Race to the Top: A Practitioner’s Perspective

Steve A. Davidson, Ed.D. – RTT had some dangerous strings attached and used the money to coerce states, districts, and schools to push for agenda-based objectives. RTT is the $4.35 billion carrot to mobilize such reforms.

Race to the Top: A Practitioner’s Perspective

Compiled by Steve A. Davidson, Ed.D.

Introduction

The $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) competition, created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) aimed to reward states for making progress on a series of redesigned “assurances.”  The President stated “this competition will not be based on politics or ideology or the preferences of a particular interest group.  Instead, it will be based on a simple principle: whether a state is ready to do what works.”  Unfortunately, RTT had some dangerous strings attached and used the money to coerce states, districts, and schools to push for agenda-based objectives.  RTT is the $4.35 billion carrot to mobilize such reforms.

The “four assurances” demanded of states to tap money to stabilize their budgets or to “win” some of the RTT fund grants were:

·         Turning around the lowest-performing schools;

·         Bolstering state data systems in order to link K-12 systems with early learning, higher education, workforce, social services, and other state data;

·         Improving teacher quality and the distribution of effective teachers; and

·         Strengthening standards and assessments.

Education Week’s Alyson Klein reported that states could give themselves an edge in the competition by encouraging proliferation of high-quality charter schools, measuring student progress through comprehensive data systems, compensating and promoting educators at least partly based on student performance, among other policies.  States were considered ineligible for a slice of the funding if they had laws that prohibited the linking of student-achievement data with teacher effectiveness.

Assistant education secretary Carmel Martin said that these themes are likely to be the basis for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, the most recent iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 which created the Title I federal aid program aimed at reducing achievement gaps between rich and poor and among the races.  Money governed under ESEA was generally formula-driven rather than competitively awarded.  According to Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of Council of Chief State School Officers, if the RTT initiative leads to common, more rigorous, standards it is likely to have implications for the new version of the ESEA.

What is extraordinary about these regulations is that they have no credible basis in research.  They just happen to be the programs and approaches favored by those in power.  Under normal circumstances, the Department of Education would need congressional hearings and authorization to launch a program so sweeping and so sharply defined.  Instead, they used the ARRA money to impose their preferences, with no hearings and no congressional authorization.

Rick Hess, an education policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, worries that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are pushing ahead too quickly and that they forced states to change their rules “carelessly or without much conviction.”  “We’re institutionalizing impatience,” he said.  “There’s not much room for thoughtful conversation.”  Hess also echoed a common fear that RTT is designing another one-size-fits-all solution to education reform, exactly the problem that plagues the current No Child Left Behind Act, which Henry Giroux and Kenneth Saltman call “the market-based and penal model of pedagogy.”

In order to receive the money, states had to agree to align their curriculum with international benchmarks.  The only problem is that these benchmarks are not yet developed.  They are being cultivated, supposedly, by a consortium of groups.  Regardless, across the nation state legislatures feverishly scrambled to re-write education laws.  Moreover, with states’ budgets in a crisis, the possibility of winning a grant was very attractive.  Steve Peha, president of Teaching that Makes Sense, says that there were 19 selection criteria, any one of which would have required major changes in a state’s laws.  Could anyone evaluating the RTT applications believe that any state could reach these assurances and goals over the short lifetime of the grant?

In addition, how could the state criteria-based competitions and ultimate distribution of funds be fair?  Heather Wolpert-Gawron at tweenteacher.com asked, “What if different states were to tackle different objectives?  What if each state vowed to improve one failing element in education?  Would not the whole country level accordingly?  It’s the states that couldn’t figure out how to fund and ensure reform that needed the money.  The states that had it all figured out surely weren’t that far off to begin with.”  Pitting states against each other for the funds that they all need is bound to end up as an equity issue.

Peha sees RTT as a “Reading First Phenomenon” where “the government sets out some very logical standards; programs are created to meet those standards; money is doled out; and programs end up being ineffective.”  RTT was a competition with winners and losers, giving the government more power over how some schools are administered.  Is this really the best way to help our young people?  Has U.S. education been reduced to a game show?

