Federal Opinion

Race to the Top Frozen Out in Fresno

By Anthony Cody — October 05, 2012 2 min read
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Both President Obama and his debate challenger Mitt Romney took time Wednesday night to praise the controversial Race to the Top program, but down where the rubber meets the road, the program is hitting some obstacles. The Department of Education now requires school districts to get formal buy-in from teachers when they apply for Race to the Top funds. This is proving to be a problem as some teachers have become skeptical about the changes the program requires.

The same day of the debate, teachers in the Central Unified School District in Fresno, California, became the latest to say “no thanks” to their district’s proposal to apply for RttT funds. Almost 500 teachers attended a special inservice, where they heard a presentation urging them to approve the plan. But in the end, they voted more than three to one to reject the proposal.

The teachers in Fresno were joining their colleagues in Sacramento, who reached a similar decision about a month earlier. The Executive Board of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, representing 2600 teachers in the state’s capital, voted to reject participation in Race to the Top. They cited concerns that the timeline would require them to rush to complete a teacher evaluation plan, and that the effort would interfere with urgent work to ensure passage of Prop 30, which they hope will provide essential funding. They also pointed out that since at the most, only 25 districts of 900 applicants from across the country will be chosen, the odds are their district would not even get the funds. (See Larry Ferlazzo’s report here.)

In advance of the vote a Fresno teacher went through the fine print in the Race to the Top application and prepared the following summary of the document’s highlights, which he shared with his colleagues.

Your "EFFECTIVENESS" will be based on student data. To receive RTTT funding a district MUST:
Show the Local Educational Agency has, at a minimum, designed and committed to implement no later than the 2014-15 school year--
1. a teacher evaluation system (as defined in this document);
The LEA has a robust data system that has, at a minimum,--
1. An individual teacher identifier with a teacher-student match.
vi. Improve educators' practice by using feedback provided by the LEA's teacher and principal evaluation systems (as defined in this document), including frequent feedback on their individual and collective effectiveness (as defined in this document), as well as recommendations for how to improve.
Teacher evaluation system : System that: (1) will be used for continual improvement of instruction; (2) meaningfully differentiates performance using at least three performance levels; (3) uses multiple valid measures in determining performance levels, including as a significant factor data on student growth (as defined in this document) for all students
Student Growth: The change in student achievement for an individual student between two or more points in time, defined as--
1. For grades and subjects in which assessments are required under ESEA section 1111(b)(3):
(1) a student's score on such assessments
AND SO ...
ESEA 1111(b)(3) Each State plan shall demonstrate that the State educational agency, in consultation with local educational agencies, has implemented a set of high-quality, yearly student academic assessments that include, at a minimum, academic assessments in mathematics, reading or language arts , and science that will be used as the primary means of determining the yearly performance of the State and of each local educational agency and school in the State...AND... Such assessments shall--
1. be the same academic assessments used to measure the achievement of all children.

A Fresno teacher shared this document with me, and explained the vote:

We rejected it because they wanted us to sign a blank document that held no information on what the District was going to do; there was no way that we were going to agree to give carte blanche power to them to create whatever kind of application they wanted, especially when it came to tying teacher evaluations to test scores.
We've been hammered with test scores, bad press, and vilification for ten years. Our students are tired of high stakes testing, our parents are tired of hearing it, every induce shows it has not helped graduation rates or learning for the most poor of students (which NCLB supporters said testing would), and teachers in our district WILL NOT put up with the abuse any longer. It's time for it to end.

It is remarkable that President Obama can claim that Race to the Top, with these highly specific mandates, is “not a top-down program.”

In his most recent speech Secretary Duncan repeated his contradictory refrain, that

“Teachers should not be isolated in their classrooms and forced to teach to a test. " He also repeated his call for “multiple measures.” However, teachers in Fresno are aware that tying teacher evaluations to test scores does indeed force them to teach to the test, even if other “measures” are also included.

President Obama may decide it is better not to dwell on Race to the Top at his next debate. Perhaps he should spend some time with teachers in Fresno and Sacramento and find out the sorts of reforms they would find truly helpful.

What do you think? Has your district applied for Race to the Top funding? Are teachers on board and happy with what is happening?

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