To the Editor:
Recent Education Week stories highlight troubling contradictions in federal efforts to guide public school reforms. On the one hand, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan demands a “proven” track record for programs seeking grants from his $650 million innovation fund (“Duncan Sets Bar on Fund,” Aug. 26, 2009). Yet, on the other, the priorities and requirements spelled out in the Department of Education’s school improvement and Race to the Top grant guidelines either have no track record or, worse, have a track record of failure (“Tight Leash Likely on Turnaround Aid,” Sept. 2, 2009; Rich Prize, Restrictive Guidelines,” Aug. 12, 2009).
Mr. Duncan says his recommendations for improving underperforming schools are based on an analysis of programs working at the local level, but offers anecdotes rather than solid evidence. Meanwhile, readily available independent research, such as that of the Vermont researcher William J. Mathis, casts serious doubt on his nostrums.
Many organizations that have submitted comments in response to the Race to the Top Fund’s draft guidelines have noted this lack of evidence. There are widespread concerns that the secretary will retain and even intensify the misuse of standardized tests. For Race to the Top, this means relying on student scores to evaluate teachers, though, once again, there is no evidence this will improve teaching and learning.
If his required reforms are based on solid research, Secretary Duncan needs to share it with the public. In an ongoing fiscal crisis, $3.5 billion in new school improvement aid is an awful lot of money to invest in anything less than proven remedies.
National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest)
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as Having It Both Ways on Turnaround Research