National Standards

Currently, the United States does not have a national school system.  In accordance with the 10th Amendment of U.S. Constitution, the ultimate authority to create and administer education rests with the states.  But is this the case?

If a person owns 10 percent of a company, would he have the power to dictate to the rest of the stockholders what the company can or cannot do?  The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) contributes only between 8 and 11 percent of total education spending for K-12 schools nationwide, yet it – and Congress – continues to bully states and take away the states’ rights to run their own education programs.  Author and lecturer Sam Blumenfeld says, “We must return to the principle of limited government if we wish to reduce the cost of government and its unwarranted intrusion in the education of our children.  A limited federal government does only those things that cannot be done by the states or the private sector.  The purpose of taxes is to pay for government, not change society.”

In not only the NCLB Act, but many lawmakers also regard provisions in the RTT regulations as a federal intrusion.  Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-PA, said that in allowing states to earn points toward the RTT grant by taking part in the common standards movement, the DOE has “transformed [the common-core effort] from a voluntary, state-based initiative to a set of federal academic standards with corresponding federal tests.”  Congress and the Secretary of Education have become the de facto national school board and superintendent.  RTT regulations could be the final nail in the Constitutional coffin creating de facto national standards/curriculum and a national test.

In competing for the RTT monetary prize, states are encouraged to take part in an effort to develop common academic standards.  The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governor’s Association (NGA) are developing a common core of state standards in English/language arts and mathematics for grades K-12.  There is to be “a common set of K-12 standards…that are supported by evidence that they are internationally benchmarked and build toward college and career readiness by the time of high school graduation.”  Yong Zhao, distinguished professor at Michigan State University, asks if these standards are internationally benchmarked.  “With Canada, our closest neighbor, or Australia, a large federation of states like the U.S.?  No, because they do not have national standards.  Or China, our perceived competitor?  Probably not, because China has been reforming its curriculum by loosening its national control.  Or most likely against the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) or the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)?  These are tests, not curriculum standards!”  In addition, those results are hard to compare since different countries use different methods to choose which students take the examinations.

Standards-based accountability has been the national reform strategy for nearly two decades.  Ronald Wolk, founder of Education Week, describes it as “essentially a ‘get tough’ strategy made tougher by NCLB.  By all measures, it has not lived up to its promise because it is based on the premise that if we demand high performance and educational excellence, schools, teachers, and students will somehow ‘just do it.’  It is a strategy that basically expects schools to be highly structured institutions with uniform practices and policies, where a common version of education is delivered to all students.”  Because of this, students are classified as “advanced, proficient, or below proficient” based on some arbitrary statistical bars which are raised at a whim.

Retired educator and author Marion Brady says that Congress and the administration should stop basing education policy on the opinions of business leaders, syndicated columnists, mayors, lawyers, philanthropists, members of Congress, and other assorted “experts” who have never spent real time with real students in real classrooms.  These are “experts” who see more rigor, more tests, more international comparisons, more “data-driven decision-making,” more math and science, more school closings, and more Washington-initiated top-down reform policies as the panacea for education’s ills.  They are experts in education because at one time they went to school – which makes as much sense as claiming to be experts in medicine because they went to doctors’ offices!

Wolk says that standardization and uniformity does not work with humans.  Today’s student body is the most diverse in history.  An education system that treats all students alike denies that reality.  Standards don’t prepare students for anything.  They are a framework of expectations and educational objectives.  Without the organization and processes to achieve them, they are worthless.  States have devoted nearly 20 years formulating standards to be accomplished by a conventional school model that is incapable of meeting them.  Our problem in education is not one of performance, but one of design.  The key to graduating is learning; the key to learning is motivation.  The innovative schools that graduate most of their students personalize education choices and encourage students to pursue their interests which offer multiple opportunities to learn, instead of a one-size-fits-all education.

