The readings for today’s class centered on the Obama Administration’s “Race To The Top” program and two commentaries about how the Administration has handled the inherited NCLB and the flaws that persist in the “solutions” they have offered.
As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, President Obama announced the US Department of Education’s competitive grant program focused on K-12 schools: The Race to the Top (RTTT) Program. The program promotes “innovative strategies that are most likely to lead to improved results for students.” The applications for these grants centers around four core reform areas listed in order of point value from highest to lowest: Teacher and Leader Development (138 pts), Standards and Assessments (70 pts), Turning around the lowest achieving schools (50 pts), and Data Systems to Support Instruction (47pts). In addition to these categories, there are two additional sections: State Success Factors (125 pts) and General Selection Criteria (55 pts).
In theory, RTTT does depart from NCLB in a few subtle ways. It redefines “effective teacher” to mean one that helps students improve by one grade level, which is a more realistic and less “back-loaded” approach. There is also emphasis on academic areas that lead to a well-rounded education, such as foreign languages, government, PE and service learning.
At first glance, it seems that since participation is voluntary and reward-based that this less punitive policy would have more positive effects. However when examined more closely, one can see that it is riddled with implications that are favorable to corporations and are biased towards wealthy states, hereby increasing the achievement gap. When the content of each category is specifically examined, RTTT is clearly not the panacea our public schools have been waiting for. There are multiple provisions that encourage free expansion of charter schools, open up opportunities for independent corporations and providers, and promote “alternative routes to teacher certification.” Furthermore, the point distribution indicates the order of the program’s priorities: the highest point value is focused on teacher development/redistribution while one of the lowest point values is awarded to turning around struggling schools.
The two commentaries are authored by Stan Karp of rethinkingschoolsblog who scrutinizes how the Obama administration has incorporated NCLB into its education policy. In his first article, “NCLB Waivers Give Bad Policy New Lease on Life” (2/12), Karp addresses Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s waiver process. Although touted as a measure that permits “flexibility” for states, Karp argues that these waivers in fact “allow states to reproduce some of the worst aspects of NCLB’s ‘test-and-punish’ approach” while also ignoring problems like poverty and equitable funding. This policy also favors private education corporations and testing companies, while continuing to punish teachers and schools who are associated with low scores. He makes a point to show the correlation between policies that promote standardized testing and punishing high-need schools, and the widening of the achievement gap, which has grown by 40% since the 1960’s. He concludes his commentary with a harsh recommendation that Arne Duncan be fired for this deceiving policy.
His next opinion piece, “School Reform We Can’t Believe In” (4/12) Karp immediately takes a stab at the Obama Administration promising to reform education in America while hypocritically only promoting change that wouldn’t be too “disruptive” to the current system. In this article he goes into more depth about the issue of education reform (or lack thereof). Again, he demonstrates how private interests are hidden beneath a façade of “improvement” and “excellence.” However, he also highlights specifically how high-need students suffer the most under this type of high-stakes testing model of education. Karp states, “it’s stunning that the first African American president has increased federal education spending by $100 billion without directing a dime to promote integrated public education.” Although “College for All” is a popular catchphrase for Duncan, this is vastly different from the reality of his policy. Of 100 school districts (which serve 40% of all students of color in America) 67 districts only graduate 33% of their students. Clearly, his policy has excluded students who need help the most. He concludes his article by hypothesizing that in the past, progressive policies promoted by FDR and LBJ were possible because of popular mobilization and powerful left-wing and labor movements. Real change appears to be contingent not on charismatic and promising leaders, but on “pressure from below” by the people.