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Back Online as the Race to the Top Begins

I’m catching up after two weeks in Hawaii. Although I had my computer with me, I stayed down in the alpha zone and intentionally avoided the blogosphere and dogging education policy. My youngest son, who has been teaching on the Big Island for two years now, returned to school for four days of professional development last week, and another son who teaches back here in Massachusetts was traveling with us so some discussion of education issues was not entirely avoidable. In any event much has happened in the last few weeks.

The most significant event by far was the announcement on July 24th of the draft guidelines for the application for the s0-called “Race to the Top”  funds (see Education Department Announces “Race to the Top” Guidelines below). Many members of Congress have expressed concern that our new secretary of education has unprecedented control over the distribution of over $4 billion to promote a reform agenda that was essentially developed off line. The announcement for public comment was entered into the Federal Register (35 pages) and offered in a more readable executive summary on the Department of Education’s Race to the Top website. Arne Duncan has characterized this as Education Reform’s Moon Shot in an op ed piece in the Washington Post. He indicates that the program, “… marks a new federal partnership in education reform with states, districts and unions to accelerate change and boost achievement.” This is all well and good, but at least in my mind there is a cautionary note. While the Secretary and the President speak frequently of collaboration and admittedly this is a breath of fresh air to the education community, they are not unwilling to use the velvet hammer in this “competition” for funds which is not without pre-conditions.

Two areas in which both the President and the Secretary have been very explicit are charter schools and linking test data to teacher evaluations. If you are a state that has limited the growth of charter schools by capping their growth, no matter how rational that decision, you are at a “competitive disadvantage”. If your state has been prudent in allowing the growth of alternative routes to certification you are behind the eight ball. If you  explicitly prohibit linking test data to evaluations you will be ineligible for reform dollars until you change your laws. In fact, Secretary Duncan has already been successful in convincing legislative bodies in several states that if they do “x” they will not see “y” (“y” being Race to the Top funds) from the federal government. It seems to me that this is a level of “activism” from an appointed official that should raise eyebrows on both ends of the political spectrum.

What is most troubling about the “Race to the Top” program is that it is conditioned on an agenda that was promulgated as a set of conditions for receiving desperately needed stimulus money in a way that states had really no alternative but to agree. There is no body of evidence to suggest that allowing unfettered growth of charter schools will have a dramatic impact on the performance of America’s schools, nor is there compelling evidence that pay for performance has a positive impact on student achievement. The basic elements of this agenda were embedded in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 long before Secretary Duncan began his listening tour.

We would all do well to take note of National Teacher of the Year Tony Mullen’s comments to attendee’s of CEA’s Summer Leadership Conference earlier this week. We still have a long way to go as long as our voice as teachers is subsumed by more powerful voices who have no direct experience in America’s classrooms. Just because we appear to have  an empathetic voice in President Obama does not mean that we can be complacent in the critical days ahead.

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