Brady says that trying to standardize kids by forcing them all through the same minimum standards hoops is not just a form of child abuse; it is a sure-fire way to squeeze out what little life is left in America’s public schools after decades of appallingly simplistic, misguided, patchwork policy.  Congress should tell states what enlightened school boards have told educators: “We want you to unleash creativity, ingenuity, resourcefulness, imagination, and enthusiasm – and send the young off with a lasting love of learning.  Tell us what you need in order to make that happen, and we’ll do our best to provide the necessary support.”

“Human history,” said H.G. Wells, “is a race between education and catastrophe.”  If amateurs continue to control American education policy, put your money on catastrophe.  It’s a sure thing.

Testing

During his campaign, the president said, “We should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.”  In June 2009 he said that a broader range of assessments could include “one standardized test, plus portfolios of work that kids are doing, plus observing the classroom.  There can be a whole range of assessments.”  Unfortunately, RTT guidelines represent a step backward from these goals.  They actually make the testing problems worse without providing sufficient support for “a broader range of assessments.”  FairTest reports that by focusing on new standards and tests, they distract attention from necessary reforms and overemphasize the value of test scores in data systems.

But, national exams will not reduce the problems already caused by over-reliance on testing.  The DOE proposes to spend $350 million for teams of states to create new tests based on new national standards and are focusing on pressuring states to swap one standardized test for another.  Under RTT, states can earn up to 10 extra points for working with other states to develop and implement common tests.  Multiple-choice tests do not address the real goals of education.  When tests drive the curriculum, instruction suffers.

The RTT guidelines say that tests should be a “significant factor” in teacher evaluations.  “Significant” is not defined, but it is safe to assume it means weighty enough to affect educator behaviors and, hence, intensify teaching to the test.  Test-prep programs unfairly advantage those who can afford them, strategies to improve the reliability of guessing correct answers can be taught, and test results can be manipulated to support political and ideological agendas; therefore, test scores are unreliable and invalid and should not be the primary drivers of education policy.

Still, what’s the point?  While there are milestones of achievement (graduation, degrees, etc.), striving for competitive precision is an empty and pointless goal.  Is the person who gets a 28 on his ACT test “smarter” than a person who gets a 25?  Will the 28 have proportionally more life success – or happiness?  Even completely objective score keeping and rule-bound activities in sports are often won on fluke plays.  Our job in education should not be precise comparisons on arbitrary indicators.  We do not need expensive national tests to tell us whose prospects are promising and who have fallen behind.

According to social scientist Dr. Donald T. Campbell, “Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence.  But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.”

So why spend more money and time on constant testing to tell us what we already know – especially when standardized tests do a poor job of measuring real learning, do not assess most of the characteristics valued by parents and the larger society, and contribute almost nothing to the process of teaching and learning?  As the infamous farmer once said, “Weighing my pig every day won’t make it heavier.”

A quote by Cal State professor, Art Costa, shows up a lot when discussing the absurdity of high-stakes, national testing: “What was once educationally significant, but difficult to measure, has been replaced by what is insignificant and easy to measure.  So now we test how well we have taught what we do not value.”

Charter Schools

RTT regulations devote a significant amount of points to states that have taken steps to begin revamping their lowest-performing schools by either closing them or turning them over to charter operators, which could be codified as part of the renewal of ESEA.  States that receive a RTT grant are required to use at least 50 percent of the award to provide subgrants to local education agencies (LEAs), including charter schools that operate by siphoning money from public school systems.

The same decision-makers who mandate increased accountability and standards in public schools also advocate and endorse the “merits” of freedom and innovation given to charter schools that operate with public funds, yet are free of many state regulations.  Charter schools can be as selective as private, tuition-charging schools by skimming the top students from other schools.  This goes against the premise of NCLB, which is to make sure that every child receives an equal education.  Charter schools leave behind those who need help the most, including the exclusion of English-language learners and special education students.  By stacking the deck, charters avoid all the rigors that force the public schools to be labeled as “failures.”  Therefore, if charter schools are, indeed, the saviors of failing schools, why not permit all schools to operate with “freedom and innovation?”

Studies performed by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), U.S. Department of Education, and the Center Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) have found that charter schools performed several points worse than students in traditional public schools in both reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test and were out-performed by traditional public schools in meeting state performance standards.  Others studies have shown that charter school teachers are often less experienced and lower-paid than teachers in public schools.

