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Stop Race to the Top

Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’
Who’ll blink first: the unions, or the White House?

JULY 30, 2009

The Obama Administration unveiled its new “Race to the Top” initiative late last week, in which it will use the lure of $4.35 billion in federal cash to induce states to improve their K-12 schools. This is going to be interesting to watch, because if nothing else the public school establishment is no longer going to be able to say that lack of money is its big problem.

Four billion dollars is a lot of money, but it’s a tiny percentage of what the U.S. spends on education. The Department of Education estimates that the U.S. as a whole spent $667 billion on K-12 education in the 2008-09 school year alone, up from $553 billion in 2006-07. The stimulus bill from earlier this year includes some $100 billion more in federal education spending—an unprecedented amount. The tragedy is that nearly all of this $100 billion is being dispensed to the states by formula, which allows school districts to continue resisting reform while risking very little in overall federal funding.

All of this is on top of the education spending boom during the Bush years to pay for the 2001 No Child Left Behind law. Democrats liked to claim that law was “underfunded,” but the reality is that inflation-adjusted Education Department elementary and secondary spending under President Bush grew to $37.9 billion from $28.3 billion, or 34%. NCLB-specific funding rose by more than 40% between 2001 and 2008.

It’s also worth noting that the U.S. has been trying without much success to spend its way to education excellence for decades. Between 1970 and 2004, per-pupil outlays more than doubled in real terms, and the federal portion of that spending nearly tripled. Yet reading scores on national standardized tests have remained relatively flat. Black and Hispanic students are doing better, but they continue to lag far behind white students in both test scores and graduation rates.

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.”

Sounds great, though this White House is, at the behest of the unions, also shuttering a popular school voucher program that its own evaluation shows is improving test scores for low-income minorities in Washington, D.C. The Administration can expect more such opposition to “Race to the Top.” School choice is anathema to the nation’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which also oppose paying teachers for performance rather than for seniority and credentials.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel told the Washington Post last week that charter schools and merit pay raise difficult issues for his members, yet Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said states that block these reforms could jeopardize their grant eligibility. We’ll see who blinks first. The acid test is whether Messrs. Duncan and Obama are willing to withhold money from politically important states as the calendar marches toward 2012.

Stop Race to the Top
Pointe Viven - Jesse Bluma. All rights reserved.

It is not easy for politicians to negatively criticize the same people they wish to get votes from for election.  That goes for presidents, school board members, and state assemblymen.  It is far easier to blame state test results on too many bad teachers than to hold up a mirror to society.  The next time you hear a politician, TV host, or radio personality blame the state of education on too many bad teachers, ask them for their statistics, their proof, the numbers.  Yes, there are a few teachers that do not belong in teaching.  The story does not end there.  What are the real factors?


Self-reported grades: students predict their performance  1.44
Reinforcement 1.13
Instructional quality 1.00
Summarizing .82
Remediation/feedback .65
Study Skills .59
Student created specific goals .56
Phonics and Phonemic Awareness 0.53 (reading comprehension) .59 (spelling)
Challenge of Goals .52
Homework .43
Computers 0.37
Testing .30
Teacher Education 0.11
Reading:  whole language .06


Students prior cognitive ability 1.04
Students disposition to learn .61

Home influences

Parental aspirations for children’s educational achievement .80
Home factors .67
Home environment (socio-psychological) .57
Parent involvement .46
Transiency/mobility -0.34 (that is a negative)

Social influences

Peer .38
Television -.12 (that is a negative)

Professor John Hattie
 BA, DipEd, PGDipArts, MA(Hons) (Otago), PhD (Toronto)
Director, Melbourne Education Research Institute
University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education

"Learning is spontaneous, individualistic, and often earned through effort. It is a timeworn, slow, gradual, fits-and-starts kind of process, which can have a flow of its own, but requires passion, patience, and attention to detail (from the teacher and the student)” --Professor John Hattie.

Parental aspirations for their children has a larger impact on student learning than feedback from teachers, study skills, homework, testing, and teacher education.  Transiency, especially common in states like California with large populations of new immigrants, has a negative impact.  When was the last time your political representative or favorite TV or radio host mentioned these numbers?

Schoolboards across the nation are looking for money and they are finding it by signing on to Obama's Race to the Top.  Some of these districts are in contract negotiations with teachers, such as Saddleback Valley Unified in Mission Viejo, California.  This and other districts are proposing teacher pay and employment be tied to student test scores.  How do you want your teachers and fellow Americans paid?  Is it right to compare state test results of teachers with a lot of students learning America English to those with classes of students largely proficient in the language?

I can add my own anecdotal story.  The first school I worked at had a large population of students learning American English, it lacked a parent population with great aspirations, and had a transient population.  (About 40% of students in California come from non-English language homes.)  Due to layoffs and the seniority bumping process (another story for another time) I was placed at a GATE ("Gifted and Talented") magnet school.  Guess what, the scores of my students went up.  Did I suddenly become a much better teacher and earn the right to a higher salary and continued employment?  Reality is unexpected, it's hard and ugly, and most of all it's complex.  Don't settle for the same old script, we deserve better than this.  Students deserve better.

                   MICHELLE G. BERELOWITZ
    Director, Center for Community Collaboration 
California State University, Fullerton

Please join in and contact your representatives.  
Sample letter to school board members and state polticians

Dear  ______________________,

We appreciate the work you are doing for the citizens of __________ and hope you will give the following request your strongest support. Do not apply for the Race to the Top grant. The money might look attractive now, it does not though help to effectively improve education.  Additionally, it will allow a new regulatory agency to have control over family child care, nannies, private schools, etc.  Let's work together to improve our national aspirations, attitudes, and better deal with immigrant challenges.  This will truly impact education for the better.



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