Race to the Top Jumpstarts Education Debate

kids laptop learningThe green flag has dropped. The competition has begun. But it’s not just any jaunt around the track. States are vying for $4.35 billion in federal education grants, and many of them are serious about winning.

If they want to earn the prize, they have to transform education for the better, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who announced the start of the Race to the Top on July 24. States have to ratchet up student standards and assessments; find and reward quality educators; install student data systems; and turn around low-performing schools.

But the results may vary depending on how states change their school systems and how much they focus on these four specific areas. And that has educators and education activists questioning what impact the race will have.

“It’s really easy to sit up there at the top and really narrow the focus on what you want to try to accomplish with something like Race to the Top money,” said Pam Moran, the superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, “and I’m not sure that you’re going to get the kind of entrepreneurial risk taking out there on the table if you get too narrow a definition of what you want to accomplish.”

Duncan has already told states that they will start the contest handicapped if they limit the number of charter schools within their borders. They also might not compete well if they don’t adapt national English and math curriculum standards or link student performance data to teachers.

Failing to address these areas could knock states out of the competition even if they are innovating in other areas.

“They might lose some opportunities for some states to compete that could potentially have the next best educational invention that’s out there,” Moran said, “and I would hate to see that happen.”

Duncan and President Barack Obama have set a sweeping agenda to transform public education, and that’s a good thing, said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform. They’ve lifted up some states for their progress and have singled out states that show no signs of changing their old, comfortable ways.

“Education reform, however, is neither comfortable nor a race,” Allen said. “It must be achievement-focused and come from a true desire to see America’s children succeed on a global scale. Reform that is bought can easily be voted away once the federal coffers run dry.”

Teaching content through skills

Because states are racing to win the prize, they might cause the nation to move quickly toward national standards and tests without allowing enough room or time for debate, said Chad Sansing, who teaches humanities at a charter school in Virginia and blogs about transforming classroom practice at classroots.org. If the nation leaves out debate, education will be too much like the status quo, and teaching will emphasize learning content by rote.

Race to the Top has given the country an opportunity to change the way it assesses kids, he said, and that should involve providing authentic learning experiences and engagement that’s relevant in the real world.

“We don’t have to have a race for students to master content and leave out skills,” Sansing said. “We don’t have to have students master skills and forget about content. We can bring the two together, but we have to do it in a way that students are mastering content through the skills; that’s possible. It’s not going to be possible for students to master the skills just through the content.”

Several tests are mixing content with skills, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the College and Work Readiness Assessment. Schools are jumping on board in their classroom instruction as well, including those started by the nonprofit group Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound and Quest High School in Humble, Texas.

Personalization, not standardization

In addition to assessing skills as well as content, tests should measure students differently based on their learning styles, said Deven Black, a middle school social studies teacher in New York City. Not all kids express themselves the same way, so the standard fill in the bubble or write an essay methods don’t accurately show how well they have mastered content.

Tailored tests can be more expensive, but they would allow students to demonstrate what they have learned through art, music or other means, he said.

The assessment system in this country is in place because it’s cheap, efficient and easy to score, and that limits how educators can measure complex thinking and application, said Superintendent Moran, who mentioned that author Tony Wagner captured this idea clearly in his latest book The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need –– And What We Can do About It.

States need to move away from standardized, narrowly-defined measures of student performance that are calculated almost everywhere by multiple choice testing. Moran said she hopes that someone will figure out an authentic and scalable way to assess students’ skills though technology instead of continuing the “drill and kill” teaching methods that educators use to prepare kids for tests.

Those tests are designed to evaluate whether students meet grade-level standards, but the standards don’t make sense to Rhonda Feder, an education activist in the nonprofit sector and a Pennsylvania mother of three grade-school children. Grade-level standards presume that a normal course of steps exists for a 10-year-old, and that every 10-year-old takes those same steps.

“It’s like saying, ‘Well, you’re 10, you should wear a size 3 shoe,’” Feder said.

Not all 10-year-olds wear size 3 shoes, and not all 10-year-olds learn the same way, which means that policy-makers need to look at real life kids in the classroom when they’re deciding what they should learn.

They should respect the individuality of children and shouldn’t be afraid to offer different options to different kids, Feder said, adding that if they try to make every class of fifth-graders look the same and write standards from far away, they’re bound to cause some children to fail.

