Mike Rose On RTTT: It's Just So Disheartening

Mike Rose questions RTTT:
Race to the Top of What?, Part II

The results of the first round of competition for Race to the Top funds came in last week, and my home state of California wasn’t one of the lucky 16. This failure has caused much consternation. After all, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan paid special attention to California, and Governor Schwarzenegger and the legislature engaged in serious political wrangling to clear the way: we removed our cap on charter schools and removed the firewall between teacher evaluation and student test scores. Secretary Duncan praised these moves. Yet we didn’t make the cut. Some states that didn’t go as far (like New York and Kentucky) were among the early winners. God knows how the decision was made, though that will be revealed in April – presumably not April 1. So California policy makers are trying to decipher the tea leaves to gear up for the next competition.

It was interesting to read the commentaries that followed the decision. Lots of puzzling and head-scratching – both in California and elsewhere – and some finger pointing: mostly at teachers unions and recalcitrant districts that didn’t sign onto the state’s plan. But I didn’t read any commentaries that raised more basic questions.

I don’t for minute want to deny that California (as do the other states) desperately needs the money. And I wish we were still eligible. But this whole “race” business, this fevered competition pitting state against state is public policy madness, a pretty unenlightened way to think about the public good.

Hardly anyone in the mainstream media is pointing out that Race to the Top itself is flawed policy filled with contradiction. The Department of Education stresses the importance of “research-based” and “data-driven” education policy. Yet so much of what it champions – and has been promulgating through the carrot of Race to the Top dollars – is not built on a solid research base. Take charter schools, which the Department characterizes as “engines of innovation.” A number of research studies demonstrates the kind of variability one finds in many public school districts: there’s some good charters, some bad ones, and lots that fall in between. (See Jeffrey Henig’s wonderful Spin Cycle for a balanced summary.)

Or consider the politically popular proposal to link teacher evaluation to student test scores. Again, the research complicates this seemingly straightforward move. As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, research from a number of sources (including an economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors) raises doubts about both the technical aspects as well as the practical outcomes of evaluating teachers through student scores.

Another discordant feature of Race to the Top (and of NCLB before it) is the way it stresses the importance of good teaching while disparaging, even insulting, the current teaching force. The initiative embodies a terribly reductive model of teacher motivation and development, a one-dimensional, punitive one: teachers don’t try hard enough and the way we’ll make them try harder is to tie their professional awards to test scores.

Hand-in-glove with the above is the absence in Race to the Top language of much deep, on-the-ground knowledge of classrooms, of teaching and learning. The thin understanding of the act of teaching and the teaching profession is a case in point.

So, no wonder the results of the Department’s March 4th announcement are confusing. You’ve got a contradictory, flawed policy embodied in a high-prize competition. The Department of Education noted that the decisions were based on a complex point system. Perhaps it will be released in April. That release might clarify the confusion about the awards. Or it might reveal an elaborate machinery of compliance. And remember, it was an elaborate and contradictory machinery of a different sort that characterized NCLB.

Bottom Line: It’s just so disheartening. School boards are faced with further reducing the number of days in school or closing schools to make their budgets. Teachers are getting laid off. Tuition rates are going up in colleges, and colleges are cutting classes. And here we are with our local policy makers arranging and rearranging the bits and pieces of reform around an uncertain racetrack, getting ready for one more sprint to the top.

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