Economist Margaret Raymond of Stanford University found that 37 percent of charter schools posted worse standardized test scores than comparable traditional schools, 46 percent did about the same, and only 17 percent did better.  She concluded “this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their traditional public school counterparts.”  Because the Raymond study is the largest study of charter schools so far, it offers hard data to help taxpayers judge the merits of expanding this movement.

It is yet unclear whether charters’ lackluster test results will affect the enacting of future legislation.  A Pennsylvania legislator who voted to create charter schools, State Rep. Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia, said “Charter schools offer increased flexibility to parents and administrators, but at a cost of reduced job security to school personnel.  The evidence to date shows that the higher turnover of staff undermines school performance more than it enhances it, and that the problems of urban education are far too great for enhanced managerial authority to solve in the absence of far greater resources of staff, technology, and state of the art buildings.”

Evaluation/Merit Pay

According to the RTT guidelines, states that prohibit linking student achievement test data to teacher and principal evaluations will not be eligible to apply.  It is unclear how RTT would base teacher evaluation, compensation, promotion, and dismissal on standardized tests, when most teachers teach grades and subjects not captured in standardized tests.  Moreover, how will the use of student data not violate the student’s and educator’s privacy rights?

In 2005-06, Texas introduced a merit pay plan for teachers by offering $100 million in bonuses if teachers raised their students’ test scores.  In May of 2009, the Texas Educator Excellence Grant was quietly retired after getting lackluster results, even though payments to teachers were based overwhelmingly on the test scores of their students.  Teachers are not motivated by the same factors that shape the behavior of those in business.  In Texas, for example, more than three-fourths of teachers eligible for performance pay said the bonuses had no effect on the way they taught.

The National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University reported that no conclusive data on the power of financial rewards promote more effective teaching and elevate student performance or on the long-term effect of performance awards on the supply of effective teachers.  International research shows the practice leads to narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the test, to the detriment of all-around learning.  A recent study conducted by Patrick Schuermann and James Guthrie – and funded by the pro-merit pay G.W. Bush administration – concluded that there is no clear evidence on “the power of financial awards in promoting more effective teaching and elevating student performance.”

Merit pay assumes that teachers will not work hard unless they are paid more.  Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch says, “It has been my experience that the overwhelming majority of teachers are working as hard as they know how; they will be happy to get more money for their efforts, but they have not been holding back and waiting for a bonus to spur them to greater effort.”

Notwithstanding the evidence from research and decades of failed efforts, will forcing merit pay schemes on teachers revitalize America’s schools?  How can the effectiveness of band directors, biology teachers, math teachers, kindergarten teachers, special education teachers, etc. be easily measured and dollar amounts attached to their relative skills?  How will merit pay be guaranteed not to have adverse effect of collegiality, collaboration, teacher-team dynamics, morale, or school politics?  Social scientist Dr. Donald T. Campbell said, in what is now called ‘Campbell’s Law,’ “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” 

Dennis Van Roekel, President of the National Education Association, said,                                                           

A “race to the top” can quickly turn into a “race to judgment.”  Educators have been burned by NCLB – where the results of one high-stakes test were used in a punitive manner.  We’re concerned about the effectiveness and reliability of requiring states to link data on student achievement to individual teachers for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation.  Teachers who work with disadvantaged students shouldn’t be “evaluated” based on whether their students hit a particular test target on a particular timeline.  And we certainly shouldn’t base additional compensation on whether students meet particular testing targets on a particular day.”

One day’s performance is not a valid indicator of a student’s mastery of the school’s curriculum or the student’s academic growth.  That is why educators use ongoing forms of evaluation, written assignments, and portfolios.  A snapshot does not reveal what is in the entire album because education is a process, not a product.

Two of the criteria from RTT’s Great Teachers and Leaders section are “differentiating teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance” and “ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals.”  If the first criterion is accomplished, how can involuntary transfers of effective teachers and principals to ineffective schools be justified?  That is not exactly the reward most effective teachers are looking for.  Then there is the problem of sending less effective teachers involuntarily to schools that are more effective. 

