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Obama’s Race to the Top Under Fire in California and US


A major conflict between the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program and unions representing teachers has ignited in California, where current education code places limits on the use of student test score data.


Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made it clear that California is ineligible for precious Race to the Top grant dollars because the state places limits on the use of student test score data, and on the expansion of charter schools. While districts and schools are free to use such data, current law prevents individual teacher data from being used at the state level. Now Governor Schwarzenegger has called a special session of the state legislature in order to change the law in time to meet Duncan’s October 5th deadline. With the schools suffering from $6 billion in cuts, legislators are desperate for funds, making them vulnerable to Duncan's pressure tactics.

In this article in the Sacramento Bee, Schwarzenegger claims: "Right now, we can't tell over the course of time how an individual teacher or principal or school is doing."

The truth is, state data can tell you exactly how well a school or principal is doing, as one can access data for every school in the state for the past eleven years right here. You can NOT access that data for the individual teachers, for privacy reasons, but that does not prevent that access at the school or district level, which is where teacher evaluation occurs.

Duncan also insists that the state must remove limits on the expansion of charter schools. Currently, California limits the number of new charters to 100 per year, and requires that supporters of a new charter gather parent signatures prior to approval. More than a thousand charters have been approved, and few have been blocked by these provisions. But the Race to the Top wants any limits removed, so as to maximize the chances that charters can expand.

The political arm of the National Education Association – the California Teachers’ Association (CTA) has taken a strong stand against this move. Dean Vogel, the organization’s vice president, states

The proposed Race to the Top requirements repeat the top-down mandates of the flawed No Child Left Behind Act, with its over-reliance on test scores to measure student achievement. Students are more than one test score and so are educators. There must be multiple measures for student achievement and evaluating teachers. Using test scores to pay and evaluate teachers will lead to more teaching to the test and will hurt those students who need the most help.

As a teacher in a district with many high needs schools, I believe moves towards tying evaluation and pay to test scores could have very bad results. We already struggle to cope with very high turnover due to the low pay and tough conditions at these schools. Students test scores at the individual teacher level are highly variable from year to year. I have had a class one year that just hums along, and I have been able to build a strong learning community where students work together well and their performance will show it. Other years the class has been disrupted by troubled students who transfer in late in the semester, or weighed down by a large number of students repeating the grade, who do not attend regularly and are major distractions when they do show up. This is part of the challenge in a high needs school – but it must be recognized that this has an effect on the test scores. If we base the evaluation and pay of teachers on their scores every year, we are going to make high needs schools even harder to staff. This will make these schools even less stable, and make it that much harder to build the learning communities we need.

This conflict may have tipped the scales for the country’s largest teacher’s union. This week the National Education Association (NEA) likewise took on the Race to the Top, stating:

We find this top-down approach disturbing; we have been down that road before with the failures of No Child Left Behind, and we cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates that have little or no research base of success and that usurp state and local government's responsibilities for public education.

The NEA endorsed Obama, and many members, including myself, actively campaigned for him. Although he pledged to reverse the emphasis on test scores embodied in No Child Left Behind, the policies enacted thus far under his leadership seem to actually intensify this emphasis.

In recent speeches, Obama has continued to confuse those of us trying to reconcile his policies with his words. In a June appearance in Wisconsin, Obama said,

There's a saying in Illinois I learned when I was down in a lot of rural communities. They said, "Just weighing a pig doesn't fatten it." (Applause.) You can weigh it all the time, but it's not making the hog fatter. So the point being, if we're all we're doing is testing and then teaching to the test, that doesn't assure that we're actually improving educational outcomes.
We do need to have accountability, however. We do need to measure progress with our kids. Maybe it's just one standardized test, plus portfolios of work that kids are doing, plus observing the classroom. There can be a whole range of assessments, but we do have to have some kind of accountability….

It appears that the administration is paying lip service to multiple measures of student performance, while in practice, implementing policies that force a reliance on the single measure of the standardized test.

What do you think? Is the NEA correct when it opposes Duncan’s Race to the Top? What stance should teachers take towards linking test scores to evaluations and pay?

Note: If you are a California resident, you can find your state representative using this link.

Image used by permission through Creative Commons, photo by ItzaFineDay.


Student assessment could be a small part of the equation. As a National Board Candidate for 2009 and formerly a RIFd teacher in Orange County, CA, I KNOW I was a better teacher than some at my school/district.

I always got the challenging students with IEPs but also the gifted/talented students from parent referrals. I truly differentiated my instruction and I was a leader and team player at my school. They always made growth that was appropriate for their level.

There were five teachers at my school that the entire staff would have liked removed for a variety of valid reasons but it is very difficult. My only strike was seniority. I don't think that should be a basis for employment in a profession that wants to be taken seriously and on the same note is vitally important beyond words.

