Friday, December 18, 2009

The Race to the Top (Education reform #42187)

(News-Herald, December 17) I’m sorry. I didn’t think we’d be talking about this sort of thing during the pre-Christmas rush. My cynical side suspects that certain people were kind of counting on that.
As part of the federal initiative to stimulate everything that walks, crawls and breathes by throwing money at it, a giant dollar pile has been set up to throw at education. It’s called “Race to the Top,” and apparently the first part of the race is to the top of that mountain of money.
States are being given the chance to compete for educational stimulus money—many are called, but only a few will be paid off. Only a few states can win a slice of pork pie by showing their willingness to scrap their own educational visions and do as Washington wants them to.
The feds have four goals they want to see states pursue:
1) Adopt super-duper standards and assessments.
2) Get big-time data crunching systems in place.
3) Recruiting, retaining and rewarding top teachers.
4) Fixing low-achieving schools.
Noble goals, though DC also has very specific ideas about how to pursue them. Goals 1 and 2 translate into more high stakes testing and centralized control of local curriculum, with lots of sophisticated bean-counting. In Pennsylvania, that will mean the PSSA, Keystone exams and PVAAS boondoggle will be given fresh coats of paint and set in cement.
Goal 3 would require some of the biggest shifts in local focus; there isn’t any school district in Venangoland that makes even a token effort to recruit and retain the tops in the teaching field. Most depend on a hiring technique known as “Hope We Get Lucky.” The troubling part of Goal 3 is that it appears the feds would like to see merit pay (and de-merit pay) based on student test results.
Goals 1-3 require camouflage and paperwork. Goal 4 has real teeth. In the Pennsylvania version, a school that is deemed too under par has three choices—replace the principal and at least half the teachers, convert the school to a charter school, or simply close the school and ship the students out.
This is particularly exciting when you remember that under current No Child Left Behind goals, every school in the state will fail (or cheat) within the next four years.
States will compete for free federal money by racking up points based on various criteria, most measuring how willing the state is to submit federal demands. One of the criteria is how well the state can guarantee that local school districts will go along, and so each school district is being asked to sign a letter agreeing to follow the state’s plan. The local school districts hand the keys to the store over to the state, who in turn hands them over to the feds.
Everybody remotely serious about education knows that accountability is absolutely necessary. We should be able to tell you what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how successfully it has been done. But everybody remotely serious about education also knows that the way to get there is not with one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter programs poorly measured by a handful of high stakes tests.
So why are so many people who ought to know better lining up to declare that yes, indeed, the emperor’s new clothes are beautiful?
You remember that mountain of money. Some of the promotional material for RTTT notes proudly that half of the federal money will actually makes its way to local districts. The rest presumably will stay in Harrisburg to buy really nice, shiny bean counting machinery.
The program is complicated and still-changing, but it is worth noting that many of its details are not supported by a shred of the sort of data these reformers claim to revere. Even if you think a bureaucrat in DC is the best person to design curriculum for our local school districts, I believe in my heart that some of what’s being pushed here is bad educational policy.
Harrisburg has been asked to sell off our schools and sell out its educational principles. The state could say no. So could local districts.
And while you may think that such a sweeping retooling of American public education might be accompanied by discussion, you’d be wrong. In the tradition of great Harrisburg initiatives (midnight pay raise, property tax “reform,” I-80 tolls) this is being handled like a greased pig in a wind tunnel. Your local district must make its decision and let Harrisburg know by December 18. Tomorrow.

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