A school district that is a finalist for the soon-to-be announced $1 million 2011 Broad Prize for Urban Education is embarking on a public relations effort — funded with U.S. government and Gates Foundation money — to end public opposition to its school reform program, which includes a slew of new standardized tests.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina is using Race to the Top money — which wasn’t intended to fund public relations efforts — and $200,000 in Gates Foundation money for the campaign.

First reported in The Charlotte Observer, the hirings come after the district this past spring field-tested 52 new exams, initially designed to help evaluate teachers by how well their students perform on the tests.

That move was met with negative publicity and protests from parents and teachers who questioned the value of the initiative. Students also complained, including a high school student who wrote a column titled “Why Do I have to Take a Standardized Test in Yearbook Class?

The linking of teacher evaluation and pay to student standardized test scores is controversial — leading researchers say it is not a reliable and valid way to assess teachers — but it has become popular among modern school reformers across the country, supported by the Obama administration.

Since most school systems have traditionally only given students standardized tests in a few subjects, there is a push to develop new exams across the curriculum so that teachers can be evaluated. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, officials had planned to have tests in every subject, including art and music.

Lauren Bell, media relations specialist for the district, confirmed that Race to the Top money was being used to fund the positions, which, the Observer said, have salaries from $47,070 to $59,955 annually for three years.

Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion education initiative, is a competition in which states vied to win federal dollars by promising to make education reforms, including teacher evaluation based in part on test scores and an expansion of charter schools.

North Carolina won about $400 million in the second round of Race to the Top last year. Using Race to the Top money to hire public relations folks isn’t necessarily against the rules, according to U.S. Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton, depending on what the public relations folks are actually doing.

“It would not be a misuse of funds to provide technical assistance and professional development on student growth metrics and teacher evaluation systems,” he said in an email.

Hamilton said in a subsequent e-mail that he understands the role of the public relations specialists to be “to provide supports to stakeholder groups re: what the content and different elements of the new teacher evaluation system is… what the components are, how it will be used…”

Apparently, then, that must have something to do with “technical assistance” because it sure has nothing to do with professional development

On top of that, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is providing $200,000 to the district for a campaign to tell the public about its reforms, according to the Observer.

The foundation has spent millions across the country to help “educate” the populace about school reform efforts that it supports, including test-driven teacher assessment. It has also already given some $4 million to Charlotte-Mecklenburg in a number of grants in recent years to further its test-driven reforms.

Meanwhile, the 2011 Broad Prize winner is being named this Tuesday from these finalist school districts: Broward County in Florida, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Miami-Dade County in Florida, and Ysleta in Texas.

This is the third time Charlotte-Mecklenburg has come close to winning in the last decade; it was a finalist for the 2010 and 2004 prizes.

The prize is the largest education award in the country given to urban school districts. Finalists are selected from some 75 districts whose eligibility is based on reform efforts aimed at closing the achievement gap and criteria related to size, poverty, minority enrollment and urbanicity.

The winner will receive $550,000 in college scholarships for high school seniors who will graduate in 2012. The three finalist districts will each receive $150,000 in college scholarships.

So, here’s where we are: Lots of money for standardized tests, so that teachers can be evaluated by the results, and lots of money to convince the skeptical public that that bad assessment system is really a good one.

Behold the face of modern school reform.


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