What the American Federation of Teachers does not tell you in endorsing Barack Obama

So the election is coming soon AND the school year is starting. So it only figures that I would start seeing this graphic showing up on Facebook, courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers. This graphic at least in theory is supposed to show us why educators and those interested in education should cast their votes for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Check it out.

I’m not a member of the AFT. I’m a member of the rival United Federation of Teachers. So I’m not sure how they went about writing this endorsement, or whether they conducted any sort of straw poll of their teachers. However, I would bet that if they did and included an option for third parties or “None of the Above,” you would get at least a third of teachers rejecting both Obama and Romney. And that’s because on their education platforms alone, both candidates are wildly inadequate. There are a number of reasons why that might be true, none of which are addressed in this graphic.
So first of all, I want to note that this graphic fails to address some of the most significant education policies of Obama’s first term. These have included:
1.)    The Race to the Top initiative, which provides increased federal funds to states that will increase high-stakes testing, tie teacher pay and tenure to evaluations which are generally tied to high-stakes testing, and increase funding for charter schools.
2.)    The implementation of Common Core Standards across 44 states, which are expected to guarantee increased standardized testing in schools as they generally require pre-testing and assessments throughout the school year.
3.)    The No Child Left Behind-waivers, which exchange the absurd idea that 100% of students in a school will pass any given test, with… more tests throughout the year as well as teacher evaluations based on tests.
Notice anything here? The AFT would have us believe that President Obama is committed to a policy of not “teaching to the test.” His actual record speaks otherwise, and we should not cut him slack here. Over his first term, President Obama’s Department of Education has implemented—and will continue to implement—policies that will increase standardized high-stakes testing in schools, not decrease it. This means less time for alternative forms of assessments and activities (projects, debates, research, etc.) and more time filling out bubble sheets and preparing for deeply flawed national exams. Ones which have failed to indicate that they improve the state of education. Bear in mind that these are policies which President Obama has a great degree of control over; Congress has not been involved with these regulations in any significant way.
It’s not surprising that President Obama wants to avoid touting these accomplishments to teachers. If there’s one thing many teachers are opposed to, it’s the increase in high-stakes testing. More testing means teachers spend more time test prepping instead of actually teaching. More tests cut into our instructional time and take away our autonomy, while holding us accountable for scores that are unreliable indicators of teacher quality and largely outside of our control. (At least 60% of a student’s test scores are influenced by outside-of-school factors.)
All of these are policies that Mitt Romney would likely continue as president. In fact, some insiders have been rumored to say that Arne Duncan might stay on as Education Secretary in a Romney Administration. There’d be effective continuity between the two administrations.
So that’s President Obama’s record on tests. Let’s take a look at some other planks of this piece.
First there is one area where there is clear disagreement between Obama and Romney.
Vouchers On this issue, President Obama and most of the Democratic Party have thankfully been in the right camp. Expect this to be a point of contention in the presidential debates.

In one area, President Obama’s support is somewhat murky and one has to pay attention to the language being used.
Class size To his credit, President Obama made the jump in class size nationwide a key issue in a recent radio address. Reducing class size, though, has certainly not been a major goal of his administration. In fact, his Secretary of Education has argued that reducing class size is overrated. He is, in effect, arguing that his efforts to save jobs have produced small class sizes as a nice side effect. In short, President Obama is at best a reluctant supporter of keeping class sizes small, but not one who is interested in it as a main issue.

Education jobs, Early Childhood Education, and Pell Grants I’m putting these three together, because they speak to the same root argument: Obama has increased funding for education, Romney will slash it.
This very well might be true, but it speaks more to the weaknesses of a future President Romney than the strengths of current President Obama. Yes, Obama has saved some funding, yet the massive education crisis in America remains largely unsolved. As this recession has deepened, state and local budgets have continued to be slashed, and the federal government simply has not been able to pick up that slack in any significant way.
This is, of course, not entirely President Obama’s fault. The Republicans have played all sorts of obstructionist games, particularly in the Senate, and Democratic leadership has failed to combat that obstruction.
But let’s not pretend President Obama was powerless on this issue. When Obama was at the peak of his popularity in early 2009, he could have called for the sort of expansive New Deal that our economy needed. It would have been an expensive project; progressives in his administration argued that $1.8 trillion was needed to fill the hole left by the Great Recession. With popularity ratings bouncing between 60 and 70%, President Obama could have gone to Congressional negotiations and to the American people with just that number. This could have been the stimulus bill, one much larger and more substantive than the $700 billion weak tea that we received.
Would he have gotten it? Maybe, maybe not. But he was in the right position to negotiate and to sell that number to the American people. This has been a problem throughout Obama’s term. Instead of going into Congressional negotiations demanding everything that he wanted, he seemed to go in demanding everything he thought he could get. And then negotiating down from there. And so we got a stimulus bill that many qualified economists said was not big enough. It wasn’t, and we never got another one. This meant, among other things, that our states had to raise taxes, slash budgets, or both. Generally both. All of our public institutions suffered as a result. And as far as education was concerned, Obama took his focus away from protecting jobs and focused instead on Common Core and Race to the Top.

So to review, as a teacher, on the issues that matter most to me, Obama has been weak and sometimes just flat out wrong. He’s flat out wrong on standardized testing, and his response to the education funding crisis has been limp wristed at best. And on the issue that matters most to me as an educator—the problem of poverty in my student population—Obama has failed to provide the sort of progressive case that our country so desperately needs.
I’m not going to weigh in on Obama’s record, overall, as president in this article; I’ll save that for another day. And yes, Obama is a better choice on education issues than Romney. And maybe his rhetoric on standardized tests will turn into action in his second term. But his record quite simply does not justify the AFT—the second largest teacher’s union in America—holding water for him. He just has not done enough to justify that endorsement.
For the past ten years, our federal government has pushed a policy of more testing, more school closures, and fewer union protections for teachers. And guess what? Our test scores have remained stagnant, our teaching pool is overworked and demoralized, and our students’ learning has suffered. If Obama wants to be a President who brought change and if he wants the full support of teachers, students, and parents, he needs to put forward a bolder vision for what our education system needs than what he has pushed for the last four years. And our union leadership needs to tell him that.

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