Basing teacher and principal pay on how well their students fill in test bubbles will undermine school reform, not advance it.  During his campaign, President Obama indicated that the use of test scores to judge schools, as mandated by NCLB, has harmed education.  Now, by encouraging states to make student test scores a “significant factor” in teacher and principal evaluation, RTT will intensify the damage.

Curriculum

For a hundred years, education has been poaching from the business world, which explains why we use words like “benchmarks” and “data gap.”  Randy Clemens, of 21st Century Scholar says, “We tend to use words that de-humanize and de-politicize the educational process in an attempt to make it more clinical, methodical, and fixable.  Numbers become proxies for students.  ‘Urban,’ ‘at-risk,’ and ‘disadvantaged’ become proxies for poor black and brown kids.  I am not worried about the ‘data gap,’ an inaccurate human construct.  I am worried that, in our government’s race to the top, too many students will be left and ignored at the bottom.”

Jitu Brown, of Rethinking Schools, said that “gutting bilingual education, curtailing culturally relevant and critical pedagogies, and teaching to the test were byproducts of Chicago’s high-stakes accountability policies before Duncan, and since he took over, accountability has increased.  Before Duncan, schools could be put on probation and have external partners forced upon them, but now schools are phased out, closed, or “turned around” by private contractors (some funded by the Gates Foundation).  In the turn-around model, everyone is removed from their position, from principal to custodial workers.  Accountability measures drastically increase pressure to do well on standardized tests.”  An August 25, 2008 Chicago Times article reported that “extracurriculars” like art, physical education, and recess rapidly disappeared.  Secretary Duncan is bringing his Chicago “miracle” to the national stage and it should give warning to politicians, educators, and parents if NCLB absorbs the new laws imposed by RTT and blessed by the states.

Dr. Zhao gives us a curriculum change that should increase a state’s chance of winning a RTT grant.  He says,

Include a proposal to bar children under the age of 18 from entering museums, public libraries, and music events; lock up all musical instruments in schools; fire all the music, art, and physical education teachers; close sports facilities; disconnect all Internet connections; and cut down on lunch time – because the RTT initiative wants to lengthen the school year and school day, and all these things are distracting kids from studying for the tests.  Of course, these actions will save money as well.

       But that requires you to discard the notion that creativity, talent, and technology are important to the future.  You must also not think that a healthy society needs musicians, artists, and athletes.  Nor can you assume that a well-rounded human being is essential for democracy.  Of course, you should also deny the fact that creativity, art, design, and music play significant roles in the world of science and technology today.

Other than that, the new federal funding should enable you to do great things.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)

RTT guidelines state that “Emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)” is a “competitive preference priority” worth 15 points, and you get either all the points or nothing.

One of the obsessive myths perpetuated by policymakers is that the U.S. should require all students to take algebra in the 8th grade and higher order math in high school in order to increase the number of scientists and engineers in order to make us more competitive in the global economy.  That makes as much sense as the notion that requiring students to take a few courses in painting will make them all artists.  The National Science Foundation started this myth in the 1980s in a study with assumptions so absurd the study was never published, but the myth lingers on. 

Research findings of Lowell and Salzman show that “over the past decade, U.S. colleges and universities graduated roughly three times more scientists and engineers than were employed in the growing science and engineering workforce,” and that “there is no evidence of long-term decline in the proportion of American students with the relevant training and qualifications to pursue STEM jobs.”

Most young people who go into science and math/engineering have that seed planted before they get to high school, because they become hooked in the early grades and already do well in those subjects.  Some will follow up on those skills, others will not.  Wolk says that if this country really needs more scientists and engineers we need to find ways to awaken and nourish a passion for those subjects well before high school, and then offer students every opportunity to pursue their interest as far as they wish.

How many math and science classes are actually needed to succeed in life…or in the majority of workplaces?  Retired educator Terry Olson stated that:

Except for the tiny number of people who pursue careers in mathematics, science, engineering, computer programming, accounting (maybe), medical research, academic research (involving statistics), or professional gambling, who needs algebra?

