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Posted at 5:16 PM ET, 06/ 1/2010

The desperation of Race to the Top

By Valerie Strauss

Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell should stop sounding so defensive about why the state opted out of the second round of the $4 billion Race to the Top contest. Virginia did the right thing.

Maryland and the District, on the other hand, along with 34 more states, drank the Kool-Aid poured by the Obama administration and submitted school reform plans today that they hope will please the money dispenser, Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

To make today’s deadline, many of the participating states rushed major education bills through their legislatures to meet the contest’s requirements and engaged in furious negotiations with unions against artificially set deadlines.

They passed laws allowing more charter schools to open -- even though studies show that charter schools on average are no better than regular public schools -- and tying teacher compensation to standardized test scores, even though the tests aren't designed to assess teachers.

Is that not a great way to commit serious education reform?

Just today, preliminary results of a study were released showing that a performance-based compensation program that heavily relies on student test scores to evaluate teachers showed no improvement in Chicago.

Yes, the program was one of Duncan’s efforts when he ran the Chicago schools, and yes, tying student test scores to teacher compensation is one of Duncan’s big ideas for helping students achieve more.

Of course this new analysis, which you can read more about here, is hardly definitive, but that’s exactly the point: We are rushing, again, into school reform initiatives with billions of dollars without much evidence that where we are headed is the right direction, and, in some cases, with evidence that it is clearly the wrong one.

Recently, the state winners in the Teacher of the Year contest visited Washington for a week, and were welcomed first into the vice president’s residence by second lady Jill Biden, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, and then to the White House, where Obama named the Teacher of the Year.

I talked to some of the state winners during the visit, and asked them about performance pay based on test scores. Every one of these teachers, the best of the best, said they thought it was a mistake.

It’s too bad the president didn’t talk to them seriously about these issues when he had a chance.

There’s something sadly desperate about Race to the Top.

Educating young people from different backgrounds is actually harder than rocket science, and there is no one big fix that will lift up ailing schools. But since President George W. Bush persuaded Congress to pass No Child Left Behind, government officials -- Republican and Democrat -- have acted as if there is, and if they tinker enough, they will find it.

In a mad dash to fix schools, the Obama administration set up the contest (so much for equitable federal education funding) and set deadlines for states to submit their plans.

Duncan went on a “talking and listening” tour across the country, but clearly didn’t listen to anybody who didn’t agree with him; he told the New York Times recently that there was no public opposition to his views, which is a startling statement, given the fact that 15 states opted out of the second round of Race to the Top.

One-fifth of the states stayed out of the first round, in which Duncan awarded money to only two states, Tennessee and Delaware. Afterward, several analyses showed that the decisions were made arbitrarily.

McDonnell has twice in a week -- including today -- publicly explained why Virginia didn’t submit a second round proposal after the state’s first-round effort was not highly rated, my colleague Anita Kumar reported.

He sounds apologetic, saying that he “was very supportive” of Race to the Top but felt that it would require Virginia to give up its Standards of Learning program and would impose too many mandates.

"I was very supportive of the president in his initiative and Secretary Duncan during the campaign and even now,’’ he said this morning on the “Morning Joe” show. "His idea of giving more young people access to the American dream through better schools is exactly right -- merit pay, charter schools, more accountability -- I support that 100 percent."

There is something a little disingenuous about saying that you support something wholeheartedly but then don’t actually wind up supporting it.

Still, Virginia and a few dozen other states did not twist themselves into pretzels to adopt untested school reforms. Some of these states tried, but couldn’t close the loop and gave up. They may be glad one day that they did.

At some point, it might occur to the president that he allowed Duncan to push an education agenda that was not sound and that will leave public schools in no better shape than they are now. Here’s hoping it’s not too late.

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 1, 2010; 5:16 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Race to the Top  | Tags:  duncan and race to the top, education secretary arne duncan, race to the top, race to the top second round, rttt second round, school reform and arne duncan, states and race to the top  
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Teaching students to pass standardized tests is a bad idea - really it is tragic. Grading teachers on how well students perform on standardized tests is a worse idea.

Posted by: tnvret | June 1, 2010 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Race to the Top, aka Plunge down the Crapper, is propelled by raw coercion. First, make the states' educational systems feel the pain of pitifully low funds due to the economy in which Washington through winked eye allowed to happen, then hold out the federal hand holding golden eggs, then make the states grovel to the all-powerful Duncan for needed funds only after they have abandoned reason and conscience and spent precious monies chasing these tainted dollars with which come with tethering ropes attached.

The ultimate results will show untold teacher mistrust and dissatisfaction, padded pockets of the testing companies and all their entourage, and business style principals and other administrators specially trained according to the masters' will (in approved private programs awarding special certificates and degrees) who beguile communities into believing they will produce star students (high scoring students) of every child through marvelous methods, more befitting to call the methods life-sucking and streamlined. Selected/approved administrators will also have learned Duncan's manner of handling the "misguided" by ignoring and/or belittling them and their concerns, or if in their employ, firing them by utilizing a carefully designed tool of assessment (if necessary) that will "accurately" show them to be performing poorly.

Personally, soooo glad that my kids have graduated.

Posted by: shadwell1 | June 1, 2010 8:17 PM | Report abuse

I generally don't begrudge the president sending his kids to private school. I understand they need extra security.

But if this educational plan is so great, why aren't the finest private schools doing it too? Why isn't the president urging his kids' school to adopt it on its own?

Because it's pure bribery, that's why, and has nothing to do with good education.

Posted by: efavorite | June 1, 2010 11:44 PM | Report abuse

At some point, it might occur to the president that he allowed Duncan to push an education agenda that was not sound and that will leave public schools in no better shape than they are now.

Actually, it will drag the schools even farther downhill than NCLB did.

Posted by: jlp19 | June 2, 2010 8:00 PM | Report abuse


What evidence do you have, or can you cite, that the President has the first clue about real education reform or that he might have a thought?

Posted by: demathis | June 3, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

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