(Drawing by Kirra Moses)

They still don’t get it.

The Obama administration still apparently thinks — despite evidence to the contrary — that it can achieve “educational equity” by holding a contest with winners and losers.

When the $4.35 billion Race to the Top was first announced in 2009 as the administration’s chief education initiative, it was promoted as an effort to ensure that every student was “college and career ready” and to achieve “educational equity” by aggressively  “turning around” the lowest-performing schools (or by closing them if they didn’t turn around fast enough.)

Critics wondered how a competition among states  — which would create winners and losers — could create educational equity (given that winners were chosen by how slavishly they bowed to the Education Department’s reform tastes, and that the Gates Foundation spent millions of dollars helping states write contest entries). There were also questions about how “educational equity” could be achieved when there wasn’t any effort to try to ameliorate the problems that students bring into school from beyond the school walls but that nevertheless greatly impact how well they do in class. Or to change the school funding system in the United States, which is largely depending on property taxes, ensuring that poor communities have schools with fewer resources than rich ones.

No real dent was made in “educational equity” with a series of  Race contests over the past several years. So now we have a new one, announced with President Obama’s recently released fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, a $300 million proposed “Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity.” After billions of dollars failed to achieve equity, a $300 million contest along the same lines — but with a targeted title — is the administration’s answer to the festering problem. 

Here’s how the Education Department describes the new contest in a release about the budget proposal:

As part of his budget request, President Obama proposed a new initiative called Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity (RTT-Opportunity), which would create incentives for states and school districts to drive comprehensive change in how states and districts identify and close opportunity and achievement gaps. Grantees would enhance data systems to sharpen the focus on the greatest disparities and invest in strong teachers and leaders in high-need schools. Grants would also support other strategies that mitigate the effects of concentrated poverty, such as expanded learning time, access to rigorous coursework, and comprehensive student supports. An underlying goal is to measure the success of these strategies and use the results to support continuous program improvement. Learn more about progress in ensuring equity of opportunity.

Note that the first thing mentioned for grantees to want to do is to “enhance data systems.” This administration can’t get enough data, it seems. (Remember when Education Secretary Arne Duncan went last November to Haiti, the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere where most of the schools don’t have toilets, and talked to education officials there about the great value in collecting data to improve schools?) These new data systems connected to the new Race are meant to  help identify “effective” teachers and principals because, Duncan said in a conference call with the media, no district in the country is doing a good enough job locating them and ensuring that they are in high-needs schools.

The irony of using a contest to achieve equity did not escape Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at The School Superintendents Association, who was quoted by EdWeek as saying:

“We question the sincerity behind  the call for equity when, by construction, the program creates a system of winning and losers.” 

In fact, a report released last year by the Equity and Excellence Commission, a panel created by the department and charged with providing advice to Duncan on “the disparities in meaningful educational opportunities that give rise to the achievement gap,” laid out a five-part framework for closing achievement gaps. The first of those was ensuring “equitable school finance systems.” Another was mitigating the effects of living in poverty — a subject that has been nearly ignored in the administration’s school reform efforts. 

Don’t expect Congress to jump onto this newest Race proposal with much — if any — enthusiasm. 

 Here from the Education Department are highlights of President Obama’s budget proposal for education:



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