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The President’s Race to the Top | Ecology of Education

The President’s Race to the Top

On July 29th, 2009, the Department of Education announced the release of a competitive grant program available all states called Race to the Top, or the State Incentive Grant Fund. This program provides 4.3 billion dollars in grant monies to states that demonstrate “significant education reforms across four assurance areas.” 50% of these monies will be awarded to charter school programs, or other local educational agencies (LEAs).

The four assurance areas that states must show significant reform of are:
• implementing standards and assessments
• improving teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in teacher distribution
• improving collection and use of data
• supporting struggling schools

The Department of Education will evaluate each application using 19 criteria that address the four assurance areas. The level at which each standard is addressed will determine which states will receive money and which will not. The 19 criterion used to evaluate each state’s application are outlined below.

(A)(1) Developing and adopting common standards;
(A)(2) Developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments;
(A)(3) Supporting transition to enhanced standards and high-quality assessments;
(B)(1) Fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system;
(B)(2) Accessing and using State data;
(B)(3) Using data to improve instruction;
(C)(1) Providing alternative pathways for aspiring teachers and principals;
(C)(2) Differentiating teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance;
(C)(3) Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals;
(C)(4) Reporting the effectiveness of teacher and principal preparation programs;
(C)(5) Providing effective support to teachers and principals;
(D)(1) Intervening in the lowest-performing schools and LEAs;
(D)(2) Increasing the supply of high-quality charter schools;
(D)(3) Turning around struggling schools;
(E)(1) Demonstrating significant progress;
(E)(2) Making education funding a priority;
(E)(3) Enlisting statewide support and commitment;
(E)(4) Raising achievement and closing gaps; and
(E)(5) Building strong statewide capacity to implement, scale, and sustain proposed plans.

In my examination of this proposal, I have found elements of merit that I would like to discuss.

First, this program will assist in the formation and support of charter schools. Charter schools are a critical element in the advancement of educational ideas, as these are the institutions that use research and theory to construct new ways of instructing students. Charter schools allow educators to have the freedom to explore alternative educational techniques in lieu of traditional instructional methods. Although a charter school may be released from the obligations of a predetermined curriculum such as those found in a conventional district program, under the President’s grant proposal, these schools are still held accountable through standardized testing and other required reviews and reporting.

“These charter schools or LEA’s will be granted the autonomy to select their own staff, manage their own budget, utilize an alternative school structure for the school day or year, and provide comprehensive services for high need students through local partnerships or contracts with outside providers.”

Second, this program challenges states to raise the educational bar. Through the requirements of a “rigorous course of study in mathematics, sciences, technology and engineering,” this grant is poised to better prepare our students for the ever expanding fields of technology, engineering, and medicine. It also calls for teachers to collaborate with industry experts and community leaders which will add an element of practicality and inspiration for student learners. Furthermore, this plan calls for the development of “high quality assessments” ….

“an assessment designed to measure a student’s understanding of, and ability to apply, critical concepts through the use of a variety of item types, formats, and administration conditions (e.g., open-ended responses, performance-based tasks, use of technology).”

These high-quality assessments will more accurately reflect a student’s command of subject matter post-instruction. Through open-ended responses and performance assessments, students will be able to respond is a way that makes sense to them. As all educators know, there are often multiple ways to examine or solve a problem and this enhanced format will adapt to the varied talents and achievement levels of all learners.

Third, this initiative encourages states to utilize funding to promote research and study of educational trends towards their enhancement of program development and reform. This is a seriously neglected element of current educational reform projects which is further demonstrated by the tendency of educational curriculum to swing in a pendulum motion from one philosophy to the opposite extreme and back again. Research should facilitate the development of innovative educational plans that could potentially improve the state of instruction in our public schools.

In contrast to the meritorious elements of this proposal, there are some concerning elements of this program that must be addressed. As stated in Eligibility Requirements section of the released proposal:

“Research indicates that teacher quality is a critical contributor to student learning and that there is dramatic variation in teacher quality.2 Yet it is difficult to predict teacher quality based on the qualifications that teachers bring to the job. Indeed, measures such as certification, master’s degrees, and years of teaching experience have limited predictive power on this point.3 Therefore, one of the most effective ways to accurately assess teacher quality is to measure the growth in achievement of a teacher’s students;4 5 and by aggregating the performance of students across teachers within a school, to assess principal quality.”

