Stop the Race to National Standards and Race to the Top

In Current Events, Education, Election Politics on January 8, 2011 at 20:29

Barack O’Bush has done his darndest to retain the 32 conservative votes he got in 2008, James Garner fans who were angry that McCain used the term “Maverick”. One of his ideas to keep those 32 Republican votes he got in 2008 is to promote the idea of “accountability” in our schools. And by “accountability”, Obama and his Education Secretary Arnie Duncan mean more testing, more uniformity, more charter schools and more punishment for creative teachers that try to help students love learning as autonomous human beings.

Obama’s success has been to outdo Bush’s No Child Left Behind and its race to the bottom with his own Race to the Top (RTTT). Race to the Top is a high stakes contest that pits state against state for a pool of $4 billion dollars to be doled out in two, or perhaps three or more stages depending on whether the funding is renewed.

Here’s how Race to the Top works.

The basic idea is to force state governments to compete for $4.35 billion in federal assistance, with the money going to those states which do the most to promote charter schools, utilize standardized testing, and weaken workplace rules for teachers. Essentially, the scheme sets up a bidding war among the states for desperately needed funds on the basis of an anti-public education agenda that has been promoted for decades by the right wing.

Pitting schools, districts, states and teachers against one another for measly sums of money won’t promote real educational reform. It will promote rule following and conformity.

From the Race to the Top website http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/index.html :

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.

And by “educational reform” they mean how well they use tests to grade teachers and how many charter schools they plan to open.

To read about the application process, go here: http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/pdf/E9-27427.pdf

Link to the Race to the top score card and points system

Instead of trying to fund the schools that demonstrate a need for funding based on material resources and help student’s need, Obama and Duncan assumed setting up a contest with winners and losers was the best way to get schools and local education agencies (LEAs) to do what Obama and Duncan want. Is competition between schools for dwindling resources the best way to improve schools? Is “racing” for money the best way to improve education, or is it just the best way to enforce compliance to a testing regimen that has failed in the past?

Remember, the states that get the grants are the states that have promised to, “implement merit pay for teachers, adopt national common core standards and assessment and expand charter schools all received higher points on their applications.”

So, teachers’ pay has to be based on how well little John or Sally or Juan or Chin or Liliana does on a standardized test that is only valid if you don’t considered the cultural and economic variations of all students everywhere. And, RTTT gives extra points for creating more charter schools. Both merit pay and charter schools are ways to bust teacher’s unions everywhere, but if you don’t start busting, you don’t get the extra $75 million as Hawaii received when they received the second round of pay outs for running schools the way the feds want them to. Where’s the tea party anger over Race to the Top that wants to create federal mandates and standards for schools that are run locally and by the states.

Many of the things promised on the Hawaii plan are already part of school districts all over the nation. They have to follow a core set of standards. Every school system and state follows a set of standards. But race to the top makes these standards national, as if every student everywhere has the same educational needs or not all standards adequately require math and English skills sufficiently to get them a job. http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/national.htm

You couldn’t trust teachers to follow the standards and they just might use creative non-linear methods to teach material, damn them. You must have some federal agency enforce a core set of standards. As one long time teacher pointed out to me recently, we now have a school superintendent in Arizona that never taught in public schools telling her, a 23 year veteran of Tucson Schools, what to do. He was elected because he is a wealthy Republican, not because he knows a thing about public education. We need laws that only certified teachers can be elected to head the schools in the state.

“Apart from the fact that they’re unnecessary, a key premise of national standards, as the University of Chicago’s Zalman Usiskin observed, is that “our teachers cannot be trusted to make decisions about which curriculum is best for their schools.”  Moreover, uniformity doesn’t just happen – and continue – on its own.  To get everyone to apply the same standards, you need top-down control.”

Once again, academics years away from the classroom, and politicians, few of who have experience teaching K-12 or teaching in a poor district or any where else for that matter, have decided what and how we should teach students. In addition, they decided we should compete for education money instead of providing funding as needed. This punitive model of education reinforces the stratification between students and districts.

Certainly there are bad teachers. And there are underperforming schools. But setting up a contest for schools to compete to see who will acquiesce to the federal government’s idea of what is good for students is more is something out of a reality TV than public policy. RTTT gives extra money to those schools and LEAs (Local Education Agencies) that promise to do what the government tells them to do. Only the schools that most successfully get students to regurgitate answers on a standardized test and thus get the highest scores will get the extra money. Also, the LEAs must promise the most uniformity and match what the federal government considers best.

So now comes “Race to the Top,” which the Obama Administration claims will reward only those states that raise their academic standards, improve teacher quality and expand the reach of charter schools. “This competition will not be based on politics, ideology or the preferences of a particular interest group,” said President Obama on Friday. “Instead, it will be based on a simple principle—whether a state is ready to do what works. We will use the best data available to determine whether a state can meet a few key benchmarks for reform, and states that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant.”


