Education Opinion

Response: Race To The Top Has Been A ‘Fiasco’

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 28, 2014 13 min read
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(Today’s post is the last of a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

This past week marked the fifth anniversary of the Obama administration’s announcing the first Race To The Top competition. Education Week invited all its opinion bloggers to post about it and you can see all the collected posts here.

The question I posed last week was:

Has Race To The Top been a success, a fiasco, or something in between?

On Friday, educators John Kuhn and Gary Rubinstein provided responses to this question.

Today, several more educators -- Barnett Berry, Ariel Sacks, John Thompson, Alice Mercer and David B. Cohen weigh in with their thoughts -- and I include comments from readers, too.

Response From Barnett Berry

Barnett Berry is the founder of the Center for Teaching Quality, a national nonprofit that’s “transforming the teaching profession through the bold ideas and expert practices of teacher leaders.” His latest book, written with colleagues Ann Byrd and Alan Wieder, is Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave:

Race to the Top Has Been a Fiasco

I have a lot to say about President Obama’s signature education policy initiative, the $4 billion Race to the Top (R2T) program. A 400-word essay leaves little room. Granted there is a lot that is needed to get done regarding 21st century standards and assessments, data systems that measure student growth and inform educators, and recruiting and retain top teachers for high need schools. Let me list at least five reasons why R2T has been a teaching quality disaster.

1. Although R2T supposedly promoted the use of teacher evaluation to improve instruction, the USDOE favored states that placed a greater emphasis on states using narrow (and often unreliable) measures of teaching effectiveness;

2. Although some research has shown how R2T-fueled Teacher Incentive Fund models have resulted in more opportunities for teacher mentoring, there is little evidence of improved student achievement;

3. Few, if any, of the R2T policies and resources have seriously recognized the conditions that allow teachers to teach effectively and none have been directly designed so teachers can spread their expertise to each other;

4. Although R2T offered a great deal of important rhetoric on attracting and keeping effective teachers, the USODE policies have ignored what research has shown to recruit and retain those most needed for high need schools; and

5. R2T has done little to support serious improvements in teacher education, ignoring the fact that the federal government annually spends $11 billion on medical education.

Imagine if the USDOE shifted its R2T gears, and focused on:

* Drawing on international lessons learned (and exemplary practices close to home) to advance new models for school schedules and leadership configurations;

* Collaborating with unions to support teacherpreneur roles that advance Common Core implementation and reforms in teacher evaluation systems and school redesign.

* Modifying teacher evaluation and pay systems to systematically encourage and reward teachers to lead and share their expertise with their peers;

* Investing in teacher preparation that readies pre-service teachers as action researchers and leaders, much like what is found in Singapore and Finland; and

* Creating incentives for states, universities, and districts to create joint appointments for teachers to lead without leaving the classroom -- even support the bold brand of teacherpreneurs.

Other researchers have shown that the R2T policies drew on very narrow strands of research, and virtually none of them peer-reviewed, scientific evidence. No wonder R2T has been a fiasco.

Response From Ariel Sacks

Ariel Sacks teaches 8th grade English language arts in New York City. She is the author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach (Jossey-Bass, 2013). She writes the Center for Teaching Quality’s featured blog, On the Shoulders of Giants:

If this were a multiple-choice question, the best answer would be b) fiasco. Using my own words, I might add “irresponsible.” For starters, as a professional educator, the name, Race to the Top, gives me great pause.

Education is not a race. Racing others is not an effective way to learn or teach. Think about bike riding. You do not race others while you learn to ride a bike. While you teach a child to ride a bike, you are not trying to do so faster than the next guy. You exercise tremendous patience--every child learns this one at her own pace, in her own way. And once a child does learn, racing is just one possible application of the skill.

There are probably some great strategies for teaching a child to ride a bicycle, and these should be shared--but competition inhibits sharing. “On your marks, get set, go--or else!” is not a model for supporting the learning and development of children, teachers, or schools.

And what is this “top,” toward which we are racing? The Executive Summary for the Race to the Top Program provides a vague picture of a place that includes “substantial gains in student outcomes...closing achievement gaps, improving graduation rates, ensuring student preparation for success in college and careers.”