       Not bankers, teachers, nurses, doctors, musicians, real estate salesmen, clerks, longshoremen, truck drivers, carpenters, painters, architects, firemen, policemen, warehousemen, gardeners, laborers, maids, restaurant workers, journalists, diplomats, Wal-Mart CEO’s, or even school board members.

Two facts have been ignored: (1) All high school students are not going to college and (2) all college students are not attending because of their love, or need, of math (or science).  Adding another unnecessary high school requirement to the already nearly-full plate of existing requirements will do nothing more than prevent students from making educational plans suited to their individual pursuits.  If students are interested in English, music, drafting, history, art, science, civics – and yes, even math or science – they may choose (called electives) to take the courses that fit their needs and interests.  It is not possible to “standardize” American education and at the same time make it more “innovative” or “individualized” for our students.

Teacher Quality/Qualifications

RTT recognizes “effective teachers” as those whose students achieve acceptable rates of student growth (i.e. at least one grade level in an academic year) and “highly effective teachers” as those who realize high rates of student growth (i.e. more than one grade level in an academic year) overall and by sub-group.  Rob Manwaring, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, says that these terms are being thrown around as the heir-apparent for the highly qualified teacher requirements of NCLB.  The highly effective teacher qualification “takes the Lake Wobegon effect to a new level.  Instead of all students being above average, all teachers need to be one-and-a-half times above average, even presumably the teachers that do not have students for which a student growth measure can be calculated.”  Absurd!

Another criterion from the Great Teachers and Leaders section is to provide “alternative pathways for aspiring teachers and principals” by asking, “Does the state designate alternate routes to certification that have demonstrably lower coursework requirements and eliminate other barriers to entry to the teaching profession and the principalship?”  So-called alternative certification for teachers, permitting those trained in areas such as engineering or math to teach without formal training in education, has been a top agenda item for would-be education reformers for decades.

In some states, the pipeline for teachers has been expanded significantly to include mid-career professionals and college graduates with little or no education experience.  Michigan State Rep. Tim Melton said he expects a deal that would allow college graduates with a grade point average of at least 3.0 to work in middle and high schools without a teaching certificate. The legislation would require non-traditionally trained teachers to work toward formal certification after they are hired.

With the emphasis on teacher and principal evaluations based on student achievement, how can the DOE, of all agencies, encourage a means for the pedagogically-challenged to enter any classroom?  This is an affront to the teaching profession, relegating it merely to a “job” rather than a skilled occupation.  Would the medical profession allow on-the-job training in order to someday obtain a medical license?  It is contradictory to require high standards of accountability for teachers so students can receive the best education possible while at the same time allowing and encouraging non-trained personnel to be responsible for the academic futures of these same young people.

Social Class

In 2002, the Economic Policy Institute published a report which found that by the age of five, average cognitive scores for children with the highest socioeconomic status were 60 percent higher than scores for children with the lowest socioeconomic status.  It also reported that poor children had more health and behavioral difficulties, which negatively impact school performance.

In 2004 Richard Rothstein found that social class accounts for most of the differences in test data between black and white students; but more significantly, lower-income students tended to score low and higher-income students to score high, regardless of race.  One-fifth of states that consistently do very poorly on the NAEP – and that have bad records in terms of performance – have a substantial percentage of poor kids and kids of color. 

Equally important is the research that shows when low-income parents get better jobs and increased family support, like medical care, their children are more successful in school.  Jean Anyon’s study also showed that family income supplements as low as $4,000 a year improved children’s school achievement by 10-15 percent.  (Adam Sanchez of socialstworker.org says that we could help our children’s education opportunities by taking the taxpayer funded $23 billion in bonuses bestowed by Goldman Sachs and give $4,000 to six million families, and give low-income families equal access to medical care.)

Marty Hittelman, President of the California Federation of Teachers, says, “Any effort to close the achievement gap in our schools that does not address the conditions that children grow up in is doomed to failure.  Schools can only do so much in the time that they work with students.  Until this country closes the gaps in job opportunities at a livable wage, health care, and affordable housing, efforts for improvements in the schools will have limited success.

