Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Which States Will 'Race to the Top?'

The only constant in the calculus of K-12 public education, it turns out, is … money. Who would have thought of that? But since that’s what it is, I am relieved that the Obama administration is using money as a leverage to connect student performance to teacher effectiveness in the nation’s public schools.

There has been little, if any, progress in correcting America’s dysfunctional public schools in spite of the billions of dollars spent by the federal government and wealthy philanthropists over the last few decades. George Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was too malleable to be a meaningful criterion for progress. Teachers union has traditionally protected incompetent teachers despite their devastating effects on students. It also continues to put a limit on the number of district charter schools, a successful model in which student performances and teacher evaluations are treated as two sides of the same coin.

The Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” program changes the equation. And it comes not a moment too soon.

By dangling the carrot of money – federal grant of $4.35 billion for school reform and innovation throughout the country - Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has forced the issue. Either States abide by the Race to the Top guidelines to be eligible for grant, or they don’t, in which case there will be no money. Take it or leave it. In other words, no more business as usual.

As Secretary Duncan explained in a Washington Post opinion piece (7/24/09):

"Under Race to the Top guidelines, states seeking funds will be pressed to implement four core interconnected reforms.

- To reverse the pervasive dumbing-down of academic standards and assessments by states, Race to the Top winners need to work toward adopting common, internationally benchmarked K-12 standards that prepare students for success in college and careers.

- To close the data gap -- which now handcuffs districts from tracking growth in student learning and improving classroom instruction -- states will need to monitor advances in student achievement and identify effective instructional practices.

- To boost the quality of teachers and principals, especially in high-poverty schools and hard-to-staff subjects, states and districts should be able to identify effective teachers and principals -- and have strategies for rewarding and retaining more top-notch teachers and improving or replacing ones who aren't up to the job.

- Finally, to turn around the lowest-performing schools, states and districts must be ready to institute far-reaching reforms, from replacing staff and leadership to changing the school culture."

While several states have already signed on to the program, two notable holdouts are New York and California. The reason is the insistence of the teachers unions in these states to preserve the firewall between student performance and teacher effectiveness.

But the message from Washington is clear: This firewall must be taken down, or you can forget about asking for school reform money. Arne Duncan must ensure that states are not able to find loopholes in the program to undermine its effectiveness, as was the case with NCLB. His words instill hope: "For states, school districts, nonprofits, unions and businesses, Race to the Top is the equivalent of education reform's moon shot -- and the Obama administration is determined not to miss this opportunity. We will scrutinize state applications for a coordinated commitment to reform -- and award grants on a competitive basis in two rounds, allowing first-round losers to make necessary changes and reapply."

As an educator and a concerned citizen, I hope that recalcitrant teachers unions throughout the country will welcome Race to the Top as the best K-12 reform package to come from Washington in living memory. The holy grail of public education in America has been to measure whether kids are actually learning anything in our schools to help them become productive members of society. Race to the Top offers the best hope yet to make this measurement available for public scrutiny. Schools will then be forced to promote a culture of excellence, taking corrective actions where necessary, to make our K-12 public education system among the best in the world again.

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