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Just Say No to the Race to the Top

Dear Deborah,

As I have traveled the country, from Boston to Los Angeles and points in between, I have met thousands of teachers who work in our nation's public schools. The overwhelming mood is one of demoralization, and, in some cases, despair. They thought that President Obama would break free from the test-based accountability of No Child Left Behind, and now they realize that he plans to apply even tougher penalties based on test scores. Many of them know how phony the tests are—even Secretary Arne Duncan has said that the current generation of state tests are bad—yet the fate of teachers will now rest on these same inadequate tests.

As I listened to teachers and principals, I concluded that states and districts should not participate in the Race to the Top. It might better be called the Race to Nowhere, or as some have dubbed it, the Race to the Trough or the Dash to the Cash.

Here are my top 10 reasons for saying no:

  1. The money that states win cannot plug budget gaps, but must be applied to meeting the requirements of the Race.
  2. The Race demands that states evaluate teachers by their students' test scores. Some states are legislating that 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation be based on student scores. There is no basis in research or science for 50 percent or 20 percent or any other number. Of course, supervisors should take test scores into account when evaluating teachers, but they should not be required to use a fixed percentage, determined arbitrarily by legislators.
  3. The issue of how to evaluate teachers should be resolved by professional associations, working in concert, such as the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education, and other professional groups. The state legislatures do not determine how other professionals should be evaluated; they don't know. Nor do they know how teachers should be evaluated. Why doesn't the U.S. Department of Education convene the leading professional organizations and give them a grant to design the ideal method of evaluating teacher performance? Why should such an important issue be determined by political negotiation rather than by professional standards?
  4. The NCLB-induced obsession with testing and test-prep activities will intensify under Race to the Top because teachers will know that their future, their reputation, and their livelihood depend on getting the scores higher, by any means necessary.
  5. By raising the stakes for tests even higher, Race to the Top will predictably produce more teaching to bad tests, more narrowing of the curriculum, more cheating, and more gaming the system. If scores rise, it will be the illusion of progress, rather than better education. By ratcheting up the consequences of test scores, education will be corrupted and cheapened. There will be even less time for history, geography, civics, foreign languages, literature, and other important subjects.
  6. The Race requires states to increase the number of privately managed schools. There is no basis in research for this requirement. Privately managed schools have been compared with regular public schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2003, and they have never outperformed them. The Stanford CREDO study found that 17 percent of charter schools were better than matched traditional public schools, 46 percent performed about the same, and 37 percent were worse than traditional public schools. Not an impressive showing.
  7. The Race promotes the de-professionalization of education by encouraging alternate paths into teaching and leadership. No other nation has built a successful public school system by increasing the number of non-professionals in the classroom or in the job of principal or superintendent. We need better-educated, better-prepared teachers; we need principals who are master teachers; we need superintendents who are knowledgeable educators.
  8. Many public schools will be closed down to comply with the demands of Race to the Top. These schools will be heavily concentrated in poor and minority communities, robbing them of their social capital. This will destabilize communities without any assurance that better schools will be created. Schools that enroll large numbers of low-performing students will be heedlessly closed, even if their staff is doing a good job in the face of difficult challenges.
  9. Race to the Top erodes state control of public education, a basic principle of our federal system of government throughout our history. Now, states will dance to whatever tune the U.S. Department of Education feels like playing. Will a different administration demand school prayer and vouchers in exchange for billions?
  10. Race to the Top erodes local control of education by prompting legislatures to supersede local school boards on any issues selected by federal bureaucrats.
I hope I am wrong, but I believe that 10 years from now, we will look back with regret and even shame on this misuse of federal power. Books will be written analyzing where these ideas came from and why they were foisted on the nation's public schools at a time of fiscal distress. And we will be left to wonder why so much money and energy was spent promoting so many dubious ideas.

Diane

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