We need to rethink how we are evaluated. We need to have more peers in our classroom to help observe and provide feedback. Student feedback can occur from not just standardized testing but monitored growth through portfolios, summative assessments, parental feedback, etc. While I think the plan that Secretary Duncan created is not perfect I support his efforts to bring some kind of school reform to the system. The union can still have its role but it has got to reinvent itself as well. It's role must evolve with the times too.

This is my 2nd RIF in a 20 year teaching career because of my lack of seniority. Now I am using this time to become an associate professor. My focus of studying is school reform. I am sad that I will not have anyone to share my good news of NCBT (hopefully) in December because I won't be in a classroom at my district. However, I hope they will take notice and encourage other teachers in my district of 53,000 students to take notice of the program. To date we have only 10 NBCTs out of 2700 teachers. Why? I heard it said that "what good does it do, it doesn't help you keep a teaching job". Maybe that would be my first reform in the NEA. If you are able to become a NBCT and put that much effort into being a better, accomplished teacher, you should skip a RIF list.

Effort, not attendance than would be rewarded.

When pay raises depend on the test scores of students all bets are off. Watch out for human behaviors that enhance the potential to exploit children, dumb down instruction to meet the narrow range of most standardized tests, encourage cheating, and effectively end collaboration among professionals. This is NOT a good idea.

Troy, I am sorry that you have lost your job, but I cannot and will not agree with Obama and Duncan. (Two people that have NO experience in a classroom.)

There are so many variables that can change the outcome of a student's performance on a test that I cannot control. I cannot control whether "Suzy" went to bed at a decent time. I cannot control whether "Jim" ate a decent breakfast in the morning. I cannot control whether "Carol's" parent chose to take her out instead of having her complete her homework.

I do not get to choose who is in my classroom. I do not get to choose the curriculum I teach. I even have a pacing guide to tell me when and what I should be teaching at a given time. I am told to focus on reading and math (because everyone is going to go to college whether they like it or not), and if I have time, then I can go ahead and teach science, social studies, art, and P.E. (No specialists in my district in California - if I want it, I must teach it.)

I should not be punished for things I cannot control. I should not be punished because I chose to work in a low socio-economic area. I should not be punished because 70% of my students are second language learners. I should not be punished because during 7 days of testing my students did not always perform well because of unforeseen events.

It's a test that my students are not held accountable for. Students aren't held back because they did poorly on the test. Students aren't graded down because they didn't do well on the test. Most students could care less how they do because they are not held accountable. This test (CST) only means something to the state and districts.

Why should I be punished for something that doesn't even mean anything to them?

Kenya's comments all illustrate why teacher's unions are still so critical today. I know we take a lot of heat for keeping bad teachers in place or insisting on archane forms of pay scales. But unions are out there fighting for our working conditions every day - and thus for the education of all children. Decent working conditions for teachers mean good learning communities for students. You should not have to be at a certain place at a certain time in your curriculum. What happens when some students need more time? What happens when student take their learning in a whole new direction? Our unions fight to change those kinds of policies everyday.

Hang in there and keep fighting. Even if administrators and legislators do not understand, I believe we teachers make real differences to our students every day. We are shaping the future even as we try to deflect all these insane policies that come at us every year.

I am an NBCT. That fact has not altered my teaching at all. It may indicate something about my qualifications to teach and my willingness to jump hurdles to improve my pay. That is all. It does not necessarily prove I am a better teacher than any other.

Neither does a single set of test scores.

Evaluating teachers is problematic because no evaluator or evaluative instrument can be a student in that classroom for a semester or a year. We all believe we know who the good and lousy teachers in our buildings are, but we are hard pressed to give objective criterion that definitively explain that evaluation. I feel that I have done a good job when a student tells me years later that something I taught helped them succeed or understand at some point down the road; or when a teacher of students I have taught tells me they see the prior knowledge the students bring with them and it is content I taught.

I would love a way to instantly get feedback on how successful I am at teaching my content, at encouraging inquisitive minds, at shoring up children whose lives are crumbling around them. I just don't believe such an instrument exists. I am sure that creating a more chores for teachers in the form of "evaluative instruments" that will protect their jobs will not improve teaching. It will detract from it.

I am also an NBCT, and I would take issue with several of your points. First of all, for myself, the process of becoming an NBCT had a powerful effect on my teaching practice. I reflected on the way I was building a classroom community, on the ways my students were discussing their work, and most profoundly, on how I was assessing student learning. The National Board process is constructed around providing evidence of student learning, and most portfolio entries require teachers to document that learning through actual student work and videotapes of classroom instruction.

For that reason, and because numerous studies have shown that NBCTs are indeed more effective than their non-NBCT peers, I think National Board certification is indeed a signal that someone is worthy of distinction, and even extra compensation.

I think most evaluations are nowhere near as thorough as the National Board process, but if we want to improve teacher quality, I think processes like the one developed by the National Board give us some good models to look at.

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