Teaching Profession Opinion

Does President Obama Know What Race to the Top Is?

By Diane Ravitch — January 31, 2012 6 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I don’t know about you, but I am growing convinced that President Barack Obama doesn’t know what Race to the Top is. I don’t think he really understands what his own administration is doing to education. In his State of the Union address last week, he said that he wanted teachers to “stop teaching to the test.” He also said that teachers should teach with “creativity and passion.” And he said that schools should reward the best teachers and replace those who weren’t doing a good job. To “reward the best” and “fire the worst,” states and districts are relying on test scores. The Race to the Top says they must.

Deconstruct this. Teachers would love to “stop teaching to the test,” but Race to the Top makes test scores the measure of every teacher. If teachers take the President’s advice (and they would love to!), their students might not get higher test scores every year, and teachers might be fired, and their schools might be closed.

Why does President Obama think that teachers can “stop teaching to the test” when their livelihood, their reputation, and the survival of their school depends on the outcome of those all-important standardized tests?

Funnily enough, President Obama said something similar last year during a town hall meeting. He said that his daughters, who attend the elite Sidwell Friends school, took a standardized test, and they didn’t have any preparation for it. He said:

“Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.

“Too often, what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressure-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.”

Teachers must have been excited when they heard what the President said then because he showed that he really understood the dangers of high-stakes testing. He said:

“So what I want to do is—one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that’s not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.”

Teachers must have been jumping for joy when they heard this, because they know that states and districts have been reducing the time available for the arts, history, civics, physical education, everything other than the tests of reading and mathematics. That excellent teacher-blogger Anthony Cody pointed out in his review of his speech that the President was “blasting his own education policies.”

Do you think that President Obama just doesn’t understand that Race to the Top has encouraged states to double down on high-stakes testing? Maybe he doesn’t realize that the strategies of his administration rely totally on test scores. Do you think no one from the U.S. Department of Education has explained that merit pay has been tried again and again and has never succeeded? Did anyone tell him about the Vanderbilt study of 2010, in which Nashville teachers were offered bonuses of $15,000? Did anyone tell him that those big bonuses didn’t lead to higher test scores? Did anyone tell him about the New York City plan for school-wide bonuses, which cost the city $56 million, and produced no difference in test scores? Has anyone told him or First Lady Michelle Obama about the districts and states (like Florida) that may eliminate (or have eliminated) their requirement for physical education because more time is needed for test prep?

Do you think he understands that his Race to the Top program is demoralizing teachers across the nation? Does he know that teachers are not allowed to teach with creativity and passion because they might be fired for not following their district-mandated script?

He’s a smart man. I can’t believe that he really doesn’t know that Race to the Top is no better, and in some ways is even worse, than No Child Left Behind. NCLB holds schools accountable; Race to the Top holds individual teachers accountable. Does he know that almost one of every three principals in the state of New York has signed a letter of protest against the test-based evaluations that Race to the Top imposes?

He wants the teacher-bashing to end, but I wonder if he knows that the worst teacher-bashing started because of his and Arne Duncan’s rhetoric about firing teachers if their students got low test scores?

When I saw Linda Darling-Hammond last week in California, she gave me charts from the U.S. Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey which show that the modal years of teaching experience in 1987-88 was 15 (meaning that there were more teachers with 15 years of experience than any other group); in the latest published survey, 2007-08, the modal years of experience was one. That means that in 2008 there were more teachers in their first year of teaching than any other group. This is frightening. What sane nation would want to lose its experienced teachers and rely increasingly on newcomers?

Of course, teachers should be evaluated, but they should be evaluated by knowledgeable professionals—their supervisors and peers. Of course, incompetent teachers should be fired, but first they should have a chance to improve. If they can’t improve, they don’t belong in the classroom.

The irony of all this is that President Obama opposes high-stakes testing. He has now said so twice. Why does he endorse policies that require what he personally opposes?

The President also said that states could reduce the dropout rate by requiring students to stay in school until they are 18. Do you think students drop out because they aren’t required by law to stay in school? I think the President should learn more about the reasons students leave before he proposes a law to force them to stay against their will. If he did, he might have better suggestions for lowering the dropout rate.

And one other thing. President Obama referred approvingly to the Chetty-Friedman-Rockoff study of value-added assessment and said that “good teachers” would produce lifetime gains of $250,000 per classroom. Did anyone tell him that if there are 25 students in a class and each of them works for 40 years, then each one will gain $250 a year? Now, I’m not putting down a gain of $250 a year (that’s four or five times to fill your gas tank), and I certainly believe in the importance of good teachers. I don’t think that doubling down even more on standardized tests in reading and math is the right way to identify good or great teachers. If we push more on that line of thinking, teaching to the test is a necessity, not a choice.

I just wish that the president would change course on Race to the Top. It’s even more demoralizing for teachers and principals than NCLB. It emphasizes testing at every turn, and it will not allow anyone to “stop teaching to the test.”


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.