States and school districts across the nation are working feverishly to position themselves to be winners of the federal Department of Education’s country-wide competition for funding. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has proudly crafted and marketed his “Race To The Top” (RTTT) contest as the best strategy for urging states to turn disasters into opportunities by making them invent new ways to magically solve pee rsistent challenges in our education system. RTTT has four main core components
“Through Race to the Top, we are asking States to advance reforms around four specific areas:
• Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
• Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
• Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
• Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.
These components combined with the details about RTTT as described in the executive summary
and other documents clearly underscores its close kinship to current education policy, the albatross No Child Left Behind (NCLB). RTTT is doing advance work for a tired, ineffective, punitive approach to education that has moved the country backwards, not forwards. A simple example is in the definition of an effective teacher, one who advances students one year and a highly effective teacher, who advances them one and a half years in an academic year. Such a simplistic understanding of where students are coming from and what constitutes effective, powerful teaching is dismaying at best. Is the most effective teacher really one who crams in more “stuff” in less time? Continuing in that disingenuous vein, RTTT is supposed to be about fundamental long-term change, but only provides initial funding to implement that change.
Ultimately, RTTT serves as a carrot for greater use of standardized testing and the resultant test scores as a primary foundation for organizing and evaluating schools, teachers and students, furthering the destructive tradition of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to ignore the larger context in which schools and students exist, the tremendous resource gaps found in our schools, and the more rigorous and multi-faceted forms of teaching and assessment that are actually required to educate students well. All of the latter of course, are to be found in the elite private schools to which bureaucrats in charge of both policy and funding send their own children but feel justified in denying to the rest of us.
But despite the problems with RTTT, states and districts are in an untenable position. With the recession still underway, state revenues have been drastically reduced and education budgets, typically the largest outlay in a states’ general budget, are of course affected. Contorting oneself to possibly receive a ladleful out of a large pot of money is really something states have no choice about, they simply must try. As of December 17th almost all the states
had formally begun the process of submitting applications, Californian included.
And so the RTTT beauty contest begins.
It’s hard to believe that after finally getting out from eight years of George Bush & Co. we’re still stuck in the same place, the road to nowhere. Instead of asking states and schools to keep running in better measured circles, federal officials should be providing leadership and direction on the two most significant issues affecting education today – persistent poverty and insufficient funding in all states.
It is well known that the challenges for students living in poverty affect their ability to learn in so many ways, from the lack of sufficient food to overworked parents who can’t spend time at school to advocate for the specific needs of their children.
As far as insufficient funding of education, this is a national plague and must be addressed at the gubernatorial and federal level. Instead of a competition for educational programs, the Department of Education should be bringing Governors to the table and calling them to account for not funding their schools properly, and in turn lead the way by dedicating federal resources to securing the education of all of our nation’s children.
RTTT is Arne Duncan’s claim to bringing change about, but it’s nothing new. A real change would be an honest look at the underlying weaknesses in the foundation of our educational system, and a commitment on the federal level to put their money behind that change.
Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.