The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

School superintendent to Thomas Friedman: Why you are wrong about Race to the Top

By Jonathan Raymond

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has lauded Race to the Top as one of President Obama’s two most innovative domestic initiatives. As superintendent of California’s 12th largest public school district, I must respectfully disagree. I would argue that Race to the Top is hardly innovative – government using “carrot and stick” incentives to spur change is a centuries-old concept.  In fact, I would go a step further: Race to the Top’s heavy-handed, top-down mandates create division and derision within the public education community at precisely a time all sides should be coming together.

No one would argue with Mr. Friedman’s assertion that “the only high-wage jobs, whether in manufacturing or services, will be high-skilled ones, requiring more and better education.” The need to prepare our children for college and 21st century careers should be our country’s top priority. Local school districts, states and the federal government should be working together to meet this goal. Instead, Race to the Top is dividing what should be a united front into “winners” and “losers.”

On a local level, Race to the Top, while well intentioned, throws education stakeholders into enemy camps by prescribing the kind of evaluative system for teachers that must be put in place for a state to receive badly needed federal dollars. I am in favor of creating robust accountability models for teachers. I also back using accountability systems that create a culture of development and improvement.

But I do not believe test scores must be tied to evaluations to reach this goal. The Peer Assistance and Review program operating in Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools is a perfect example of an innovative initiative that provides support for struggling teachers and a road out of the profession for those that cannot improve. In the 11 years of the program, hundreds of poorly performing teachers have left Montgomery County schools. Yet Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast told the New York Times in June 2011 that his district will likely never receive Race to the Top funds because test scores are not part of the evaluation equation. “We don’t believe the tests are reliable,” Weast said. “You don’t want to turn your system into a test factory.”

Further, Race to the Top rewards states that have the potential to meet the prescriptive demands of the program over states that are making real change outside the program’s narrow parameters. In other words, state are rewarded for making wholesale promises in their applications regardless of whether they have the capacity to deliver.

Meanwhile, school districts that are making real, tangible strides to increase student learning are left behind in this “race.” In Sacramento City Unified, we are turning around seven low-performing schools (called Priority Schools) through research-proven strategies for raising student achievement. Six of the seven schools have shown dramatic increases in student achievement and dramatic improvements in school culture and climate. These strategies include relevant professional development for principals and teachers; collaborative teacher planning time; data analysis and inquiry; and building strong family and community engagement. With federal funding, we could take this pilot program to scale statewide. California districts could build on each other’s successes and the gains of districts across the country. This is exactly what federal dollars should be spent on.

Yet Race to the Top’s scripted approach effectively discounts these reforms because they do not fit into the neat categories created by the prescriptive program. Moreover, forcing school districts to compete for badly needed resources is like offering a starving man food but only if he agrees to whatever strings may be attached. This is certainly the choice that school districts like ours face in California.

Mr. Friedman’s claims that Race to the Top’s evaluation criteria create “systems that help evaluate teaching into an attractive profession” misses the point. It is my experience that our outstanding teachers work tirelessly for the best interests of children. Are we to assume that without evaluations tied to test scores Sac City teachers, and thousands like them around the country, are working in an unprofessional avocation?

For Secretary Duncan or the President to claim that Race to the Top has been a success because we have seen as much reform from those “who did not get a nickel as those got $100 million” ignores the needs of districts that cannot or will not run this race. Major urban school districts in California, a state where one out of eight American public school children live, have been utterly abandoned by this system of “winners” and “losers.” “Winners,” by the way, like Chicago. Would Mr. Duncan count the chaos in Chicago last month as a success? True, teacher evaluations there will change. But at what cost? How long will it take the wounds to heal? How can provoking a bitter battle among people who have to work together be looked at as anything other than negative?

Race to the Top’s zealous and prescriptive focus on accountability, human capital and technology at the expense of capacity building, collaboration, teaching practice and social capital is like the game we sometimes see children play on a school yard. They stand in a circle and place their hands on top of each other, with the hand on the top eventually getting pushed down to the bottom. It’s a futile exercise. Being married to a former public school teacher, Mr. Friedman should know better.

Jonathan Raymond


Sacramento City Unified School District