NEA plays the least worst candidate game in Obama endorsement

The largest teachers’ union in the United States, the National Education Association, voted over the weekend to endorse President Obama’s 2012 reelection bid. This last year has proven perilous for teachers across the country as primarily Republican-led attacks have sought to strip them of their collective bargaining rights, and blame them for the budget shortfalls caused by the recession.

In addition to attacks on compensation and union rights, Republicans have long been on the forefront of an effort to privatize public schooling through the implementation of voucher programs. Given the attacks — both new and old — on public education and teachers from the Republicans, the 72 percent vote in favor of endorsing Obama comes as no surprise.

However, the vote was really one made out of desperation. Although Obama has not been leading a charge to cut the pay and union representation of teachers, he has consistently echoed support for charter schools and standardized testing. The teachers then had to choose between a Republican party that wants to cut their compensation, destroy their union, and get rid of public education altogether, or President Obama who endorses the failed charter school movement and standardized testing as a means to evaluate teacher performance.

Faced with this awful choice, the teachers had no option but to “pick the least evil” as middle school teacher Bertha Foley described it in today’s New York Times.

The charter school movement that Obama endorses has been an unmitigated disaster. Often premised on the claim that teacher unions are causing public schools to fail, these sometimes private, sometimes public, alternative schools have popped up across the country to solve our education woes. They have received enormous public relations boosts from sympathetic documentaries like Waiting for Superman, and are closely linked to other failed educational reform efforts like Teach for America.

Whatever one thinks about the teacher-blaming, school-blaming slant of the charter school movement, the data which indicates a widespread failure of charter schools speaks for itself. The Stanford Credo Study (pdf) on charter schools — the largest study of its kind — analyzed 70 percent of the charter schools in the country. It found that only 17 percent of charter schools perform better than their public school counterpart, with 37 percent performing worse, and 46 percent performing about the same. More than twice as many charter schools perform worse than their traditional counterpart than the number of schools that perform better.

Reliance on standardized testing has similar problems, and relies on unfounded premises that are equally weak. Although standardized testing evaluates something, it is less than clear what that something it evaluates is. Good or bad performance on a small set of questions is not broadly indicative of how much a person has learned.

The heavy emphasis on testing leads to narrow curriculum aimed at beating the test, and the heavy reliance on the scores to evaluate teachers is senseless and encourages cheating. Let us not forget the recent debacle of Michelle Rhee whose miraculous standardized test improvements as superintendent in the troubled Washington DC schools were revealed to have been a fraud.

Despite the obvious problems with these approaches to improvement, Obama keeps on pushing them as a way to better achievement outcomes. Blaming schools and teachers is a convenient way to pretend that the problem is being addressed. It also allows us to distract ourselves from the reality that poor performance in school is clearly driven — at least in part — by childhood poverty. Children who are forced to endure the conditions of poverty at home do not perform as well in school as those who are better off.

The NEA then is put in a precarious position where both major political parties have adopted inadequate policies that put them in the crosshairs. While I wont criticize the NEA for playing the least worst candidate game, there is something sad about the fact that they even have to.