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Answer Sheet
Posted at 02:00 AM ET, 03/23/2012

Why not Race to the Top for political reform?

This was written by Julie A. Gorlewski, assistant professor of secondary education at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

By Julie A. Gorlewski

Why should schools have all the fun? If the policies undergirding the Race to the Top education reform are good enough for learning, shouldn’t we use them to improve other public systems? Let’s start with political reform.

Polls clearly show that our political system is failing and in desperate need of improvement. Elected leaders oversee a system marked by a deteriorating infrastructure; bloated and ineffective local, state, and federal budgets; high unemployment; a burst housing bubble; inadequate environmental regulation and corporate oversight; and futile military operations — just to name a few. In the face of such extensive, pervasive failure, the need for reform is clear. And, with Race to the Top as a model, the means is equally obvious.

If you are unfamiliar with the principles behind Obama’s Race to the Top legislation, it is, as its name implies, built around competition. States submit proposals that for grant funds to supplement their shrinking budgets. Proposals, which must meet strict guidelines with respect to teacher and student evaluation (some of which conflict with existing collective bargaining agreements), compete for funding; in general, the more successful systems gain access to additional funding.

In short, rather than providing additional resources to communities most in need, funds are allocated to schools and systems that demonstrate compliance and success. Most importantly, success is measured by student scores on standardized assessments. Decades of test-based reform have shown that high-stakes tests are detrimental to teaching and learning. Past and current research proves standardized tests do not improve student achievement.

However, standardized assessments produce easily ranked numbers, which are convenient for manipulating public opinion. Since the perception of failure enables politicians and corporate leaders to fulfill a variety of profit related goals (breaking collective bargaining agreements, employing education-management companies, and selling curriculum materials), the complex realities of teaching and learning — and the invaluable contributions that public education provides for our society — are irrelevant. What matters are numerical representations of achievement: scores and rankings that can be linked to revenue (such as future earnings of students or the economic success of the United States).

If this is our vision of a good society, then this type of accountability should be implemented widely and broadly. I suggest we start with political leaders. They might wish to begin with their own staff members, who would take a test, then be ranked according to their scores (it should be noted that the standardized achievement tests used to evaluate teachers are norm referenced and are, therefore, only useful if they result in a range of results. That is, a test that everyone scores well on would be considered a failure. In keeping with the metaphor of a race, the purpose of the assessments is to create winners – and losers.)

Even if a politician’s staff is performing brilliantly, one or two of the team members would be identified as in need of improvement. And unless improvement is demonstrated (on the next battery of tests), the lowest achievers would be fired and new staff members would replace them.

Now, if those employees were on the public payroll, some of them might try to avoid the consequences of their low scores, since collective bargaining agreements should protect them from unfair termination (this is especially relevant if those low achievers were had better salaries and benefits than new hires would). If we follow the Race to the Top model, collective bargaining agreements would not stand in the way of improved political system, since states that signed on to Race to the Top were required to obtain union approval for the new evaluation systems.

So, this test-based system for evaluating political staff members has two proven benefits. First, it ensures that only the top-ranked employees keep their positions, thus guaranteeing efficiency and effectiveness. Second, it allows for taxpayer savings, since more expensive employees can be terminated without the complication of collective bargaining protections.

Now, critics might worry about the validity of tests for measuring characteristics of a successful political staffer. Clearly, this is not a worry shared by school reformers, who have faith that the assessments produced by test-making corporations are valid, reliable and meaningful. The fact that decades of research have proven otherwise, producing scholarship demonstrating that high-stakes standardized tests reinforce social inequality and are subject to corrupting influences at every level of implementation, should not stand in the way of reform.

Which leads us to the next logical step in this reform: testing political leaders. If it’s important to see how well students and staffers rate, it seems critical to ascertain the abilities of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of our government. Elections are a worthwhile endeavor, but they have inherent deficiencies. First, they occur infrequently, allowing undeserving politicians to remain in office for years; tests could be administered annually, or even several times a year, if necessary. Second, voters are subjective; test scores are neutral and impartial –a tangible measure of value. Clearly, elections are not nearly as dependable as test scores. And I am sure that, given a fair bidding process, numerous corporations would be willing to develop and profit from set of assessments intended to rank politicians. The expense is likely to be far less than campaign costs.

Testing is being touted as the means of making the U.S. education system competitive, even world-class. If we want the United States to be remain a world leader, shouldn’t reform start with our own leaders?

Ask them to join the race. It’s only fair.

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