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Education Opinion

Obama’s Race to the Top Under Fire in California and US

By Anthony Cody — August 24, 2009 3 min read

A major conflict between the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program and unions representing teachers has ignited in California, where current education code places limits on the use of student test score data.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made it clear that California is ineligible for precious Race to the Top grant dollars because the state places limits on the use of student test score data, and on the expansion of charter schools. While districts and schools are free to use such data, current law prevents individual teacher data from being used at the state level. Now Governor Schwarzenegger has called a special session of the state legislature in order to change the law in time to meet Duncan’s October 5th deadline. With the schools suffering from $6 billion in cuts, legislators are desperate for funds, making them vulnerable to Duncan’s pressure tactics.

In this article in the Sacramento Bee, Schwarzenegger claims: “Right now, we can’t tell over the course of time how an individual teacher or principal or school is doing.”

The truth is, state data can tell you exactly how well a school or principal is doing, as one can access data for every school in the state for the past eleven years right here. You can NOT access that data for the individual teachers, for privacy reasons, but that does not prevent that access at the school or district level, which is where teacher evaluation occurs.

Duncan also insists that the state must remove limits on the expansion of charter schools. Currently, California limits the number of new charters to 100 per year, and requires that supporters of a new charter gather parent signatures prior to approval. More than a thousand charters have been approved, and few have been blocked by these provisions. But the Race to the Top wants any limits removed, so as to maximize the chances that charters can expand.

The political arm of the National Education Association – the California Teachers’ Association (CTA) has taken a strong stand against this move. Dean Vogel, the organization’s vice president, states

The proposed Race to the Top requirements repeat the top-down mandates of the flawed No Child Left Behind Act, with its over-reliance on test scores to measure student achievement. Students are more than one test score and so are educators. There must be multiple measures for student achievement and evaluating teachers. Using test scores to pay and evaluate teachers will lead to more teaching to the test and will hurt those students who need the most help.

As a teacher in a district with many high needs schools, I believe moves towards tying evaluation and pay to test scores could have very bad results. We already struggle to cope with very high turnover due to the low pay and tough conditions at these schools. Students test scores at the individual teacher level are highly variable from year to year. I have had a class one year that just hums along, and I have been able to build a strong learning community where students work together well and their performance will show it. Other years the class has been disrupted by troubled students who transfer in late in the semester, or weighed down by a large number of students repeating the grade, who do not attend regularly and are major distractions when they do show up. This is part of the challenge in a high needs school – but it must be recognized that this has an effect on the test scores. If we base the evaluation and pay of teachers on their scores every year, we are going to make high needs schools even harder to staff. This will make these schools even less stable, and make it that much harder to build the learning communities we need.

This conflict may have tipped the scales for the country’s largest teacher’s union. This week the National Education Association (NEA) likewise took on the Race to the Top, stating:

We find this top-down approach disturbing; we have been down that road before with the failures of No Child Left Behind, and we cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates that have little or no research base of success and that usurp state and local government's responsibilities for public education.

The NEA endorsed Obama, and many members, including myself, actively campaigned for him. Although he pledged to reverse the emphasis on test scores embodied in No Child Left Behind, the policies enacted thus far under his leadership seem to actually intensify this emphasis.

In recent speeches, Obama has continued to confuse those of us trying to reconcile his policies with his words. In a June appearance in Wisconsin, Obama said,

There's a saying in Illinois I learned when I was down in a lot of rural communities. They said, "Just weighing a pig doesn't fatten it." (Applause.) You can weigh it all the time, but it's not making the hog fatter. So the point being, if we're all we're doing is testing and then teaching to the test, that doesn't assure that we're actually improving educational outcomes.
We do need to have accountability, however. We do need to measure progress with our kids. Maybe it's just one standardized test, plus portfolios of work that kids are doing, plus observing the classroom. There can be a whole range of assessments, but we do have to have some kind of accountability….

It appears that the administration is paying lip service to multiple measures of student performance, while in practice, implementing policies that force a reliance on the single measure of the standardized test.

What do you think? Is the NEA correct when it opposes Duncan’s Race to the Top? What stance should teachers take towards linking test scores to evaluations and pay?

Note: If you are a California resident, you can find your state representative using this link.

Image used by permission through Creative Commons, photo by ItzaFineDay.

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