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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Race to the Top: What It Means for Real Students

Amid all the hubbub about this week's new Race to the Top winners -- who got it but didn't deserve it, who didn't get it but should have, why almost all the victorious states are east of the Mississippi -- the big thing I'm wondering is: how will all this change the experience of kids in the classroom?

This round of winners makes it clear where policy reform is heading for the near future. The top states earned their millions by raising caps on charter schools, instituting merit pay and teacher evaluations based on student test scores, loosening the grip of teacher tenure, beefing up their student data systems, strengthening their turnaround policies for struggling schools, and adopting common core standards. Taken together, it's shaping up into an educational landscape with more experimentation, more scrutiny on teachers' performance, more uniform curriculum, and more decisions based on data, data, data.

I'm heartened, at least, to see that Race to the Top has whipped up our national energy for improving education and brought some state legislatures and teachers unions together as collaborators in reform. It brought a majority of states quickly on board with the Common Core Standards. And there is $350 million more in grants to come to develop new assessments (let's hope they're truly better!).

But what does that mean for students? My hunch: the impact of the reforms will only be as good as the student tests and teacher evaluation systems put in place. The devil is in the details. And that will vary from state to state. Whether you're evaluating students or teachers, what gets measured is inevitably what gets emphasized. And if you're evaluating teachers based on kids' test scores, the tests have even more power.

Will the new measures reinforce great, modern teaching and learning -- the kind that engages kids with real-world projects, nurtures individual talents, and cultivates the problem-solving and collaborative skills that are so essential in this day and age? Or will they buttress the rote, one-size-fits-all methods of old?

Do you feel optimistic? What do you foresee? Please post your comment below, or join the discussion getting started in our groups.

(Side note: New Jersey lost out on Race to the Top because it accidentally included budget information for the wrong year on a section worth 5 points out of the total of 500. It missed the win by 3 points. Some other states also missed by tiny margins. Ouch. Maybe some state commissioners now know how it feels to be a hard-working kid who just failed the standardized test by a hair?)

-- Grace Rubenstein, Edutopia Senior Producer

Comments (45)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Victoria M. Young's picture

Absolutely Joe, "what works best and applying it more widely" is the foundation of the Theory of Action model used by the National Science Resource Center.

Having been intimately involved on various levels with a dysfunctional district, my experience has shown me that best practices are not widely known...that is a systems failure.

We all see through the lenses of our experiences. Now if we can all walk a few steps in each others shoes, maybe we'd be more likely to work out reasonable solutions. Collectively, we do have the answers.

And we have very good reasons for doing it, when our focus is on kids :o)

Joe Nathan, Director, Center for School Change, Macalester College's picture

are common - when you are focusing, as our organization does, on expanding opportunity for low and moderate income youngsters. Parents and educators all over the nation have asked for help from the Center for School Change. More than 100 people ask for help in a typical week via phone, email or letter. Much of what we provide is free and available at our website, www.centerforschoolchange.org

But the issue really, as Ms. Young reminds us, is not any individual, but what works well to help youngsters. We honor the work of outstanding educators whether in district or charter public schools.

You'll see that in various publications available at our website as
Smaller, Safer Saner Successful Schools, or "What Should We Do - A Guide to Assessment and Accountability. Both, like most of our publications are free.

Terry Smith's picture
Terry Smith
Teacher Education Professor; Project-based classroom teacher

I have to say, amidst the conversations here, and the points for and against this or that, what stands out foremost in any discussion about improving education, has to be a focus on inequity and poverty long before getting those "bad teachers" out of the classroom. How can anyone with even a fraction of a brain think that changing standards or analyzing data on testing will change the situations for disadvantaged kids? And the disadvantaged kids obviously have VERY disadvantaged parents for one reason or another. This is a complicated multi-layered problem, not a quick business model fix by "raising standards" or improving the production line. The states that are racing to match what Mr. Duncan calls reform/turning schools around are doing an outrageous disservice to their citizens and the children of their citizens. It will take years to undo this mess.

And you know what? We haven't even brought into this discussion the other outrageous aspects of how special needs kids are tested on "grade level" assessments with supposed accommodations. I ask: why do parents stand for this?

Joe Nathan, Director, Center for School Change, Macalester College's picture

Comments like those from Professor Smith disappoint but do not surprise me.
Why does the national have to, as he suggest, "focus on inequity and poverty long before getting those 'bad teachers' of the classroom?

Actually I think Obama has been trying,courageously to move simultaneously to work on problems outside and problems inside schools. The health care battle - which by the way resulted in a major health care expansion - the largest in perhaps 40 years - was certainly a recognition of the value of helping improve youngsters' health. The effort to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone is an effort to work on problems outside schools.

But why ignore problems inside schools? Perhaps part of the problem inside schools is that so many colleges of education have convinced prospective teachers that we should focus on problems outside the school.

Does Professor Smith have his students read anything by Howard Fuller, or the book by Jay Mathews about KIPP? How about the NY Times article that described the small but growing number of public schools that are bringing low income, often limited English speaking students to achievement levels of inner city students?

For the record, in the college classes I've taught for more than 20 years, I make sure students read from a variety of sources, and talk with outside speakers representing various viewpoints, including the central point that Professor Smith makes.