And Obama and those who have wholeheartedly bought the high stakes testing model will tell you what’s best. The problem with this is that academic improvement does not take into account the various systems’ needs and punishes schools with poor populations who have fewer resources to teach to the tests. Also, standardized testing is NOT the best way to gage educational advancement, it only tells us what communities have the money to teach to the test. (See Alfie Kohn’s The Case Against Standardized Testing.)

Alfie Kohn talks about Race to the Top in this interview for Education News:

I see this initiative – which, tellingly, has been spearheaded not by educators but by politicians, corporate executives, and testing companies – as a further tightening of the noose.  It’s an intensification of a top-down, test-driven version of school reform that goes the next step to deprive teachers and local communities of autonomy.  It’s a logical extension of what’s already been done to us:  the prescriptive standards and tests issued from state capitals, Many Children Left Behind, and the ghastly “Race to the Top” (which is like a TV reality show designed to see how far state officials are willing to abase themselves, and how many ludicrous and destructive policies they’ll be willing to adopt, for money).”


I wrote my comparison of Race to the Top to a reality show before reading this. But Mr. Kohn is absolutely correct in his evaluation of Race to the Top. Whatever happened to improving education for everyone? It’s sad to see that this idea has been driven from our national discourse by models pushed by those that will benefit politically and financially from schools in competition.

Another goal of RTTT is to create a national set of standards. Again, I wonder where the tea party anger is on this one?

Alfie Kohn crushes the idea of national school standards in this Education Week article:

“Are all kids entitled to a great education?  Of course.  But that doesn’t mean all kids should get the same education.  High standards don’t require common standards.  Uniformity is not the same thing as excellence – or equity.  (In fact, one-size-fits-all demands may offer the illusion of fairness, setting back the cause of genuine equity.)  To acknowledge these simple truths is to watch the rationale for national standards – or uniform state standards — collapse into a heap of intellectual rubble.”

Then Mr. Kohn takes on the irrational promotion of competition based educational models for improving our schools,

“…And then there are the policy makers who confuse doing well with beating others.  If you’re determined to evaluate students or schools in relative terms, it helps if they’re all doing the same thing.  But why would we want to turn learning into a competitive sport?”

Education is not a zero sum game. If one school, or class, or student does well, it does not follow that other schools or classes or students can’t do well also. The goal should be improving all schools, not rewarding a few to the detriment of others.

The ultimate goal of national standards is to create a top down model that takes the teacher out of the equation. It is the dumbing down or our education system and a return to the factory model of schools that was widely discredited in the 1960s and 70s. They want national control because they don’t trust teachers (or their unions). And if there are national standards, they have to create national tests and make more money off the sale of test materials.

“The goal clearly isn’t to nourish children’s curiosity, to help them fall in love with reading and thinking, to promote both the ability and the disposition to think critically, or to support a democratic society.  Rather, a prescription for uniform, specific, rigorous standards is made to order for those whose chief concern is to pump up the American economy and make sure that we triumph over people who live in other countries.”

Yes, we want excellent teaching and learning for all — although our emphasis should be less on student achievement (read: test scores) than on students’ achievements.  Offered a list of standards, we should scrutinize each one but also ask who came up with them and for what purpose.  Is there room for discussion and disagreement — and not just by experts — regarding what, and how, we’re teaching and how authentic our criteria are for judging success?  Or is this a matter of “obey or else,” with tests to enforce compliance?

The standards movement, sad to say, morphed long ago into a push for standardization.  The last thing we need is more of the same.

So, we can cede our responsibility over teacher to a national authority that seems more concerned with creating drones out of teachers and students. We can tell students that show interesting in topics out side the core standards that they are out of luck. We can tell them that education isn’t really for their good, it is for the benefit of our nation, in reality our corporations, and that they better learn what we tell them to learn. We can set national core standards and ignore teachers’ creativity and local educational goals and the interests of the children and do exactly what the national government dictates. Isn’t this what the Soviet’s did in their schools. Do we really want to emulate that statist model? Again, where is the tea party on this?

It’s good to have standards. But let’s not standardize education for all students everywhere. If we do, more students will be lost because the curriculum will not meet their individual needs, interests or match the culture and economy of the place and time they live in.

More articles by Mr. Kohn:

The best thing to do is reject national standards and Race to the Top at every school board meeting, every town hall, every PTA meeting and every classroom.

Give Education Secretary Arne Duncan the boot, petition:

Race to Nowhere, a new documentary film

The White House
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Just ask for the office of your Senator or Representative

House of Representatives: http://www.house.gov/house/house_comments.shtml

Senate: http://www.senate.gov/

Tex Shelters

  1. Will have to come back and leave a message relevant to your post. At the moment, I’m just greatly relieved to know you weren’t grocery shopping where Giffords was shot this morning.

    • Thanks Little Sun. I am too shocked and sad to say much right now. Besides, I want to learn more about it before reacting.

      Tex Shelters

  2. State education doesnt work. The proof is in the pudding.

    • What do you consider “state education”?

      Who should educate people then?

      Do you mean “government” education, or would you be okay with “local” education.

      It worked for me and my sibling. Did you get a “state” education?

      Tex Shelters

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