Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

John Thompson Headshot

Will President Obama Stop Supporting Corporate Reformers?

Posted: Updated:

President Barack Obama visited Brooklyn's P-TECH High School and praised their results, as well as New York City's and his administration's school "reforms." As the president placed a smiley-face flag on the tip of the iceberg, he seemed to be unaware of the brutality of the market-driven system he helped fund. Obama praised the winners -- 335 students who mostly were already doing well in school and who benefited from more challenging instruction -- but ignored the children who were damaged by his Social Darwinian policies.

Had philanthropists and the Obama administration merely funded small schools like P-TECH, it would have been a win-win policy for the fortunate students chosen for those innovative learning communities. But, reformers insisted that choice must breed competition and they tilted the scales in favor of small schools so that they could produce higher metrics in order to proclaim victory. That would have been no worse than any other spin that marketers or politicians commonly engage in. In their rush to transform the entire system by showing that competition works, however, the Bloomberg and Obama administrations actively damaged students in the schools they left behind.

President Obama praised the gentrification of Brooklyn and the innovation of the small P-TECH school, but he seemed to accept Mayor Bloomberg's account of the fate of Paul Robeson High School which shares their building. While P-TECH's students were above the city average when they entered the school, Robeson's incoming students were below the city's average. But, that was not the real problem. Robeson served 2-1/2 times more English Language Learners and nearly three times as many special education students, and 1/8th of its students were homeless, but neither was that the real problem. After all, the strategy of providing a respectful learning environment would work just as well for at-risk children as it has for those who chosen for the winning school. It is not possible to sabotage the schools they seek to defeat, however, without harming the students those schools serve.

The disgusting reality that the president ignores is that true believers in competition undermined the education of children destined to be defeated in their market-driven "reforms." A decade ago, Robeson was honored for its leadership and results. As small schools were opened, hundreds of troubled students and their gang-related problems were dumped on Robeson, and the school spiraled downward. As the Obama administration joined the competitive frenzy by funding its rushed school turnarounds, Robeson admitted a freshmen class of 140. Then 70 to 80 "Over the Counter" students, including many from the Rikers Island jail, were enrolled.

At this point, the decent thing to do would be to cry, "Over the Counter children!" What sort of mindset labels children that way?

"Over the Counter" kids (OTC) are students who did not enroll on schedule. They are about 17 percent of NYC's high school students and they are more likely to be new immigrants, special needs students, poor, transient, homeless, over-age, or have histories of behavioral problems. As the Annenberg Center's "Over the Counter, Under the Radar" explains, high schools that are on the chopping block often find themselves with up to 37 percent of their student population being OTC students.

If the purpose of school reform was primarily helping kids, and not defeating adult enemies, the obvious and decent thing to do would be to enroll at-risk children in the schools that are best able to help them. But, it turns out that the dumping of the most vulnerable students on the most challenged schools is just the tip of an even bigger, more cruel iceberg.

The New York City schools are 75 percent low-income. So, what is the low income rate of freshmen who are still enrolled in the city's high schools on October 31?

A recent study by the Education Funders Research Initiative, "New York City Schools: Following the Learning Trajectories," found that their low-income rate is about 50 percent! This shocking drop is due to the large number of students who were no longer enrolled in a NYC DOE school in ninth grade, or who were enrolled in specialized programs serving students in the criminal justice system, drug/alcohol rehabilitation centers, teen pregnancy centers, and mental health facilities, etc.

When will we see a presidential visit to publicize their plight?

Again, there is nothing wrong with investing in small schools that improve the performance of the easier-to-educate students. NYC is already doing a good job with students who were above average in English Language Arts (ELA) in thirrd grade. The Education Funders' Research shows that 91.3 percent of students who exceeded the ELA standard in third grade would meet or exceed the standard in eighth grade, and almost 90 percent of these students graduated within four years. But, we must praise efforts to give them even better opportunities.

The problem is that true believers in competition-driven reform have stacked the odds against students who were already behind by third grade. The Education Funders found that "only 2.7 percent of them went on to meet or exceed the ELA benchmark in eighth grade, and only one in three of the students who failed to meet the third-grade ELA standard graduated from high school."

Those children need high-quality preschool. The president now supports mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio and early education. Despite his funding of corporate reform, I still support President Obama, and I hope he will start to fulfill the humane side of his promises.

I would not complain about New York City's choice-driven small schools reforms if all children had equal opportunities for choosing whether they want a school culture where they could pursue their interests or whether they chose a stridently competitive culture. Even if reformers do not start to make a legitimate effort to improve schools with intense concentrations of extreme poverty and trauma, at least they could stop imposing a segregated, dog-eat-dog, teach-to-the-test culture on the most vulnerable children.

Reformers in NYC and nationally, were wrong to become so obsessed with defeating their adult political opponents that they dumped such an outrageous win-lose mentality over schools. It is wrong for President Obama to celebrate the students who benefited from his corporate reform policies without mourning the children who were sacrificed so that they would look more successful.