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Federal reforms may change everything

Race to the Top may lead to standardized U.S. education

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Big changes may be in store for schools, stemming from Race to the Top, a program sponsored by the Obama administration. The centerpiece of the president’s education efforts, the program has quietly started to transform the way students, teachers, and curricula are evaluated nationally.

Supporters of the $4.35-billion program say it will dramatically improve K-12 education and the president is so ardent, he threatened to veto a supplemental education funding bill when House Democrats tried to siphon away $800 million of Race to the Top money for teacher salaries. The Senate reinstated the money.

Race to the Top is the brainchild of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who formerly ran the Chicago school system. Unlike past federal education reform initiatives, Race to the Top is an incentive program,“using a carrot instead of a stick,” according to Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

Race to the Top offers money to states that adhere to its standards. To qualify, states must promote charter schools, tie teacher evaluations to student achievement, and adopt high standards for curricula. The government has staged two contests to award money; the first contest offered $600 million and was won by Delaware and Tennessee. The second offers $3.4 billion; 35 states
applied, with 18 states announced as finalists on July 27, including California.

Some of the program’s detractors claim Race to the Top amounts to No Child Left Behind in a more appealing package, which was a controversial George W. Bush-era reform effort that mandated testing. Hamilton disputes this.

“No child left behind offered states a thousand ways to fail,” Hamilton said. “Race to the Top incentivizes reform and lets states decide what paths to take for reform. We create the goalposts and the states decide how to get there.”

Race to the Top requires states to present detailed plans on how they will reform their education systems. The federal government then evaluates the proposals by assigning points for different reforms to see how well states have performed.

California’s Board of Education voted
Aug. 2 to adopt common core standards—a nationwide educational standard—that helped qualify the state for Race to the Top money. Along with 34 other states, the adoption of the standards has advanced the nation toward a longtime goal of educational reformers: a standard curriculum for every state education system.

The biggest category on the Education Department’s score sheet relates to teachers and administrators; more than 50 points can be awarded to states that “improve teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance.” California has taken the relatively mild step of passing legislation that removes the firewall between student achievement and teacher evaluations.

This has not gone over well with California’s teachers’ unions.

   “We have some real concerns with the over-emphasis on test scores,” observed Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association, the largest teachers' union in the state. “They made some changes but tying teacher evaluations to student performance is not the way to go.”

   The CTA’s official position on linking teacher performance to student scores is firm: “These scores become the basis for teacher compensation, evaluation, and dismissal. Teacher effectiveness is thus tied to test scores, which may differ for an individual teacher from class to class, year to year, and even from test to test. Current state tests are not designed, and consequently not valid, for the purpose of determining student or school success, much less teacher success.”

Others view Race to the Top differently. “I think the most significant part of it is it makes a substantial move toward federal control of education,” said Julian D. Crocker, superintendent of San Luis Obispo county schools. Crocker said it will lead to a national standard for students in English and math.

“To get federal money in No Child Left Behind all you had to do was show you were improving your test scores,” said Crocker. “The trouble with that is, some states dumbed down their tests [to circumvent the rules].”

If states want to earn federal assistance in these increasingly difficult financial times, they will have to toe the line. California has not had to change much so far to advance in the Race to the Top bidding. The state’s curriculum and test standards were already high—one reason statewide test scores are among the lowest in the country. “Policy changes in the long term will all have an effect,” said Crocker. “There will be more charter schools and eventually testing to a nationwide standard.” ∆

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be contacted via rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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