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Standards Commentary

The Hole in ‘Race to the Top’

By Richard Whitmire — December 07, 2009 5 min read

It seems almost peevish to criticize U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s game-changing Race to the Top plan that dangles $4 billion in new competitive-grant funding before states willing to reform their schools. But in truth, the plan has a hole that eventually will surface. Might as well be peevish now.

First, it should be conceded that Duncan has a great idea, rewarding states willing to undertake reforms such as launching high-quality charter schools (while closing bad ones) and using data to evaluate teacher effectiveness. The excitement over the plan is palpable, with states reversing laws that blocked those reforms. How often does that happen?

Education-minded philanthropies such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which rightly see Race to the Top as the best opportunity yet to reverse America’s declining education fortunes, are siding with the Duncan plan, ratcheting up the excitement to a frenzy level.


But before I get to the hole, let’s start with the school districts that will likely benefit most from Race to the Top. Those would be the large urban districts charitably described as foundering—St. Louis; Los Angeles; DeKalb County, Ga.; Detroit; and Kansas City, Mo., come to mind as useful but sad examples.

In districts like these, Race to the Top could kick-start some badly needed reforms. Raising standards, for example, would trigger a long-neglected search for ways to use data to bring those standards to life. And bringing in high-performing charter schools would offer some students a badly needed educational escape hatch.

However, there’s a separate group of some of the country’s largest school districts that aren’t hopeless. They are solid, B-average districts with the potential to move up. Let’s call them the silver-medalist districts. Among the top 100 urban school districts, somewhere between 10 and 15 fall into this category, including Miami-Dade County, Fla.; Atlanta; Fresno, Calif.; and St. Paul, Minn.

What’s in the plan for them? Not much. These are school districts that have already begun to work on much of what Race to the Top calls for. They have the data systems; they have the higher standards. Ignoring these districts, however, is not an option. With some modest tweaks, they could move up to gold-medalist status, which would mean graduating hundreds of thousands more college-ready low-income and minority students. That’s a big payoff.

What will it take for the silver medalists to improve?

As the “project journalist” for the 2009 Broad Prize for Urban Education, I accompanied an evaluation team to the five school districts recognized for having made the greatest urban school gains in the country (Gwinnett County in Georgia, Socorro and Aldine in Texas, Long Beach in California, and Broward County in Florida). That tour gave me a glimpse at exactly how to propel a district to gold-medalist status:

• Gather data, lots of it. That means testing, crunching the test data, adjusting instruction based on the results, and testing again. Educators in these school systems embrace data and assessment. So much for the complaints you hear from teachers’ unions and politicians about too much testing.

• Recruit teachers with great potential and hone them into pros with professional development targeted at specific classroom teaching strategies. The key is constructing tight bonds with nearby teacher colleges. In Long Beach, for example, a district that has been repeatedly honored in the Broad Prize competitions, district officials become part of the area’s college teaching faculty, giving them the chance to guide students learning the practice of teaching.

Why not offer some federal incentives to carry our 'good' schools to 'great'?"

• Invent your own higher standards. When Gwinnett County school officials didn’t like what Georgia education officials were asking for, they insisted on more. Everything, and I do mean everything, in that district gets filtered through those standards.

• Pry open classroom doors, and keep them propped open. That means lots of classroom visits from administrators and department heads. Are the teachers doing more than just lecturing? Are they reaching out to all children with differentiated teaching strategies? Are they following the district pacing guide, which is synched to a testing schedule, which creates the data showing what and how the teachers should be teaching? To some, that may sound Big Brotherish, but it appears to be embraced by both novice and tenured faculty members alike in Broad Prize districts.

All these factors, from teacher training to data usage, lead to one overarching master strategy: reteaching. Never heard of it? Before I visited these districts, I hadn’t either. Sounds simplistic, I realize, but it’s a core strategy used by these most-improved urban American districts, which by the way had the most success at reducing chronic income and ethnic achievement gaps.

But while reteaching may be the most important thing I saw happening in these districts, it’s rarely mentioned among national education reformers, and it’s not getting much play in Race to the Top.

Reteaching, which is not remediation, involves pinpointing the students who didn’t quite grasp a lesson (remember the constant testing and elaborate data-gathering?) and reteaching the lesson, perhaps in a different way or by a different teacher. At the core, reteaching means not giving up on kids, which is what makes these districts gold medalists.

Can the Race to the Top initiative help Fresno become Aldine, this year’s Broad Prize winner? Yes, if Secretary Duncan figures out a way to retool his program. As proposed, Race to the Top would help St. Louis establish basic, bottom-up data systems and academic standards that are necessary for success, but silver-medalist districts like Fresno need sophisticated, top-down lessons learned from high-performing districts.

Duncan can shine a spotlight on the end goal of “reteaching” by directly encouraging states to use Race to the Top money to spread best practices from districts operating at Broad Prize levels. For example, he could reward states that give the gold-medalist districts incentives to help the silver medalists master reteaching.

The pathway for accomplishing this is somewhat lit. Last year, Long Beach took on the Fresno schools as a partner in what has turned into a rewarding, two-way learning experience. Why not offer some federal incentives to expand that model nationally and carry our “good” schools to “great”?

The hole is fixable, Mr. Secretary. You’ve got the shovel.

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Hole in ‘Race to the Top’


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