Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Race to the Top (of What)?

With regard to the allocation of Race to the Top (RttT) competition, a colleague of mine,  Deb, writes: "Since when should a child's education be dependent on adults 'winning' a race?"

Well Deb, it does seem to be all about winners and losers and according to a Huffington Post article, the words that were used in the grant application:

The words "charter," "evaluation," "rigor" or "standards," "assessment," "accountability," and "online" or "e-learning" were mentioned more often in winning applications. On average, winners included the phrases "professional development" and "data-driven" almost twice as often as losers.

A distinct advantage reported in the NYT also was afforded to those states who employed full time professional grant writers, as opposed to South Dakota whose grant in the first round was written by a working teacher and a community volunteer.   Seems hardly like a fair process.

Another concern with RttT is the blatant privileging of charter schools.  If a state wanted to earn 40 points out of the 500, it needed to demonstrate how it was going to increase the number of charter schools.  Given the scores for those who won, the exclusion of this "priority" would have likely rendered an application a "failure".   So given the advantage and importance then of including in the grant a plan to increase charter schools, one might assume then that there is a plethora of research that clearly indicates superior student achievement outcomes in charter schools.   

In the RAND report, Rhetoric versus Reality, Brian Gill writes "None of the studies suggest that charter-school achievement outcomes are dramatically better or worse on average than those of conventional public schools" (2001, p. xiv).  In another RAND study (Charter School Operations and Performance), Ron Zimmer writes that "charter schools generally have comparable or slightly lower test scores than do conventional public schools...Charter school students tended to do slightly worse than comparable students in math in both elementary and secondary conventional public schools" (2003, xxii-xxiii). 

The research published by Economic Policy Institute and Teachers College Press that was conducted by Carnoy, Jacobsen, Mishel and Rothstein (2005) state that "based on 19 studies, conducted in 11 states and the District of Columbia, there is no evidence that, on average, charter schools out-perform regular public schools. In fact, there is evidence that the average impact of charter schools is negative" (p. 2).


Okay, so no improvement in student achievement.  Why then the privileging? Why would the USDOE allocate $4.35 billion and ensure states pushed for the development of charters when the research does not show academic gains?

Consider what the DOE claims: 

Awards in Race to the Top will go to States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform. Race to the Top winners will help trail-blaze effective reforms and provide examples for States and local school districts throughout the country to follow as they too are hard at work on reforms that can transform our schools for decades to come.
Why would our government want us to follow that which research says does not clearly improve student achievement? Where exactly does this trail, blazing or not, actually lead?  It makes me wonder if RttT is nothing more than a dressed up and more expensive version of Reading First.  Remember that when Reading First was authorized, schools districts that won grants were forced to purchase "proven" reading materials.  By 2007, none of the proven materials were included on the USDOE's website "What Works Clearinghouse" as these products did not have the requisite research to merit their inclusion. Tons of dollars were channeled to a few companies who certainly got wealthier.  Is this the same prospect with RttT?  Are we throwing dollars at some trumped up promise with the hope that something catches and "works"?  And we might well ask, works for whom? In what conditions? 

"Improvement," Richard Elmore (2000) suggests, "is more a function of learning to do the right thing in the setting where you work than it is what you know when you start to do the work" (p.25).  Developing the capacity to be responsive to emerging conditions appears to be a critical factor in occasioning improved outcomes for learners.  Yet, privileging the development of local sensibilities and capacities to be responsive to such changes is absent from the RttT. By its very name, we can assume there is a bottom, some "other" that serves as the base one must move from as the winning states race off to find some top. 

I wonder how long it will take for us to stop racing about and learn to dwell where we reside—to be present in the actual moment so that we can take measure of local circumstances?   All these large scale initiatives, like RttT frankly have me worried.  I wish for once, our government might consider Wendell Berry's advice.  He aptly observed that we would be wise to "learn to prefer small-scale elegance" (1989, p. 22).


  1. I agree, in the main, Ms. Reilly - education was always meant to be handled on a local State by State basis, as our Constitution clearly "spells" out...

  2. John, I think we might have met once when we each had art in NYC gallery. Didn't you make that lovely image of the reservoir in West Milford? If so, know that I never pass that spot without thinking of the work you had in the show. Please call me Mary Ann.

    Interesting perspective to consider what the Constitution framed. Thanks John.


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