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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

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Don Litton's picture
Don Litton
Sixth Grade Math and Science, Chatsworth, California.

Mr. Smith, excellent. I agree completely. Speaking as a teacher in a school district in a state that got $0, all I can say about the race, like most races, is that does nothing for the morale of the "losers." The whole concept of all of us competing against each other to get the best for our kids is disgusting and offensive to me. It assumes and reinforces that resources are insufficient, and always will be, therefore play whatever game it takes to "win." Meanwhile, what happens to the "losers?" Is that really what we dream of for public education?

As far as teacher evaluations based on student scores: what happens to a teacher such as myself, who chose to work with the LEP and Special Ed. kids because I wanted to make a difference only to find that my students' scores, even if I make progress with them, may punish me? Does that really motivate the best teachers to work with the most difficult students? Because of my seniority I am able to choose the "line" or group to work with. For the first time in my entire career I chose the "Honors" classes this year. I'll probably win some kind of award or something for being such a great teacher with these kids whereas before I may have had to worry about my evaluation. I hate to sound so sarcastic but it's ridiculous.

It is time for Edutopia to take a firm stand for a public education system that is fairly and fully funded nationwide and denounce competition as a useful strategy to improve education. Either that or forget the whole public system and turn to a completely privatized system and just sell off all the public schools.

dormand long's picture

Much of our problems are from adhering to protocols appropriate to the early Twentieth Century, when much of the economy was agrarian and industry dependent upon heavy manual labor.

Foreign countries have adapted to the current environment; US public schools have not adapted.

Some have adapted and excelled in outcomes for students.

If one is looking for best practices guidance, one only has to examine the innovations of Rafe Esquith and his Hobart Shakespeareans, which have proved beyond any doubt that it is not the students, it is the processes in use that are the root cause of underperformance in our schools.

Fifth graders from broken homes where no English is spoken enter Room 56 at Hobart Elementary, where only one third of the aggregatge students graduate, and are transformed into highly effective contributors to society.

Separately, if one seeks guidance in governance of a total school, few are superior to St. Mark's School of Texas, an independent school in Dallas, Texas which teaches grades 1-12 of students from all income categories.

St. Mark's School has superlative governance, no control freaks, and a total organizational commentment to the optimal outcomes of the boys who study there. Their Goals for St. Mark's is a classic in drawing the entire community into a planning commitment for the organization which allow each and every member of the community to align his/her efforts and resources with the goals of the organization.

Few teachers work longer or harder;virtually no teachers enjoy seeing their students achieve more effective outcomes in development of the total young man.

There are few on the face of the earth held in higher respect than the faculty of St. Mark's School of Texas.

Lindax's picture

Sure, teachers should be measured on the PROGRESS their students make. I absolutely accept that accountability as a teacher myself. But, progress on WHAT or toward what? (Luckily as a college professor I get to make that decision myself.)

I guess I'm arguing that we have to focus on two points: the measurement method/notion, and the target or unit being measured. I think we can solve the first one if we consider a mosaic or portfolio of indicators, not unlike what good college admissions folks do. I don't know that we can agree on what's to be measured, e.g., basic skills or critical thinking and problem solving or both or something else or... After all we have states that can't even agree on what constitutes "science."

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Senior Editor at Large

Education Funding Loss from Joshua Johnson @ KQED San Francisco news:

"It seems that teachers unions were key in California losing the federal race to the top competition. Documents released by the U.S. Department of Education indicate that lukewarm support from unions played a role in the state being passed over for funding. California stood to win as much as $700 million, but placed in the bottom four among the finalists.

"Federal reviewers wrote that only about a sixth of the state's local education agencies supported California's bid. Only a third of the teachers unions were on board, which could have made it hard to implement new programs that were funded by the grant money. Officials with the CTA have opposed many of these proposed programs at a time of deep budget cuts.

"The state scored well in revising academic standards, and in turning around low performing schools."


Given the Administration's priorities (merit pay, the loosening of tenure), this is not too surprising. But CA's budget is a mess.

Let's just say for the sake of discussion that the unions don't bite and CA gets passed over in future RTTT rounds. What happens then? It's a Faustian bargain, to be sure. On the one hand, I'm unconvinced that the administration's policies are the right way forward, and it's probably better that we're not jumping through these hoops to get it. But can we do any better if we're flat broke?

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

Ms Ray, I think the Obama administration has tried to be clear about a number of education priorities that you did not list. They've proposed and allocated millions of dollars for
* improving the way student achievement is assessed, beyond traditional standardized tests (Something I'd think Edutopia would applaud)

* providing new, strong public school options, including charter and other new options (again, something I'd think Edutopia would applaud, given previous articles you've run about, for example, the "zoo school" which is a wonderful district public school option, and the Minnesota New Country School, a great charter public school.)

There recommendations of teacher pay seem more complicated that "merit pay." They have suggested that public school teachers be paid, in part, on the basis of how much growth students make. The administration has never said all of a teacher's pay should be based on student performance.

And by the way - we already have "merit" pay in education - merit is based on a teacher's age and how many courses she/he has taken or degrees she/he earned. Neither necessarily produces higher student achievement, higher graduation rates, or a reduction on the achievement gap.

Having helped create both district and charter public school options, I've seen some unions being very open to the ideas proposed by the Obama administration. Here in Minnesota just for example, both the St. Paul and Minneapolis Federation of Teachers signed on to Minnesota's Race to the Top Application. The statewide union and many others did not. But I think we should recognize the willingness of some unions to do major rethinking.

