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Race to the Top: What It Means for Real Students

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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

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

Valerie, I'm glad that the National Board process was useful to you. The issue is whether teachers who are certified should earn more money. For me, the National Board is a classic example of "teachers should not be held responsible at all for what happens with students...teachers should not be expected to improve achievement." I've dealt as an educator and journalist with the National Board for years. The founding director made clear that he and the National Board had no interest in
a. Determining whether the majority of students or parents with whom a national board candidate worked felt they were fair, non-racist or effective (just to name a few questions I'd ask)
b. Determining whether via standardized tests, performance assessments or other measures the majority of students with whom a National Board candidate are making progress.

The American people (see new PDK poll) are saying clearly that they think part of whether a teacher earns more money should be about whether the teacher improves achievement - not all, but part. Race to the Top agrees - part of whether a teacher earns more money should be based on whether achievement improves.

What's clear is that many in the teaching profession (and I've spent 40 years as an inner city public school teacher, administrator, urban PTA president, researcher, advocate, etc) do not think teachers should be expected to improve student achievement, and do not think schools and teachers should be accountable for results. This is clear in the National Board, and it's clear in many other places.

The country is moving away from this view.

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

Fortunately Edutopia is open to describing outstanding district and charters. I also think that the folks at Edutopia understand that the charter idea is about, in part, giving educators a chance to create the kind of public schools, open to all, that the educators think make sense.

Kenneth says we should determine "what works" and open more schools like that. I agree. Part of what's happening in the charter world is that people are identifying what is working and helping replicate such programs. See expansion of YES Prep, Uncommon Schools, KIPP, Achievement First, for example.

But some in the education world don't think improving test scores in very important. (as Kenneth writes, "a relatively minor part of the evaluation"...of charters. I respectfully disagree. It's not the only measure, but it's one measure that can help indicate whether students are making progress.

Valerie Pientka's picture

What you don't realize is that every single entry and assessment for the National Board portfolio is geared towards improving student achievement. It sounds as if you are solely focusing upon the money aspect of National Board, which in my state is a crapshoot as to if I receive any funding at all. And, by the way, I went through the re-certification process in the year prior to retirement, knowing I would receive not a dime, paid the fees with my own money, for the professional development experience that I gained, thus helping to improve practice, leading to improved student achievement.

JoAnn Irrgang's picture

One year, when I was teaching elem. TMD, they made us take a computer test! The reading was ON LEVEL, for children with pre-school abilities. The deal was,if they didn't cry because they couldn't do it, they would get a party. I cried all the way home, that I had to subject them to that. Those little kids trust me to give them activities and tasks that they CAN do...I felt as though I betrayed them. When we find out who "THEY" are I'm going to see them and take 10,000 of my fellow teachers, assistants and students with me! Are you coming along???

JoAnn Irrgang's picture

As one who jumped the hoops this year, So many who do, are great, but there are also those who are board certified, who haven't tried anything new since they did their portfolio. Only time around teachers, in their rooms, for more than 10 minutes, can show who is worth what. Sometimes those who "look" like they have it, are just good at theatrics!!

JoAnn Irrgang's picture

They should include, Related Service people when building a teacher evaluation team. Speech/Language Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Adapted. P.E. and other contributing professionals. They see who is implementing their therapies, trying new things and truly meeting student needs!!! They are the best at helping classroom teachers get the things their students need, as well.

Victoria M. Young's picture

It seems we tend to drift from what is at the center of this issue - educating children.

Charters? How can anyone say "no" to them? When teachers and parents get so fed up with their own schools and CAN'T change them, what other option do they have? Ask the system to make it right?

Over my 18 years of experience and research, what I learned is that dysfunctional districts will NOT change for the better (that's why we should call them dysfunctional). We need a functioning system to change them. It might sound silly but think about it...not all schools need changing. But those that do, won't...that becomes a system problem, a clog in the pipeline and that is what this whole mess is about.

So we have turned the whole system on its head, punishing good schools with mandates instead of addressing the issues, focusing our efforts and resources on the children that most need us to do that!

Charters are a stop-gap with the unintended consequence of breaking up (breaking down) community neighborhoods and sometimes whole towns (like my hometown).

Will RTTT see results? Bare with me in telling a story. When I first listened to talk of approaching changes (before RTTT materialized), I sat in my room with my map and my statistics and asked myself..if I was a politician that was going to stick with this standards and testing theory, what would I need to do to prove it works and how would I do it?...results? Yes, statistics will show "result." Now, what will that mean for children? I'm an optimist by nature, but I'm fighting this weight hanging heavily upon my heart.

Fight we must because anything short of offering access to excellent education for all children isn't right....grants feed the inequality. But RTTT is a distraction from the bigger and much more important issue of NCLB/ESEA and "the quiet revolution" taking place without us.

But what do I know, I'm just a parent...I'll have to check out the Gallup...I hope to see the day when parents can choose to have their children attend their community school because it is GREAT and they can trust them with their children...without standardized assessments to tell them it is so...That is my dream.

Joel Weiner's picture

So Joe, apologist for Duncan and RTTT, you seem to have no classroom experience, you strenuously spout "facts" that are opinions, you quote from Kenneth something that obviously needed editing and use it against him, and worst of all, you, like other alternative shool apologists (e.g., Duncan), ignore the growing research that sees the majority of charter shools as a worse choice than the public schools for which they are an alternative. You sure are emotional about these issues. How about taking a step back, clearing your head, and being a little more rational, and stop attacking people?

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

Joel wrote that I "seem to have no classroom experience." Actually, I have 14 years of inner city public school experience as a teacher and school administrator. Parent, teacher and student groups gave me awards for my work. The National group PDK gave me a national award as an emerging leader.

Having helped start and worked in a k-12 public alternative school, a district school in St. Paul, Min that began in 1971, and is still in operation today, I've dealt with decades of educators who insist that the real problems in education are the kids, families and problems outside schools. I'll ignore other attacks and get back to the point that Victoria Young made...what is good for youngsters?

My answer is that having a range of high quality public school options is best, because every youngster does not learn in the same way. But every public school option should be open to all kinds of kids, not like the thousands of magnet publicly funded "private" schools that have been allowed for decades to screen out kids with special needs."

As to the "research" on charters - this is a highly charged and often not helpful body of research. We should be examining what works best and applying it more widely. When we did that, we helped the Cincinnati Public Schools increase overall high school graduation rates by almost 30 points, and eliminated the hs graduation gap between white and African American students. The union was a great ally in this effort. This 5 year project was described in an Education Week Commentary in 2008.

Lee Barrios's picture

It is easy to tell from your commentary that you are very close minded and focused on your job of Changing Schools for the sake of changing schools. If you knew ANYTHING about Louisiana and the efforts of its Superintendent to (openly and admittedly) privatize education and if you knew the REAL stats about his still failing Recovery School District or if you knew how the situation here in Louisiana is so like the situation in many other states and if you would get down from your ivory tower - you wouldn't be so keen on the direction this so-called reform movement is taking public education. But I don't think you an be convinced because you are IN THE BUSINESS of reform and smell the blood!!!

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