Accountability

One of the biggest movements in America right now is for teacher and school accountability.  States continue to implement new plans for school vouchers and standardized testing.  There is a grading system for each school.  Understandably, the public wants to make sure classroom teachers are doing their jobs.  But in the rush to judgment that is being done in the name of cleaning out bad teachers, no one mentions anything about the responsibility of parents/guardians and students.

How can parents and guardians be held accountable for the following with their children:  reading to them when they are small; engaging in real conversations; assisting in homework; making certain they have enough rest; assuring nutritious meals; providing positive interactions; monitoring their leisure interests; attending their activities; or communicating with their teachers?

More importantly, because teachers and principals will be held accountable for student performance on tests, how can students be held accountable for doing their best on these high-stakes tests – not coloring in the bubbles to make pretty pictures, randomly filling in answers in order to finish, or answering questions without reading them?  How can we eliminate test fatigue?  Or test anxiety?  How can teachers be assured that the students’ baggage of hunger, divorce, death, family fighting, break-ups, illnesses, or apathy are left at the door?

From National Board Certified Teacher Henry C. Hale:

I am dying as I lie awake at night thinking of merit pay.  Thinking of relying on a ten year old to decide my future.  To be evaluated through the use of test scores in a positive way.  To rely on test scores to be allowed to renew my teaching license.  To rely on test scores so as to not be dismissed.  To rely on test scores so as to be reassigned.

       I am dying as I think of all of those in charge who have never taught in a classroom, yet profess to have all the answers.  I am dying as I feel my desire and passion to teach fade away with each passing political day.

       I am dying as I think of my years of teaching, and of the students who I’ve thoroughly enjoyed but who are now are on the verge of becoming nothing more than a catalyst to my career.  But only if they want to.  Only if they’re paying attention.  Only if they really give a crap on that day.

       I’ve devoted my entire college and adult life to this profession and fed the passion that is needed to be successful every single second of every single day.  I’ve consistently sacrificed what is best for myself so as to maximize the teacher students need me to be,  Maybe that’s why I feel like I am dying.  Because I can control all of those things.  I can determine how much of myself I am willing to devote ‘for the kids’.  My control.

       Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan together are making a mockery of that devotion.  Their philosophy and program implies that I have complete control over children as well.  That as long as I have implemented material, all students will perform well.  That I can control their physical hand movements during a test.  That I can motivate students to do their homework.  To attend school on time.  To have their assignments complete.  To study and prepare for tests.  To proofread everything.  That I can naturally direct parents to interact with their child on a daily basis and provide food, clean clothes, loving interactions, and academic support which include a common determination that education is THE most important aspect of their young lives.  To convince each and every child of the importance of having complete focus and stamina at all times to work through challenges.

       I love this job, however, I will not compete against my colleagues for more money – that’s a different career that requires a different personality and promotes a different human trait.  None of these characteristics have the slightest rationale for being anywhere near a child.

Conclusion

Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s brand of reform emphasizes charter schools, glossy alternative teacher-prep programs, and philanthropic largess.  Yet to progressive educators, the policy question is not whether reform is good or bad, but whether schools should be run like corporations or a public trust.

Brown says that Chicago’s policies have no doubt influenced Obama’s recommendations to double charter-school funding, institute merit pay for teachers, and emphasize standards and accountability.  With Duncan as Secretary of Education, Chicago’s so-called successes and model of privatization, disinvestment, corporate/charter schools, and neighborhood school closings linked to displacement will garner attention and likely shape the discourse, policy, and practices of the Department of Education for the nation’s schools.  Since Duncan was an eloquent proponent of all these in Chicago, we should assume that he would continue to be so – unless other voices make themselves heard.

“Race to the top” implies the very opposite of “equal educational opportunity.”  Ravitch asks if this is a race to see “Who can privatize the most schools?  Who can close the most public schools?  Which district can replace the most public schools with charter schools?  Who can compel their teachers to focus intently on those pesky test scores?  Who can boot out the most teachers whose students didn’t get higher scores than last year?”  Who seriously believes that this combination of policies will produce better education?

