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Federal Opinion

Over the Top

By Yong Zhao — December 11, 2009 5 min read
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I have been reading through the voluminous document published in the Nov. 18, 2009, Federal Register, giving the final versions of application guidelines, selection criteria, and priorities for $4 billion in competitive grants under the Race to the Top Fund, the largest education grant program in U.S. history.

From news reports, op-ed pieces, and blog posts, I can guess that many states are working hard now to prepare their applications. My reading of the criteria leads me to suggest that the following are winning strategies and actions to include, even though they may be inconsistent with research findings or common sense.

1. Stop paying teachers and principals a salary. Instead, pay them on a per-standardized-test-point basis each day. At the end of the school day, simply give each student a standardized test. Then calculate what the teacher and principal will be paid that day based on the growth of the student, that is, on how much the student has improved over the previous day.

This is true accountability and is sure to keep teachers and principals on their toes. (It also seems to be the true intention behind this requirement: “At the time the State submits its application, the State does not have any legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers at the State level to linking data on student achievement or student growth to teachers and principals for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation.”)

But to do it, you must not ask the question of whether this accountability will lead to better teaching. You also will need to ignore the fact that “accountability” has driven many teachers out of the schools, and to forget about attracting highly qualified talent to the teaching profession.

2. Remove all “non-core” academic activities and courses and reduce all teaching to math and reading. What the U.S. secretary of education wants is “increasing student achievement in (at a minimum) reading/language arts and mathematics, as reported by the [National Assessment of Educational Progress] and the assessments required under the [Elementary and Secondary Education Act]” and “decreasing achievement gaps between subgroups in reading/language arts and mathematics, as reported by the NAEP and the assessments required under the ESEA.” Actually, no need to teach students these subjects; just teaching them how to pass the tests may be even more effective.

But to do so, you have to forget the reasons for education in the first place, ignore all research findings about the negative consequences of high-stakes testing, and suppress any desire to care about the students’ emotional well-being, to cultivate their creativity and entrepreneurship, or to consider their interests and strengths.

3. Make sure every child takes courses in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the more the merrier. This is because, as the guidelines state, “Emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)” is a “Competitive Preference Priority,” worth 15 points, and you either get 15 points or nothing.

But this requires you to ignore research findings such as those from Lindsay Lowell and Hal Salzman, showing that “over the past decade, U.S. colleges and universities graduated roughly three times more scientists and engineers than were employed in the growing science and engineering workforce,” and that “there is no evidence of a long-term decline in the proportion of American students with the relevant training and qualifications to pursue STEM jobs.” You also must not think about what children will really need to be successful in the 21st-century global economy, such as cross-cultural competencies, foreign languages, and digital capabilities.

4. This suggestion is only for the states of Alaska and Texas, because the others have already committed themselves to doing it: Develop and adopt “a common set of K-12 standards … that are supported by evidence that they are internationally benchmarked and build toward college and career readiness by the time of high school graduation.” The other 48 states have signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. So I guess the initiative counts, even though it covers only two subjects.

Well, there may be a small problem: how to prove that the standards are internationally benchmarked. Did the authors benchmark against national standards in Canada, our closest neighbor, or Australia, a large federation of states like the United States? Of course not, because these countries do not have national standards. Or perhaps they benchmarked against China, since it is our perceived competitor. Probably not, because China has been reforming its curriculum over the past two decades and loosening its national control on curriculum. Or perhaps it is against the Program for International Student Assessment or the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study—yet these are tests, not curriculum standards.

To wholeheartedly embrace this suggestion, states have to overlook the damages national standards can do to education, and not take into consideration the fact that having national standards neither improves education for students nor narrows achievement gaps.

5. Write in lots of money for testing companies and assessment consultants in the application, because you will be rewarded for “developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments.” In the spirit of this recommendation, I would also suggest that you promise to test the students more frequently, at least twice a day—once when they come to school and once when they leave—because this will help you collect more data to meet the data-systems requirement and hold teachers accountable.

Of course, what this means is that you cannot think about students’ individual differences, the need for diverse talents, or the costs of standardized tests. You cannot think about who will eventually benefit from the assessments either. And in no way should you worry about the corruption that high-stakes standardized testing brings with it.

6. Oh, and while you’re at it, include a proposal to bar all children under the age of 18 from entering museums, public libraries, and music events; lock up all musical instruments in schools, and fire all music, art, and physical education teachers; close sports facilities; disconnect all Internet connections; and cut down on lunch time, because the Race to the Top initiative wants to lengthen the school year and school day, and all these are distracting kids from studying for the tests. Of course, these actions will save money as well.

But that requires you to discard the notion that creativity, talent, and technology are important for the future. You must also not think that a healthy society needs musicians, artists, and athletes. Nor can you assume that a well-rounded human being is essential for a democracy. Of course, you should also deny the fact that creativity, art, design, and music play significant roles in the world of science and technology today.

But other than all that, your new federal funding should enable you to do great things.

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Over the Top

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