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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

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

How could anyone feel optimistic about the Race to the Top? I'm surprised that you have posed a question that almost implies that this is a worthwhile discussion of something that might be good. Countless education people from the classroom, in universities, and in overall research have spoken out that this direction is flawed in so many ways, in fact prevents innovation and free thinking. The concept deflates and minimizes innovation and learning at the expense of increasing scores on standardized tests. And we can all be sure that tying the scores to teacher accountability will lead more to test drilling than to an overall, well rounded education for our students. The states want money and will do whatever it takes to be in on the cash handouts. Note that some states have rejected the RTTT and the Common Core standards, note that the voters in Florida spoke up and the governor listened and vetoed merit pay.

I will list a few people who "do know" what learning means: Diane Ravitch, Valerie Strauss, Alfie Kohn, John Kozol, Deborah Meier, Mitch Resnick, Howard Gardner, John Seely Brown, Etienne Wenger, Jean Lave, Sasha Barab, Sir Ken Robinson, Stuart Brown, Mimi Ito, Henry Jenkins, John Kay, Games Paul Gee and the list goes on of serious educational professionals, linguists, designers, writers, researchers, anthropologists, teachers and thinkers who have spoken out time and again against knowledge enlightenment based on testing.

Instead, we are guided by Mr. Arne Duncan.

I understand Edutopia to be a proponent of project based learning, as am I, of such methods that do promote "real-world projects, nurtures individual talents, and cultivates the problem-solving and collaborative skills that are so essential in this day and age."

Edutopia could be making a LOT more professional noise - granted, it does great things getting people together around good ideas, but what if schools are not really accepting the project ideas because of the test atmosphere? - That makes many discussions about great ideas nearly moot - as a professor of mine at Pepperdine University once said (Linda Polin) "it's a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Kathy E. Gill's picture
Kathy E. Gill
Professor at University of WA

I'm with Terry (above) -- given that I am in the middle of reading No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Alfie Kohn, 1992 edition) and recently finished Weapons of Mass Instruction (John Taylor Gatto, 2010 - yes it is imperfect but there are serious nuggets in this critique).

Valerie Pientka's picture

I agree Prof. Smith. This is such a slippery slope. Why are we allowing everyone BUT those who DO the job, or those who have dedicated their entire life learnings to education, continue to spout off as if they have one lick of understanding of the complexity of the profession? As if education can be reduced down to a race? As if evaluations of our work can be reduced to a number that another human being has complete control of?? I for one am at the end of my rope. I have immense respect for the work of Edutopia, but am horrified by the insuation that this reform is any different, any better, any more well thought out than the gazillion of other reforms that I have endured during my 35 years of teaching. Yes, gazillion.

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

Yes, I think we will see some progress via RTT. After 40 years as an inner city public school teacher, administrator, local PTA parent, researcher and advocate, I think a number of the ideas in RTT will help youngsters. Our organization also helps project youth/community service and project based learning (some things I have used with students since 1970).
Project Based Learning can help youngsters develop skills and talents that are needed. But just doing project based learning (like having 5-8 year olds design and build a playground, which was one of our projects, needs to be supplemented with effort to make sure that students learn to add, multiply, subtract and master concepts of area and perimeter. It's not one or the other. Also, I am sorry that Valerie is at the end of her rope. But I think teachers have immense impact on how much students learn.

Kenneth Bernstein's picture

1) You life caps on charters with no control for the quality of charters. There are some very good ones, but also some very bad ones. Most probably don't make a difference, based on the research I have seen, and there are more that do worse than the schools from which they draw than there are those that do better. I would have no trouble allowing for more charters provided appropriate controls were in places.
2) It is more than ridiculous to be tying teacher evaluation to test scores when the professional psychometricians will tell you that is inappropriate. Even value added assessment really does not measure up to what is reliable enough to be basing decisions with high stakes. The recent report from Mathematica done for the Department of Education says when trying to sort out teachers significantly superior to the average or significantly worse, with 2 years of data you have a 36% error rate, with 3 a 26% percent error rate, and even with 10 years of data you still have a 12% error rate. Further, value-added scores are not stable for teachers, with significant swings from year to year that are clearly more a function of the characteristics of the students than it is of the quality of the teaching.

There is a major policy brief, signed by some of the most important experts on educational measurement among others, that will come out on Sunday which presents strong evidence from research why this approach is inappropriate and inaccurate.

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