John Larner's picture

Let me jump in from "outside the box" (since I work in an independent school overseas) and comment on the statements made about people who don't know much or anything about what goes on in a classroom making decisions that will have major impact on classrooms. I believe it was Georges Clemenceau who said that military matters are too important to be left to the professional soldiers. From the parents I deal with, the same reasoning applies to education. Add to this the fact that everyone is an "expert" (in his or her own mind) about education due to the fact that all have experienced education for many, many years as students. The same does not apply when they consult other professionals such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, etc., unless the person is also trained in one of those areas. And of course, many parents work in business environments in which "what works" is determined by the bottom line -- a way of thinking that then carries over to what they seek from education, a bottom line also (so testing). My point? These are political issues, not educational ones, whether we like it or not. Bemoaning the fact that expert opinions and research data are being ignored may make everyone feel more justified in saying, "this is no good," but it won't carry the argument.

After spending many years in the classroom or in our schools where we are the "authority", we can forget that outside those arenas our status as an authority may not be recognized (at least not automatically) and cannot be assumed. We have to figure out how to educate (and not just by lecturing at them) the parents and other community members as much as we have to figure out how to educate our students. I am being intentionally provocative ....

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
Blogger 2014

Greetings, all. This is a really meaty discussion, and we're glad to see such a passionate exchange. A friendly reminder: let's keep the debate focused on the issues. We're all about offering a place to discuss the best ideas, not to disparage individuals. Please refer to Edutopia's Community Guidelines for further info.

Thanks for your cooperation.

Victoria M. Young's picture

John, Consider me provoked. It isn't the first time. But first,...

Terry you ask, "How can anyone with even a fraction of a brain think that changing standards or analyzing data on testing will change the situations for disadvantaged kids?" You are right. The disadvantaged children (however you define it) in my district can't master the low standards we do have, they don't conquer basic literacy skill. Higher standards won't help them.....different topic I know but, "why do parents stand for this?" They don't. Most walk away (charter, private, home school) or just do what they have to do to get what they can for their own.....dog eat dog, and to hell with the community of children left behind.

Joe, I hope you are right that "Obama gets the value of reducing poverty and improving schools" I'm counting on it for the future of this nation. The glimmers of hope have been seen with Sec. Sebelius and Duncan joining forces to back "the community schools concept." But when it comes to Promise Neighborhoods, like the Harlem Children's Zone, they haven't put OUR money where their mouths are. These concepts are what will bring us to fulfillment of the promise. Not testing.

O.K., John - "Military matters are too important to be left to the professional soldiers."...you made me backtrack on my research to dig this out...

"Education is too important to be left solely to educators."
Francis Keppel (1916-1990) American educator, U.S. Commissioner of Education (1962-1965).

This gentleman is credited with drafting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 which we know as NCLB. Now, before any sticks or stones are thrown, read the original law. It DOES embody the community schools concepts, it is about equality and opportunity....An ACT "To strengthen and improve educational quality and educational opportunities in the Nation's elementary and secondary schools." Vietnam, underfunding and the ignorance of congress never allowed this dream of a law to become reality for this country's children. Ahhh yes, "these are political issues, not educational ones."

So, John, since "everyone is an 'expert' (in his or her own mind) about education," how do we tell which of us are experts?...I must tell you. I do have a sense of humor and don't take myself too seriously, or take very many comments personally.

"Expert opinions and research data are being ignored." I am a professional, a veterinarian, who has made a point of always (no matter how busy I get, always) listening to my clients. Maybe it's because my patients can't talk to me or it's because I was taught the value of a good history in making me a better doctor. Do I have people that come in being the "expert" when they really aren't and they are way off base? Yes, but more times than not, if I listen long enough I can find something of value in what they say.

I would recommend The Essential Conversation by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. I've tried contacting her personally to get her to help "educate (and not just by lecturing at them) the parents and other community members" and teachers, but she didn't respond...probably because I'm not an expert! Dr. Sarason warned me that credibility would be an issue.

John, diffusion of knowledge is the key to the solution. We need more conversations...and a wider audience.

Benjamin Beck's picture

Some one please explain how this works for Special Education. I work with a population that is severly handicapped with no real quantifiable way to measure progress. How am I going to be evaluated?

Joe Nathan, Director, Center for School Change, Macalester College's picture

Sorry that it appears some people most dubious about RTT have not posted in the last few days. Perhaps the request to focus on issues disturbed some (I think it was quite appropriate). Anyway, RTT is not perfect, but it does
a. Provide millions for in-service, as some people have suggested would be valuable
b. Provide new opportunities for parents and educators to create new options, whether charter or within district
c. Encourage re-thinking about how teachers and principals are prepared
d. Encourages people to use results as part (not all, but part) of how a teacher is evaluated
e. Have a related, funded effort to develop a broader array of ways to assess students

For me, those are all positives.

Joe Nathan, Director, Center for School Change, Macalester College's picture

Mr. Beck, my wife just retired after 33 years as an urban public school teacher working with students who have some form of disability. My understanding is that (from my days as a public school teacher and administrator, as well as her experience) that you develop goals with students as part of an Individual education plan. Is that correct? When I was an administrator, part of what we looked at was whether and how well students with IEP's were meeting their goals. There were some teachers with special needs students who were great at helping youngsters reach goals, and others, not.

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