying teachers based on merit.

Now, Obama has retreated from his position of principle and embraced a mealy-mouthed compromise designed to placate school administrators, teachers unions, and their political acolytes at the expense of educational standards.

Over the weekend, Obama announced a series of changes in the No Child Left Behind Law most of which will weaken it and might even cripple the efforts to raise school standards. The Law – and most education terminology – is coded with euphemisms and generalities that must be translated, so let us help to provide a code book.

The NY Times reports that Obama’s plan would “use annual tests along with other indicators” to measure achievement in the nation’s schools. What are the other indicators? The Times says they include “pupil attendance, graduation rates, and learning climate.”

This proposed change will totally undermine the central principle of No Child Left Behind: that schools be judged by objective indices of student performance. By factoring in attendance rates the changes give credit for putting warm bodies in seats. By focusing on graduation rates, they permit schools to push up their ratings by passing out good grades to incompetent students. And by looking at the “learning climate” the changes would inject subjective and vague criteria which would permit failing schools to disguise that fact. While it is not always good to base measurements of performance only on tests of reading and math, these examination scores at least afford independent, objective indications of student ability. By permitting fudging through these new subjective or self-vindicating standards, Obama undermines the whole concept of educational reform.

The Times indicates that Obama wants to find the “5,000 chronically failing schools” while also identifying the 10,000 to 15,000 excellent ones and the 80,000 schools in between. This quota system ignores two abysmal facts: Under No Child Left Behind, one school in three was found to be failing and there has been no appreciable increase in either reading or math scores for the past decade.

By sweeping the problem of bad schools under the rug through a numerical quota (or goal) and subjective criteria for measuring performance, Obama lets the legacy of failing public schools continue while parents are dosed with the soothing syrup of reassurance.

Obama also wants to shift the focus from forcing students to achieve proficiency at each grade level to “measuring each student’s academic growth regardless of the performance level at which they started.” In other words, Obama wants to allow students who cannot read, write, or do math with appropriate ability to be coddled as long as they are improving. When will we learn that flexible standards that bend to accommodate those who cannot meet them do the disadvantaged no good and plenty of harm?

Two parts of the proposed reforms make sense. He would replaced the emphasis on teachers’ academic credentials with a focus on evaluating how their pupils are doing and would intervene in otherwise proficient schools where disadvantaged students are falling far behind the bulk of the pupil population.

But these two saving graces are not enough to redeem a program designed to restore the good old days of flattering self-evaluation in education and reassuring, if phony, good news to feed to parents and the community.

Until now, Obama has stood firm on the subject of education reform, resisting efforts to cripple the Bush standards. Now he has retreated even from this position to the detriment of our children.

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