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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

JoAnn Irrgang's picture

I have taught Special Education now, going on 24 years. A few years ago, I realized...hey, I know what I'm doing! Then we get in this race and people who don't even know what the abbreviations in Special Ed., mean...come to evaluate me....please. Don't ask me to evaluate an auto mechanic...I just drive the thing....Someone wake up and smell the Folger's.

Dianne Raeke Ferrell's picture
Dianne Raeke Ferrell
Special Education Professor from PA

Also a special educator. Many years ago, Houston Independent School District demanded that my students with severe disabilities take a highstakes pencil/paper test. My students had autism, intellectual and physical disabilities, behavior problems.... On testing day, several students broke the pencils into tiny pieces (we had to be quick to keep them from eating or spiting the bits), several drew "pictures" on the scan sheets, and my wonderful assistants helped me prevent some students from eating the test and scan sheets. Each of my students had a truely individualized IEPs, and (back then) taking standardized tests was NOT on the IEP. Did this reflect that I was a poor teacher or that I was not meeting my students' needs? NO, this reflected the on the district and state. What were they thinking? Or were they not thinking about the appropriate methodology to assess my students' progress. All they had to look at was my data sheets and graphs that "decorated" my walls and were identified by goals and behavior objectives. "W" Bush was not yet governor but the race to poor practice and ignorant ideas had already started.

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

Not sure what Kenneth means when he writes, "You life caps on charters with no control for the quality of charters." Sounds like he opposes lifting caps on charters. Sad because all over the country frustrated educators such as JoAnn and Diane are helping start charters that are using project based and other innovative approaches. Minnesota New Country and the Edvisions Cooperative (in which teachers are the majority on the board of directors of the schools) have been featured in Edutopia.

Not all state assessment programs are doing a good job of holding charters - some are doing a fine job.

Mn New Country and Edvisions also have developed new approaches to assessment that are promising. These are examples of educators who don't like the status quo so they are developing strong options.

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

So Diane as a college professor, are you telling your students about places like Mn New Country (MNCS, which has a substantial # of students formerly classified as attention deficit disorder who turn out not to need the ritalin promoted by some educators to "control" kids? Are you telling them about a progressive charter in Boston started by progressive educators who feature extensive use of the arts and projects to help illustrate urban problems and help identify solutions? The experience you describe in Houston is horrendous - but I wonder if you and your colleagues at your college of education are helping prospective and current teachers learn about the creative options that some educators are developing.

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

So Kenneth, how do you feel about paying teachers more for jumping through National Board hoops which don't require any survey of what parents or students think of the teachers? I've known some National Board certified teachers who were great at filing out forms but were nasty and mean to kids. When I asked the founding director of the National Board about this, he said that he didn't care what parents or students thought about the teachers, he wanted to rely on the opinions of "professionals."

The National Board probably passes muster from the "experts" you say will issue a statement on Sunday because it does not require any sampling of students or parents (what would they know, after all. It also does not require any information on whether there is evidence that students are making progress - measured in any way - with National Board candidates.
Check out the new Gallup Poll - parents are passing by the "experts". They want academic achievement to play some role - not the only role, but some role in deciding how much teachers earn. And as the husband of an inner city public school special ed teacher for more than 30 years, I certainly understand the limitations of relying exclusively on traditional tests to determine a teacher's salary. But Obama/Duncan have never insisted that such tests are the only way to determine salary.

Kenneth Bernstein's picture

I pointed out the research that talks about overall performance of charters. I made clear I don't have a problem with charters, I have a problem with requiring expansion without appropriate controls in place. And by the way, I do not consider test scores to be a sufficient control. Yet even on that basis, more charter schools nationally perform worse than the parallel public schools than there are those that perform better.

First figure out what are the qualities of effective charter schools, of which test scores are at most a minor component imho. Then evaluate applications for charters against something other than pie in the sky promises.

The entire approach of RttT is to insist on widespread expansion of approaches that are either unproven or have been demonstrated not to improve schools - for which Chicago provides tons of evidence. In the process we are forcing states to make significant changes to education law which thereby locks in place an approach to education that is (a) not proven to improve learning, and (b) represents a narrow conception of what real reform could be.

Kenneth Bernstein's picture

come on, Joe, you can read more accurately than that. I am not opposed to charters per se. I am opposed to expanding charters without some control as to quality, especially in light of the evidence that there are more charters performing worse than the parallel public schools than there are performing better. We need to have a clear understanding of what makes a successful charter school, and that needs to be defined well beyond student test scores, which IMHO should be a relatively minor part of the evaluation.

A major objection to RttT as a whole is that it is forcing major changes upon states in a direction of ides that are either not proven or, as is clearly demonstrated by a close examination of Chicago, have been clearly demonstrated not to improve learning for students, even by their own standard of test scores. In the meantime, we will lock into place a very narrow concept of "reform" that in fact does nothing to address the real underlying issues that should be being addressed.

Kenneth Bernstein's picture

You can cite SOME NBCTs who are mean to teachers, so you want to junk the entire process? Hey, I can cite more than a few charter operations that rip off the money, violate state laws and rules, push out students that they should be taking because they are hard to educate and/or will not score well on tests, so by your logic doesn't that mean we should do away with ALL charters, which is not btw the position I hold.

We have a number of NBCTs in my building, and more people going through either full candidacy or exploring through the Take One provision. I might note that of the successful applicants for Round Two of RttT a number included National Board as an important part of their application. The teachers in my building who have been involved range from relative newcomers to some who are quite senior. Among those who are more experienced is a gentleman who has won national recognition for his teaching in science, and Prince George's County's current select6ee (out of 9,000 teachers) for the Washington Post's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award (that's me). Oh, and both of us have high test scores and a track record of success with a varied student body, in my case on both AP and state examinations. I still do not view my student performance on the AP test as a good measure of what they have learned, certainly not as good as either their final project or an interim assessment where they have to tie together what they have been learning and apply it to themselves in a Personal Political Profile.

Maybe that is one reason why so many who may even plan to go on in Science or Engineering ask me, the Social Studies teachers they had as sophomores, to write their college recommendations - because they understand how much they have grown intellectually and personally while in my class.

Oh, and for my award? I had recommendations from students and parents, as well as administrators and fellow teachers. Funny thing, no one ever mentioned test scores.

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

As mentioned, the National Board
a. Does not require that there be any systematic review of what parents and teachers think of a teacher -
b. Does not require any evidence - test scores, performance assessments or whatever, that students are making progress in the classroom of a National Board certified candidate
The National Board is a classic example of the approach in education that educators can not be expected to improve education.

On the other hand, charter public schools are an example of the idea that schools should be expected to improve achievement. Charters are expected to sign contracts with authorizers showing how they will demonstrate this. Some states are better at this than others.

There is no such thing as a typical charter, as there is no such thing as a typical district. You find charter and district schools that are language immersion, Montessori, Core Knowledge, Classical, Math Science Focus, etc. etc.

You'll also find thousands of district schools that have explicit admissions tests - something that is not allowed in the charter world. How do you feel about "public" schools being allowed to say that they won't take students who can't pass their admissions tests,Ken?

Valerie Pientka's picture

Why are we beating up on the National Board process? The purpose of National Board was to provide teachers a venue for deep reflective analysis of practice, which I believe has most definitely occurred. I have gone through the process, re-upped and facilitated for cohorts for 8 years. Teachers report over and over again, it was THE only professional development experience in their career that prompted huge shifts in practice based upon the particular needs of students. Isn't that enough?

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