I'd hope that we also understand the similarities between at least some recommendations of this administration, and ideas that Edutopia has featured and praised.

Victoria M. Young's picture

On March 20,2009 while addressing the National Science Teachers Assoc. Conference, Sec Duncan clearly stated that The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the designation of RTTT funds of $4.5 billion) was to provide "swift aid to states that they can use to avoid teacher layoffs and other education programs cuts, modernize school buildings, and provide programs that protect the needs of special education and disadvantaged students."....he did go on to say that "the larger goal is to drive a set of reforms that we believe will transform public education in America. The four issues are: higher standards, data systems, turning around under-performing schools, and teacher quality."

Now $4.5 billion for these things (one-time money) and meanwhile NCLB (the ongoing ESEA that originally ONLY addressed educationally deprived) has a total budget of $24 million for the WHOLE nation of children. Does any of this sound FAIR? Do Americans believe in fair?

Look again at the four issues. Are we working to turn around all schools with RTTT? I know we have SIG grants but you also need grant writers, etc. Again, winners and losers...these are not things that bring us any closer to equality in opportunity.

Schools that need to be turned around, need real help (assistance).

Look again. Does teacher quality really have so much to do with PAY? Where is the money for standardization, data collection, tracking, and control of the improvement of teacher training or better yet, administrative training? Where is the money to develop a world-class professional development training strategy?

The truth: the most urgent needs are not innovation and new instructional models...we need caring individuals and individualized instruction....It needs to start at the top...Sec. Duncan needs to care enough to really listen to the people.

There never should have been this Race before there was a national conversation about the role of the federal government in our schools.

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

Actually, the existing system of public education has proved massively UNFAIR to low income people. The status quo has worked well for the most wealthy.

Our state (Minnesota) has provided substantially more money for inner city public schools than for suburban or rural schools, and we have one of the nation's largest achievement gaps.

Meanwhile, our organization helped Cincinnati Public Schools increase oveall high school graduation rates by almost 30 points, and eliminate the graduation gap between white and African American students. We did it with a number of strategies, including creating small schools in large buildings, promoting shared facilities and collaboration (similar to parts of the Harlem Children Zone' which the Obama administration has pledged millions to help expand, rewarding financially teachers and administrators in schools that were making progress. We used a number of the strategies that the Obama adminstration is promoting.

More money to support the current widely failing public education system is massively unfair to young people, especially youngsters from low income families.

Victoria M. Young's picture

You and I agree as do most people I talk with and public opinion polls have shown repeatedly. The economically disadvantaged (where ever they reside) have been treated unfairly by "the system." That is why we have the ESEA of 1965. If we would only go back and make that law what it was intended to be, we could stop all this tail-chasing that we are doing.

The Obama administration is giving millions of our dollars in Promise grants (like Harlem Children Zone project)and of any of the things that are spinning out of this administration, these hold the most promise for the educationally disadvantaged. The problem is, excuse my French, they have is ass backwards (hope I'm not in trouble for that). These are competitive grants. 1,000 groups are competing for 20 grants to split $10 million. These ARE more likely than not, the children that should be addressed under NCLB (the ones we supposedly identified over the last 8 years of testing) as being the ones most in need of help.

Now, this is where people should be able to be the judges of whether or not this is fair. It is our money and I guess we think it is alright to divide up $4.5 billion among 12 states as long as we throw $24 million across the nation for NCLB and millions here and there to pacify those that are aware of their problems and willing to apply. Meanwhile, the truly unaware and unfortunate do continue to be left behind...and these are kids I'm talking about here.

We really need to stop this nonsense. The People need to hear the truth about how much money we have spent on development of new tests, what the tests have told us, and where we are going from here with our new tests. It needs to get sorted out. The most logical thing we could do right now is to STOP and think.

Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Senior Editor at Large

I'd hope that we also understand the similarities between at least some recommendations of this administration, and ideas that Edutopia has featured and praised.[/quote]

Thanks for highlighting some of these specifics. I agree that it's imperative that states get their internal houses in order (including unions) before receiving any money. No point in granting anything to a state that can't decide what it wants.

I did hear Duncan mention this administration's commitment to improving assessment. That said, I'd like to see the details around how this works, esp if common core comes to pass. Not saying it can't be done, but I don't see much evidence of a cost-effective approach that can be standardized across 50 states. It's a great goal to scale education, but it's not like managing a balance sheet. Kids have different strengths that can't always be quantified, and some kids are brilliant but lousy test takers. The strictly quantified approach here scares me.

Re: merit pay, again the devil is in the details. What % of pay is determined by test scores? Assuming it's more than a marginal amount, I am not sure that test scores are the right thing to be rewarding. (see above)

I'd love to hear more details if you have them!! I'd love to be proven wrong here.

Anyway, assuming they get these details figured out, I do appreciate that RTTT is attempting to reward states where collaboration can occur. Not all states (e.g. CA, likely) will get it together. This is unfortunate because our kids are the ones who lose out. Hopefully, a state like ours can innovate and improve without the fed $. Hard to imagine how that would happen.

Anyway, appreciate the discussion. I grew up in MN. You have wonderful schools there!

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

Betty, how about the billions of funds being sent out to states for other purposes? For example, $ to hire teachers or other educators who might otherwise be laid off?

California, by itself, received $1.2 billion (LOTS more that it would have received for Race to the Top)

There there is $330 million for various states to develop new, hopefully more comprehensive methods of assessing student progress.

I don't agree with everything the admin is doing in education but there is a lot of money being sent out. Wise educators will make use of these opportunities.

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