I strongly disagree that “one of the most effective ways to assess teacher quality is to measure the growth in the achievement of a teacher’s students” (i.e. through standardized test scores). While I concede the analysis of standardized test scores may be the least expensive and universally comparable way to assess teacher quality, I oppose the suggestion that it is the most effective way.

Numbers do not define a successful educational experience for a child. They do not define a successful educational experience for a parent. What most often defines a successful educational experience is whether or not the child has developed a love for learning. Has the student developed into a motivated, encouraged, and excited collaborator in the educational process?

Regardless of statistics, we should be driven first and foremost to create passionate learners. Passion is what drives students to invent, explore, and succeed. In addition, traditional schooling is not suitable for all learning styles. Because public schools (who will be eligible for the other 50% of these grant dollars per state) provide few options to students who learn in alternative ways, there will always be students who “fall through the cracks.” These students could be our future Edisons, Franklins and Einsteins, who incidentally became frustrated with methods employed in traditional schools and consequently drop outs from their various programs. In our failure to address the varied needs of the multitude of learning styles in public school, it is difficult to rely on standardized test performance as a true measure of a student’s ability. Additionally, keep in mind that a test is given on one, or over a couple of, day(s) in a student’s academic career. These are days that can be colored by whether or not the student ate breakfast, had a fight with mom before school, or got enough sleep the night before. Perhaps a better measure of teacher performance would be a combination of factors such as evaluation by the principal, portfolio records of professional development, parent/student input, and test scores.

I caution the administration implementing their requirement that states to transfer “highly effective teachers” to struggling schools. Simply because a teacher might be considered to be “highly effective” at one school, does not guarantee the same success in a different environment. Under the proposal, the definition of a highly effective teacher is as follows.

“Highly effective teacher means a teacher whose students achieve high rates (e.g., more than one grade level in an academic year) of student growth (as defined in this notice). States may supplement this definition as they see fit so long as teacher effectiveness is judged, in significant measure, by student growth (as defined in this notice).”

It takes a uniquely qualified teacher to work in impoverished areas. These students, parents and educators are faced with a different type of challenge than those schools who receive plentiful parent support and whose families do not lack financial resources. Often schools such as these lack adequate parent support and participation, which may be due in large part to the predominance of single parent families and the need for these households to maintain two or more jobs in order to make ends meet. Often times these students have had limited or no preschool experience, and may lack some of the required basic skills that teachers look for upon entrance to kindergarten. Transferring a teacher against their will to another school, will not address the above stated issues, and may in fact breed professional resentment. It may be more fortuitous to offer incentives to teachers who wish to transfer to these high need schools. More support must be provided to teachers who work in these environments, in the form of training, administrative support, and efforts to improve the parent participation rate. In addition, there must be an examination of the disproportionately high number of beginning teachers who receive their first teaching assignments in struggling schools.

The President is on track to provide significant reform to our current education system. I applaud the evident research and consultation done among industry experts, as well as the request for feedback from professionals and everyday citizens. However, I hope that a continual, thorough analysis will be conducted regularly among students, teachers, and parents with regards to more than just test scores. American schools are unique among the various world’s educational systems, and cannot be compared in a linear, “one note” fashion. Test scores cannot be the only criteria used to analyze the outcome of the implementation of this plan. We must use a variety of assessments such as parent/student/teacher feedback, student and teacher retention rates, graduation rates, and other relevant data to assess the success of this program as well.

All information quoted from the Department of Education Press Release found at the web address: http://www.ed.gov/legislation/FedRegister/proprule/2009-3/072909d.html

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3 Responses to “The President’s Race to the Top”

  1. jasonflom
    August 27, 2009 at 7:01 pm #

    Very astute and informative analysis, Jess. NIce work. Thanks for the tour through the policy.

  2. August 28, 2009 at 1:47 am #

    RT @JasonFlom: An astute and insightful analysis of "The President’s Race to the Top" Informative post on Eco of Ed. http://bit.ly/eH9U9

  3. jasonflom
    August 28, 2009 at 2:01 am #

    Very astute and informative analysis, Jess. NIce work. Thanks for the tour through the policy.

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