Tests increase pressure on teachers

They’re also bound to cause some children to become bored. In Pennsylvania, children take tests that are tied to state standards about every other month so that teachers can adjust their instruction depending on what concepts students aren’t grasping.

With talk swirling about Duncan giving preference to states that link kid children teaching teacherstudent assessment data to teacher performance, the teachers are probably going to focus on making sure that everybody passes the tests and spend less time on those who have already met the standards, Feder said. That’s what happened to one of her children.

He tested proficient after the first few weeks of school, yet had to keep doing worksheets on content he had already mastered, which meant that he spent a lot of time sitting and waiting for everyone else to finish.

Rather than asking whether all sixth-graders meet the standard, educators should look at where they started the year and where they ended. If they focus on the bar, they tend to focus only on students who fall below it. The quality of instruction doesn’t necessarily go down, but it drops to a different level for the students who need it, which doesn’t reach those who have already passed the bar.

A great education depends on great teachers, but any system that places a high percentage of weight on one element of the system is not realistic, Feder said. Teachers, parents and students all have to work together to succeed.

“My child can’t fail without my consent,” she said. “If my kid is failing repeatedly year after year, and I’m just going along for the ride, I’m just as responsible as that school district or that school system or those teachers.”

If the only measure that the government uses to assess teachers is standardized test data, it’s missing the point, Feder said. Race to the Top puts much of the burden on teachers, but it’s not the teachers alone who will help children succeed.

What happens in individual classrooms may be problematic, but teachers as a group are not the problem; they’re just the easy part, said Black, the New York City teacher. High-stakes assessments aren’t scored fast enough for teachers to adjust their teaching, and the scores don’t tell them a heck of a lot.

“The whole way that these major assessments are done just seems to be finding fault with somebody rather than trying to improve anything,” Black said, “and teachers more and more are feeling that they’re the ones that people want to find fault with, as if we were the root of the problem.”

Transforming education

One of the best things that the country can do is to encourage educators from the bottom up to take entrepreneurial risks that will help them re-imagine and reinvent themselves, Superintendent Moran said. And that extends to the kids in the classroom as well. When she walks through the halls of schools, she wants to see kids who are engaged in challenging work that pushes them to become more analytical and creative.

Teachers also need more freedom to be creative and experiment with different ways to engage students, Black said. Any one model is not going to serve the vast majority of people in it, so teachers and schools should have to differentiate instruction.

Coming up with different ways to teach students plays to teachers’ strengths, which policy-makers should take advantage of, Feder said. Figuring out how to fix problems is much harder than identifying them, but it has to be done.

“I don’t think there is one solution. I think the solution is you have to be open to doing what works, and that’s not going to look the same,” she said. “That’s messy, and from year to year you’re going to get it wrong.”

Postscript: States can start applying for Race to the Top funds in the fall, and the first round of prizes will go out in early 2010. Duncan has posted the proposed requirements and selection criteria online so that the public can comment on them before Aug. 28, which means that the race has started, but the rules could change.



Photo credits: woodleywonderworks’ flickr photostream, One Laptop per Child’s flickr photostream / CC BY 2.0

This story originally appeared in Converge Online on Aug. 7, 2009.

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Author:Tanya Roscorla

Tanya Roscorla covers key education issues and news as a reporter for Converge Online. She graduated from California State University, Chico, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and previously wrote for several newspapers.
  • http://twitter.com/jasonflom/status/3380734573 Jason Flom

    "Race to the Top Jumpstarts Education Debate" @reportertanya provides insight and analysis | Eco of Ed http://bit.ly/Vvunk

  • Jason Flom

    "Race to the Top Jumpstarts Education Debate" @reportertanya provides insight and analysis | Eco of Ed http://bit.ly/Vvunk

  • http://twitter.com/kdwashburn/status/3383105585 kdwashburn

    Race to the Top Jumpstarts Education Debate—@reportertanya on RttT w/quotes from many notable ed "tweeps": http://tr.im/wBXj #edreform

  • http://twitter.com/eduflack/status/3383148723 Patrick Riccards

    RT @kdwashburn #RttT Jumpstarts Education Debate—@reportertanya on RttT w/quotes from many notable ed "tweeps" http://tr.im/wBXj #edreform