But on one important issue that proved to be a flashpoint — education policy — he doesn’t have much to say. The memoir’s index shows references to education policies on only four of 701 narrative pages — and none are more than a few sentences. What he doesn’t address says at least as much as what he does.
Meanwhile, his vice president, Joe Biden, will become president of the United States on Jan. 20, and the Biden education agenda will be compared not only to that of Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did but also to Obama’s.
Biden has so far laid out an education reform agenda that does not resemble Trump’s or Obama’s, and he has promised to be a friend to public educators — but many are waiting to see what he actually does after being disappointed by Obama.
Obama’s education agenda surprised many of his supporters, who had expected him to address inequity in public schools and to deemphasize high-stakes standardized testing, which had become the key metric to hold schools accountable under the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law.
But Obama did not. Instead, he allowed Education Secretary Arne Duncan to push a strident education reform program that made standardized testing even more important than NCLB had, and that became highly controversial across the political spectrum for different reasons. Critics called it “corporate reform” because it used methods more common in business than in civic institutions, such as using big data, closing schools that under-performed, and eliminating or weakening of teacher tenure and seniority rights.
Duncan’s reforms came primarily through the $4.3 billion competitive grant program called Race to the Top. It essentially coerced states to open new charter schools, evaluate teachers by students’ standardized test scores and adopt common standards in math and English language-arts standards.
Some of the policies had no chance of working to improve schools. For example, the effort to use student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers was slammed repeatedly by assessment experts as being neither reliable nor valid. It led to a continued narrowing of the curriculum, which had started under No Child Left Behind, and to some cockamamie teacher evaluation schemes where some educators were evaluated by students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach. (Really. You can read about that here.)
The Common Core State Standards initiative, which started out with bipartisan support, was intended make sure students in every state taught and assessed on the same standards — and most states did adopt them. Initially the Core was implemented so quickly places that teachers had no time for serious professional development or to devise new curriculums and lessons that met the standards.
The initiative was blasted by some who said its creation — funded by Bill Gates — involved too little research, public dialogue, or input from educators. Early education experts said some of the standards for the earliest grades were developmentally inappropriate — and they were later modified. And then there was preposterous criticism from the far-right that, for example, the Core promoted homosexuality. (It didn’t.) Over time, the Core became so unpopular that some states said they were dropping the standards, but in reality the new versions largely reflected what was in the Core, and many states today still use them.
Race to the Top did not make systemic improvements in public education in part because it failed to address some of the most important reasons for low student achievement. It did nothing to tackle the fundamental inequity of America’s education funding, which has historically penalized high-poverty districts and rewarded wealthy ones. It also did not address out-of-school factors that affect how children perform in school — even though research shows that most of the achievement gap is driven by factors outside school.
The administration’s obsession with standardized tests led to a rebellion by parents, students, teachers, principals and even superintendents who spoke out against the policies. Many parents refused to allow their students to take high-stakes standardized exams — and an “opt out” of testing movement was born. In 2014, the two major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, who had been enthusiastic Obama supporters, called for Duncan to resign.
Toward the end of the second Obama term, the administration conceded that kids were being tested too much. But the reform movement had become so unpopular with Republicans and Democrats in Congress that they finally rewrote the No Child Left Behind K-12 law in 2015 — eight years after it was supposed to be reauthorized. The new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, gave back to states some of the power over education that Duncan had exercised on the federal level.
That all leads us back to Obama’s new memoir (which is beautifully written and tells us some things we didn’t know about him and his experiences as president). His first indexed reference to education policy comes on Page 244, when he wrote about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It says in part:
“We proposed that nearly $800 billion be divided into three buckets of roughly equal size. In bucket one, emergency payments like supplementary unemployment insurance and direct aid to states to slow further mass layoffs of teachers, police officers, and other workers.”
On the same page, he wrote: “The third bucket, on the other hand, contained initiatives that were harder to design and would take longer to implement but might have a bigger long-term impact” — and one of them was “incentives for states to reform their education systems.”
The reform he was talking about was the $4.3 billion Race to the Top competitive grant program — the center of his entire school agenda. State budgets had been savaged during the 2007-2010 Great Recession and officials were desperate for federal funding. It was an easy choice for states to make: take the vital funding and do what Duncan wanted.
Let’s move to Page 265, where Obama again wrote about the Recovery Act and Race to the Top (without naming it): “It would finance one of the largest and most ambitious education reform agendas in a generation.”
He continued with the same idea on Page 533: “My old friend Arne Duncan, the former Chicago school superintendent, now secretary of education, was leading the effort to raise standards in low-performing schools across the country, even when it drew the wrath of the teachers’ unions (who were understandably wary of anything that might involve more standardized tests) and conservative activists (who thought that the effort to institute a common core curriculum was a plot by liberals to indoctrinate their children).”
The last of the indexed education policy reference comes on Page 616, when he referred to education as it related to DREAMERS — children brought to this country by their undocumented parents when they were very young — and the DREAM Act, which never became law but would have allowed undocumented high school graduates to gain legal status over 10 years if they finished college or served in the military.
There is no discussion of how well he thinks his education initiatives worked or didn’t work. He doesn’t talk about the backlash they caused in the education world and in Congress.
Obama does praise Duncan for “leading the effort to raise standards in low-performing schools” even when the teachers’ unions didn’t like it — sounding as if teachers were opposed to high standards in general and not Duncan’s actions in particular. Obama then seems to try to temper that by adding that the unions were “understandably wary” of standardized testing — but he doesn’t mention just how onerous the testing became.
How onerous? In 2011, for example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina spent $2 million to field test on students a new testing regime that included 52 new standardized tests, one in every subject so that all teachers could be evaluated based in part on the test scores of their students. In New York City, standardized tests were only given in English Language Arts and math and so schools were allowed to assess teachers in other subjects on students’ math scores or English Language Arts scores. In Washington D.C. public schools, the star school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, decided that every adult in every school building should be in part graded by student test scores — including the custodians and lunch workers. Etc. Etc.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a review of Obama’s memoir in the New York Times that notes Obama’s repeated “self-questioning.” The review says in part:
Obama’s thoughtfulness is obvious to anyone who has observed his political career, but in this book he lays himself open to self-questioning. And what savage self-questioning. He considers whether his first wanting to run for office was not so much about serving as about his ego or his self-indulgence or his envy of those more successful. He writes that his motives for giving up community organizing and going to Harvard Law are “open to interpretation,” as though his ambition were inherently suspect. He wonders if he perhaps has a fundamental laziness. He acknowledges his shortcomings as a husband, he mourns his mistakes and broods still on his choice of words during the first Democratic primaries. It is fair to say this: not for Barack Obama the unexamined life. But how much of this is a defensive crouch, a bid to put himself down before others can? Even this he contemplates when he writes about having “a deep self-consciousness. A sensitivity to rejection or looking stupid.”
But there was no such self-savaging about his controversial education policies. They were left unexamined.
Is it possible Obama didn’t know the full consequences of his education policies when he was writing the book? Did he know and think the criticism has been unfair? Did he just not want to deal with it?
What we do know is that his memoir says almost nothing about his education legacy — and there’s no clue as to why.