In practice, RTTT defined “the top” far more narrowly for us, creating a target with no basis in research. Rather than developing a thoughtful plan, generating true buy-in from educators by utilizing their expertise, RTTT coerced states into “racing” toward the prescribed goal in order to receive much needed federal funding.

“The top,” as defined through RTTT, is a place where states hastily implement Common Core Standards (which are themselves untested) without a sound, professional process for schools and teachers to transition. “The top” includes a new crop of standardized tests, which have not been proven to accurately measure student learning, which redefined “rigor” and resulted in a 31% pass rate for New York City students. “The top” includes new teacher evaluation plans that rely substantially on data from standardized tests to judge, rank, and reward teachers--this, despite a lack of research to prove these methods have any benefits, and much research to the contrary.

All of this seems reckless, adding up to a hodgepodge of curriculum shifts and a lot of fear, which is debilitating for teachers and students. Race to the Top funnels federal funds (our tax money) into supporting an accountability movement with no proven value, rather than funding the many educational programs with clear track records of success. Whether or not this misuse of federal dollars was intentional is not the question. As teachers know--part of being a leader is accepting both the intended and the unintended consequences of your decisions.

Response From John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood and he became attached to the kids in the drug houses. He switched careers and taught in the inner city for 19 years:

A Fiasco with a Semi-Happy Ending

Race for the Top gave Oklahoma educators an offer we couldn’t refuse. Some Democrats may have suddenly seen the light and bought into its mostly Republican agenda. Some might have converted to the idea that the federal government should coerce diverse districts into expanding TFA, charter schools, performance pay, Common Core testing, mass dismissal of educators in low-performing schools, and value-added teacher evaluations. With Arne Duncan’s gun to their heads, teachers unions agreed to change state law and to commit to those dubious policies. Educators couldn’t allow ourselves to be blamed for undermining a possible $175 million dollar grant, especially during a recession.

Oklahoma lost the competition but the law still mandated big-ticket gambles, including Common Core and its $17 million dollar down payment, and $23 million dollars to start toward value-added evaluations. Even if the RttT’s one-size fits-all experiments made sense, successful implementation would have required a tax increase. Instead, education budgets were cut and incoming State Superintendent Janet Barresi tried to implement the entire Republican/Duncan/RttT agenda.

Four years later, a happy ending may be unfolding, and the entire test and punish agenda may be collapsing. Oklahoma adopted Common Core during a time of austerity, and wasted time and money on its professional development and tests. It then rejected Common Core standards and assessments. The single worst high stakes test policy (mandatory retention of 3rd graders who fail their reading test) has been paused. Chief for Change Barresi was trounced in the Republican primary. The remaining candidates all reject the testing mania, often condemning it as “child abuse.” Barresi ally, Republican Governor Mary Fallin, who once was seen as unbeatable, is in a freefall. Her opponent, Joe Dorman, closed to within five points after condemning Common Core as an “Unfunded Nightmare.”

Next year, the impossibility of implementing all of the contradictory RttT promises, without the capacity to do so, will become even more obvious. Educators will start the school year without clear guidance regarding the tests they must teach to. Surely, more Oklahomans will reject the denial of high school diplomas to students who haven’t been given an opportunity to measure up to those fluctuating standards. Hopefully, the courts will question terminations that result from failure to meet test score growth targets under these circumstances. I’m expecting conservative and liberal Oklahomans will completely repudiate the RttT unfunded fiasco.

Response From Alice Mercer

Alice Mercer teaches sixth grade at an elementary school in Sacramento, CA. She started her career in Oakland, Ca, and moved to Sacramento in 2001. Alice is active in her union doing social media outreach, and is on State Council, the policy setting body of the California Teachers Association. Her blog is Reflections on Teaching:

Race to the Top - A Tale of Two States

In my analysis of Race to the Top I’m going to look at two states, California and New York with a focus on technology. One received a Race to the Top grant, the other did not, but even in a state that wouldn’t play ball with the US Department of Education, California has felt the effects of this program.

