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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 02/02/2012

How Race to the Top is like ‘Queen for a Day’

This was written by James Arnold, superintendent of Pelham City Schools in Pelham, Ga.

By James Arnold

How wonderful it was when we were told that Georgia had won the second round of the Race to the Top sweepstakes. The application -- submitted by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and his team and amended from the first application, which was almost but not quite good enough -- had been successful in conducting a survey that nobody remembered taking AND in meeting the U.S. Education Department guidelines. And our lucky state was about to receive $400 million dollars and a little change.

  The first announcement made after the award was won declared that about $200 million – around half — was to be reserved for “administrative costs.” Most of the other money was to go to the 26 or so volunteer districts around the state that would pilot programs for the rest of Georgia school districts. Among these pilot programs were the Teacher Evaluation Measure and the Leader Evaluation Measure.

Both evaluation measures must, in accordance with the Race to the Top guidelines, tie a percentage of the evaluative scores to student academic achievement.  How this was to be accomplished was left up to the Race to the Top recipients.  Whether it was sound financial or educational practice was taken as a given, even without extant research supporting such a massive expenditure. 

When I think of Race to the Top, an old television show comes to mind.

Those of us born near the middle of the previous century remember the early years of the television industry, and how the medium began almost as an entertainment afterthought and quickly grew into the intrusive social construct of today.  Some early shows were precursors of the current fascination with reality TV. 

One of these early reality shows was “ Queen For A Day ” hosted by Jack Bailey.It began as a popular radio show and in the early 50’s made the transition to television.  Contestants told their pitiful stories of poverty, hard luck, physical ailments and family sorrows to live audiences that responded with applause as measured by the “applause meter.” Jack had the ability to ask each contestant questions guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of every audience member.

Those with the saddest stories almost always got the most applause.  The winner was chosen to receive whatever the prize package was for that day, usually washers and dryers and appliances donated by sponsors.  The gifts, of course, were expected to change the lives of the winner from hopelessness and despair to instant happiness and fulfillment.  The audiences and sponsors were left with the illusion that their applause and choices and contributions had helped to miraculously and vicariously change the world for the better.  They didn’t, and those unlucky contestants whose stories were not pitiful enough to register at the top of the applause meter went back to their hopeless situations that were still, well, hopeless, and the winners enjoyed momentary celebrity status until they too were quickly relegated to yesterday’s news.

Race to the Top is marketed as a “solution” for states and districts in search of reform.  The catch — as with all federal money — is the cash comes with strings that will continue the emphasis on high-stakes testing and the top-down management theories that were the basis of No Child Left Behind. The U.S. Education Department wants teacher evaluations tied to student test scores regardless of how it is done, and they want it done quickly. 

Asked about the lack of research during a presentation to school administrators from Georgia, Education Department Assistant Superintendent Teresa MacCartney replied, “We are hoping the research will catch up with us in a few years.”  I admire her optimism, but deplore the fact that $400 million will be spent on the development and integration of a teacher evaluation method with no evidence whatsoever to support a positive effect on student achievement.  That’s not a string; it’s a rope.

In addition to the strings tied tightly to Race to the Top, these same requirements are tied to the waivers offered to states by the Education Department from No Child Left Behind.  These waivers are based on the acceptance and implementation of a system to evaluate teachers on the basis of student progress on high stakes achievement tests.  Those teachers who teach subjects where testing is not currently done will be evaluated on Student Learning Objectives.  Look to Tennessee, New York and Hawaii to learn how effective this method has been and how teachers have reacted.  It’s not very hard to imagine the same teacher backlash to a hastily devised, quickly implemented, poorly researched, do-it-because-we-know-what’s-good-for-you evaluation method in Georgia.

President Obama used the State of the Union address to deplore the fact that teachers are required to teach to the test, but his policies for Race to the Top and his NCLB waivers require teacher evaluations to be tied in part to student test scores on these same tests.  He can’t have it both ways.

The Common Core standards will serve not to improve student achievement but to allow politicians to rank states and systems and schools in a gigantic expansion of what we currently see in the zip code effect.  The effects of poverty and socio-economic factors on education will continue to be largely ignored in our infatuation with the belief that student achievement will improve through intensified measurement. 

The “teach the test” and “test prep” and “testing pep rallies” environment will grow stronger through the implementation of annual growth measurements (annual growth = 100% - 2011 proficiency rate of first time test takers divided by 6) that will serve as almost insurmountable incentives for teachers to teach to the test, by the test and for the test.

Race to the Top is not an answer to the question of educational reform, but merely an expansion of the influence of corporate interests that are following the money inexplicably spent in a futile attempt to quantify the unquantifiable.

 Like “Queen for a Day,” the aid offered to contestants is a by-product and not the reason for the program.  Tests, we must remember, are developed, pushed and sold by testing companies with no vested interest in student achievement.  They are marketed to bureaucrats and politicians looking for an easy fix to a complex problem, and serve little or no purpose beyond teaching our students to become experts in bubble- in testing methodology.  They perpetuate the myth of the effectiveness of top-down bureaucratic leadership that doesn’t work for business and has never worked for education either.  We continue to forget the reform in education must be led by teachers and educators from the local level up and not the other way around.  The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill, for all his faults, got this one right; “All politics is local.”

He could have included education in that one, too.  “Queen for a Day” was never meant to alleviate poverty or the desperate conditions of the contestants, just as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers are not meant to improve student achievement.  Both are extensions of corporate intrusion and self interest.

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