Education Opinion

Response: Race To The Top Was A ‘Wasted Opportunity’

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 25, 2014 6 min read
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(Today’s post is Part One of a two-part series on this topic)

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Obama administration’s announcing the first Race To The Top competition. Education Week has invited all its opinion bloggers to post about it.

So, this week’s question is:

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

Today, educators John Kuhn and Gary Rubinstein provide responses to this question. On Monday, I’ll be publishing guest responses from several more educators, as well as comments from readers.

John’s and Gary’s thoughts, and the responses that will appear on Monday, reflect many of my own criticisms of Race To The Top, so I won’t take up space repeating what they have said. Though schools can always use more financial resources, the price that needed to be paid to get it from this program has seemed to create more harm than good to students, their families and to teachers.

Readers might be interested in learning more at The Best Resources On “Race To The Top.”

Now, to today’s guests...

Response From Gary Rubinstein

Gary Rubinstein is a veteran math teacher in New York City. He is the author of the teaching books ‘Reluctant Disciplinarian’ and ‘Beyond Survival’ and writes regularly at his blog.

Years from now, I hope we will look back at Race To The Top as the time we allowed the rich and powerful to conduct reckless experimentation on our nation’s schoolchildren. And they would have gotten away with it too -- to paraphrase every Scooby Doo villain ever -- if it wasn’t for those meddling educators. Race To The Top is an example of how reform in any field will fail if it is based on an invalid premise. That premise, in this case, is that teachers cannot be trusted.

We need the Common Core, the argument goes, because when teachers set what they consider to be an appropriate level of ‘rigor’ in their classes, they will usually choose to make it too easy. They do this because either because they are lazy or because they simply believe that students are not capable of challenging work or, most likely, both.

Teachers are so devious, it must be, that they have figured out ways to get satisfactory evaluations from their supervisors despite all their ‘inputs’ going in one ear of their students and out the other. Administrators are also either incompetent for thinking they are witnessing learning, or they are giving positive evaluations to ineffective teachers for other reasons that only they could know.

To combat this loophole we need a way to accurately and fairly measure how much ‘growth’ students make and use this number as a ‘significant’ portion of the teacher’s evaluation. Since this is a tricky problem, ‘reformers’ found something that seemed to be a step in the right direction, ‘value added.’ Value added compares the standardized test scores of a teacher’s students with the scores those same students would have gotten in the parallel universe where they had a different teacher, an average teacher. Value added scores are so inaccurate that I’ve found, in my research, examples of teachers who were rated for two different classes they taught highly effective AND highly ineffective in the same year.

When teachers complain that they don’t want to have this inaccurate component as 50% or 40% or 35%, depending on what state they’re in, they are reassured that ‘multiple measures’ are being used so that, on average, it should all work out. Couldn’t this ‘multiple measures’ argument be used to justify having shoe size as a component of the evaluation score?

One legacy of the modern ‘reform’ agenda will be the contamination of certain common words in education. I put the word ‘reform’ in quotations since I consider myself a reformer (no quotes) though I’m sometimes called by them an ‘anti-reformer’ because I support different reforms from them. Another word that has new meaning is ‘adults.’ ‘Reformers’ say things like “The current system isn’t working out for the kids, but it’s working very well for the adults.” By adults, of course, they mean ‘teachers’ but if they said ‘teachers’ people might not buy why so many people voluntarily quit (‘unions’ make it so you can’t get fired, right?) within five years. Another word is ‘achievement,’ which now means ‘growth’ on standardized tests. They even hijacked the word ‘grit’ which was once the singular of a very tasty alternative to oatmeal.

By starting with a bad premise, the ‘reformers’ have been given the power to start destroying public education in this country. Fortunately the momentum is slowing down on Race To The Top since if it were permitted to continue to grow the result would be a massive teacher shortage as the only people dumb enough to become teachers would also be too dumb to do the difficult job of teaching. Without teachers willing to teach, ‘reformers’ would learn that it truly is lonely at The Top.

Response From John Kuhn

John Kuhn is a school superintendent in Texas and the author of two books about education reform and standardized testing:

The White House’s fact sheet about Race to the Top begins by expressing a lofty goal for the program: the provision of “a high-quality education to every young American.” Race to the Top used a model wherein recession-rattled states competed for $4 billion in new federal education funds by implementing reform strategies like embracing rigorous standards and assessments, attracting great teachers, developing data systems, and using turnaround strategies. While the financial inducement partially succeeded in getting favored strategies in place around the country, it hasn’t followed that the strategies resulted (or will result) in a high-quality education for all kids. In fact, implementation of many of these techniques may have impeded true and meaningful education reform by marshalling scarce resources and energy toward unproven ends.

Race to the Top helped get rigorous standards adopted widely, but the development of “high quality assessments” tied to these standards has faltered. A prominent commission of experts in educational measurement deemed the new tests “far from what is ultimately needed.” Two consortia--PARCC and Smarter Balanced--were awarded a total of $330 million to develop next generation assessments to be used across the nation. Since 2010, at least nine states have left each consortium, casting doubt on their ability to survive long term.

Similar problems engulfed the attempted development of inBloom, a nationwide database for holding student information. Despite a sizeable initial investment, inBloom was shuttered in its third year of existence.

Even if the development of next generation assessments and a student data repository had succeeded, it is unlikely that Race to the Top could have done the same. Imbued with the same deficiency assumptions as the No Child Left Behind Act, Race to the Top emphasized compliance from states, teachers, and schools rather than support for them; as a result, for example, it lacked “a good system for helping teachers learn to teach” the new standards.

Race to the Top succeeded in advancing certain administration preferences, but when it comes to the stated goal of ensuring a quality education for all children, it ignored too many fundamental obstacles to that goal’s attainment--obstacles like school funding inequities, inappropriate uses of assessment, inadequate support and training for teachers, and the deteriorating circumstances of many American children--that it amounts to, if not a fiasco, certainly a massive wasted opportunity.

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 and happens to be on sale this week.

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

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.