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Race to the Top: A Five-Year Marathon Slog With No End in Sight

Let me start by revealing my bias about the name itself. I don't think any aspect of genuinely improving public education in America is enhanced by state-vs.-state competition. Initiatives that serve the greater public good should never be about which states "win" federal money by guessing at/purchasing the "right" profile development, promising the exact policy tweaks that judges were looking for. Further, I hate the idea of states and school districts competing--via student test data comparisons--for a spotlight as "best" at anything in education. As experiences in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. demonstrate, Campbell's Law is alive and well and rendering "objective" data problematic every day.

I don't think we can battle--sprint, compete, struggle or fight--our way to the top. We haven't even clearly defined what "Top" looks like. A more thoughtful and educated citizenry? More equity of opportunity?  If "the top" is defined as better test scores, or more students compelled to pursue four-year college degrees they can't afford toward jobs that don't exist--well, the smarter move is sitting this race out.

There's plenty to write about how the Race to the Top is playing out: the Common Core State Standards debacle, the millions spent to develop "better" teacher evaluations which once again show that most teachers are doing a pretty good job, the policies that have brought us more charter school corruption. But from a teacher perspective, the most striking aspect has been the aggressive federal intrusion into state policy and even the classroom.

Things that once were entirely the purview of the teacher--or the teacher, her colleagues, and building administrators--are now controlled, to a considerable extent, by federally-generated policy: Standards. Curriculum. Instructional methods. Student assessments. Teacher evaluation. School governance.

Race to the Top? Not a fan. And I fear we're not even close to the finish line.

I am a co-founder of the Network of MI Educators. The 15-year old organization was originally formed to urge recognized educators to use their voices to speak on policy issues. We have invited the governor to our annual conference every year for a dialogue (not a speech). We were routinely turned down--but often were able to dialogue with members of the State Board of Education.

In 2009, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm let us know she'd make herself available for remarks and questions from the audience. But--we had to move to a larger venue, since she was inviting the legislature and the Department of Ed, too. Plus media. We were excited. 

Granholm's remarks were all about how marvelous the Race to the Top initiative was--how she had been "reassured" by Arne Duncan that MI was at the top of the list for an RTTT grant. She talked about how much better the new Common Core State Standards and tests would be, how charter safeguards would clean up for-profit charter corruption in MI, how teachers like the great folks in the room would finally be evaluated fairly. The cameras were whirring.

I looked around the room, at the MDE folks wishing they were back at their desks getting some work done, and at the Network of teachers who realized they'd just been sold down the river, in hopes of getting some federal bucks. A handful of brave teachers stood up and asked about national testing, the wisdom of opening up a charter market that had shown very little promise in changing schools in Michigan. A Detroit teacher spoke passionately against using test scores to evaluate teachers. There was an oblique, trust-us, Duncanesque answer for all these concerns.

The Network of Michigan Educators had been used as media backdrop ("some of the states' best teachers gathered today to hear the governor talk about proposed new policies to improve education...").

The Governor led the legislature in passing a package of laws aligned with Race to the Top, to enhance our bid for a grant. Michigan never got any money. We weren't even in the upper half of RTTT scores. 

We're out of the race. But the legislation remains.

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