In New York most of the technology that has been implemented has been for teacher evaluation system, the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). Here are just a list of some of the problems:

* Large amounts of cash being required by the grant that were not covered by the grant money;

* A system that is not accurate;

* A system that as it is currently implemented, discriminates against many teachers;

Let me sum up: this results in a lousy system because student test data shouldn’t be used that way and all the coding in the world won’t make it work. I’ll leave you with the words of New York State Teacher of the Year, Kathleen Ferguson, who will NEVER earn a rating of “highly effective” with APPR, “This system does not make sense,” Ferguson said.

California, the nation’s most populous state, was not able to qualify for RttT grants. Still, the prior governor and state leaders tried. Just for the privilege of applying, they agreed to adopt Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and with that they joined one of the two testing consortia, SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium). Since SBAC decided to focus on a computer-based assessment, this required that California make a significant investment in technology;

* The money had to come from somewhere. Some districts opted to use bond funds for long-term infrastructure improvements to buy technology with a shelf life of 3-7 years.

* This was a crash buy of tech with no integration plan;

* The tests are not a transformative use of technology, and there doesn’t seem to be a plan to change that.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed the lack depth in these assessments, as you can see from this chart here. We have a lot of money being spent in ways that would seem to enrich vendors, instead of student learning, and that isn’t a good thing.

Response From David B. Cohen

David B. Cohen is a high school English teacher from Palo Alto, CA. He blogs at InterACT, and is currently preparing for a leave of absence from teaching, to travel throughout California observing and writing about public education:

I will take the middle ground and say that Race to the Top has been somewhere between success and fiasco. Naturally, the administration has called it a success, and taking a look at the the administration’s report “Setting the Pace,” I would agree that some good programs and policies have been supported by these federal grants. The caveat is that I haven’t studied all these examples myself, but at first glance it seems worthwhile to support new teachers in Rhode Island and improve teacher retention in Delaware. It’s probably good to have expanded support for rural students in Florida, and alternative education programs supporting at-risk students in Georgia.

Race to the Top came along at a time when states were desperate for education funding. The administration, for legal and political reasons, has always emphasized that state participation was voluntary. A few years ago, I wrote that Duncan was like the title character in George Bernard Shaw’s play “Major Barbara” - whose father says of her missionary efforts, “It is cheap work converting starving men with a Bible in one hand and a slice of bread in the other.” Duncan came to the cash-starved states with the Race to the Top grant in one hand and funding in the other, and many states rushed to adopt a variety of policies to win grants, whether or not all those policies were worthy or sensible.

To many of us in the field, it felt more like coercion. We questioned some of the administration’s priorities and its assumptions about competition. We debunked their assumptions about teacher evaluations and accountability, and doubted the cost-benefit calculations would work out favorably. In return, we were accused of acting in self-interest. If we review the full effects of Race to the Top, and not just the administration’s selected examples, I think the doubters have been vindicated. Hastily adopted policies and rushed commitments to help win grant funding have led to some disappointing results and negative consequences. (a few examples: North Carolina; Georgia; Tennessee; New York).

Maybe enough good was accomplished to say Race to the Top wasn’t a total fiasco, but the model leads education policy in the wrong direction. No race was necessary. Rick Hess, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, said the “problem with bribing states to do things that have only shaky political support from the outset” is a “lack of commitment to properly implementing them.” Tying Common Core adoption to Race to the Top also turned out poorly, as it certainly contributed to the growing Common Core resistance. Together, these initiatives show the risk having education policy based on money more than merits, and pushed through with insufficient debate before many people even know what’s happening.

Responses From Readers

Renee Moore:

Race to the Top was supposed to be the Obama Administration’s fix for what was wrong with NCLB; instead, it only exacerbated its worst aspects upon our most vulnerable students and those teachers trying the hardest to serve them.

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Apart from this question and its two-part response, during the summer I’ll be continuing to share thematic posts bringing together responses on similar topics from the past three years, as well as interviews with authors of important education titles. You can see what’s been posted so far here.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching .

Lastly, remember that you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader.

Look for the next thematic compilation of posts in a few days....

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.