Hittelman believes that “schools improve when teachers are provided (a) relevant professional development; (b) mentoring; (c) manageable class sizes; (d) supportive principals; (e) qualified and trained support staff; (f) a voice in school-level decisions; and (g) safe schools in which to work.

Finally, FairTest says that if the federal government truly wants to play a strong, positive role in improving education, the DOE must go back to the drawing board.  ARRA, which includes RTT, imposes only brief and general requirements for the use of these funds.  The DOE has instead issued prescriptive guidelines that amount to writing new laws.  This anti-democratic approach will exploit states’ desperate need for funds to micro-manage a misguided effort at “reform” that will perpetuate NCLB’s worst elements…and even add more.  And who will fund these changes after this short-term grant is finished and money runs out?

Steve A. Davidson, Ed.D.
email: sadavidson05@gmail.com

 

Comments


  1. Joe Nathan

    Having been a public school teacher, local PTA president, public education advocate and researcher, I found this column full of half, quarter and non-truths. US Dept of Ed compiled extensive research illustrating the research that supports RTT. It was available with the application.

    Our organization worked with the Cincinnati Public Schools, the Cincinnati Teachers Union and a variety of other groups to increase overall graduation rates by almost 30 points, and eliminate the graduation gap between white and African American students. Many of the strategies we used are promoted by RTT.


  2. Education Reform: Relationships, STEM, and Charter Schools « The World Wide Web of Society

    [...] Plus, staff in charter schools are increasingly looking towards unionizing or quiting, because of the much longer hours and sometimes lesser pay compared to public school teachers (NYTimes). One study showed that teachers in charter schools are 132% more likely to drop out of teaching compared to their public school colleagues (Vanderbilt University). This means that charter schools have much higher turnover than public schools, which has some questioning the level of educational quality that can be sustained. State Rep. Mark Cohen of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a former proponent of charter schools, says “The evidence to date shows that the higher turnover of staff undermines school performance more than it enhances it, and that the problems of urban education are far too great for enhanced managerial authority to solve in the absence of far greater resources of staff, technology, and state of the art buildings.” (Education News) [...]


  3. Jon Mayrant

    I’d like to know if you’ve heard of this one… There was never yet philosopher That could endure the toothache patiently. The philosopher is Nature’s pilot. And there you have our difference: to be in hell is to drift: to be in heaven is to steer.


  4. Joe Nathan

    Have people heard of Title IX, a law that required equal opportunity in sports for young women and young men? How about Civil Rights laws that insisted states could not have Poll Taxes and that people of all races should have the opportunity to vote. These are a few examples of the federal government imposing things on states.

    Having been involved in a small way with the civil rights movement (marching in a few parades, helping raise money, etc), I have a somewhat different view of federal mandates than Dr. Davidson. I think federal mandates sometimes are a good idea.


  5. Concerned Teacher

    “Teachers are not motivated by the same factors that shape the behavior of those in business.”

    How true this is. Teachers are not highly competitive people and as a rule they do not believe that their worth is measured by a number. We know there is much more to education than a score on a standards test can possibly tap.

    Everything about NCLB and RttT have been ill-conceived from the get-go.


  6. Education Reform: Relationships, STEM, and Charter Schools - Citizen Soapbox

    [...] Plus, staff in charter schools are increasingly looking towards unionizing or quitting, because of the much longer hours and sometimes lesser pay compared to public school teachers (NYTimes). One study showed that teachers in charter schools are 132% more likely to drop out of teaching compared to their public school colleagues (Vanderbilt University). This means that charter schools have much higher turnover than public schools, which has some questioning the level of educational quality that can be sustained. State Rep. Mark Cohen of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a former proponent of charter schools, says “The evidence to date shows that the higher turnover of staff undermines school performance more than it enhances it, and that the problems of urban education are far too great for enhanced managerial authority to solve in the absence of far greater resources of staff, technology, and state of the art buildings.” (Education News) [...]

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January 2nd, 2011

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