Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Is Race to the Top a Race to Nowhere?

No Child Left Behind sounded like a good idea when it was first introduced. Yet, in its implementation, it seemed to do more harm than good with its unintended consequences and didn’t help President Bush’s reputation any. Now, I’m concerned that Race to the Top is just NCLB with a new name.

I took this portion of a letter from the CA Race to the Top website:

“On November 18, President Obama and U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced eligibility and selection criteria for states to compete for $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funding, the single largest pool of discretionary funding for education reform in U.S. history…We are proud to stand with President Obama, Secretary Duncan and Leaders throughout California in calling for reforms that will strengthen our education system and help ensure our students are prepared to succeed in school and beyond…That is why we are competing for the Race to the Top funds – so that we can put more money into our classrooms and give our students the chance to fulfill their dreams.” -Arnold Schwarzenegger

Sounds good, huh? But what IS Race to the Top?

RTTT includes 4 areas of reform:

1. refining current academic standards,

2. providing new support for teachers and principals to improve their effectiveness,

3. enhancing local data systems and coordinating them with California's, and

4. dramatically turning around the lowest-achieving schools.

Looking deeper into the RTTT website I tried to get more information on each of these four issues. This wasn’t easy because most of the information was about the funding and the requirements for applying for RTTT. And, I couldn’t find a definition for “LEA” so I’m assuming it is “Local Education Authority” but I may be wrong. Here’s what I did find on these four issues (after considerable searching):

1. “Are we going to revise California’s standards?

The standards that California currently has are generally recognized as world class high standards. The State of California, along with 47 other states, has agreed to participate in the consortia of states looking at a common core of standards. The legislature is currently considering having California adopt the common core with some additional standards to ensure California retains its rigor. If the Legislature calls for their adoption, we will pursue adoption and implementation over a reasonable timeframe.”

Well, this doesn’t sound very different from what we already have as far as state standards is concerned. And the language is very vague. I’m not convinced the standards will change, and if they do, how will they be better? So then I think, well, maybe the focus of RTTT will be on the teachers…

2. “Who is going to define an ‘effective teacher?’

Ultimately the LEA (Local Education Authority?) will create the definition of an effective teacher. The State will create the new growth model that measures student growth from one year to the next; this measure must be incorporated into the LEA’s definition of an effective teacher. However, LEAs may also include other measures as they develop their definition of an effective teacher.

Will there be a ‘pay-for–performance’ component to the State’s plan for great teachers and leaders?
 According to federal guidelines, participating LEAs must implement some form of compensation that is tied to the measured effectiveness of their teachers and leaders; the LEA will ultimately need to determine how to design their local system to meet this requirement.”

I’m not convinced that the State can accurately measure a student’s growth and the language is unclear about what the definition of an effective teacher is. It is also undecided at this point how the LEA will measure teacher effectiveness as it applies to compensation.

3. I couldn’t find anything in this website about how RTTT would enhance the local data systems and coordinate them with California’s current data systems.

4. “If the state is mandated to intervene in the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools, what happens if an LEA that has these schools does not participate in Race to the Top?

The LEA would still be responsible for implementing one of the four federally-prescribed intervention strategies as part of our federal School Improvement Grant (SIG), but would not be responsible for the other areas of Race to the Top.”

None of the information I found on the website about the lowest achieving schools convinced me that RTTT would dramatically turn around these schools. In fact, it just sounds like more of the same type of federal funding currently in place for low achieving schools.

Much of the information about RTTT involved the funding. Here’s an example of a funding FAQ:

“How much could a participating LEA expect to receive if California wins Race to the Top?
 While we understand one of the main questions that LEAs may ask asks about the estimated amount of an LEA’s Race to the Top award, it is very difficult for us to provide an accurate assessment of the amounts for any individual LEA. We do know that if California wins this grant, the State could receive between $350 and $700 million. In addition, we know that at least 50 percent of this money must be distributed to participating LEAs based on the Title I formula. However, because we do not know the total size of the final grant, nor the number of LEAs and schools joining the effort, we cannot estimate an amount for participating LEAs. 

What will an LEA’s reporting requirements be for Race to the Top?
 While there is flexibility in how an LEA spends its Race to the Top funding, we want to be very clear that LEAs will be held accountable for documenting implementation and progress toward benchmarks. We have not yet developed the specific reporting requirements that will be asked of LEAs; when we have more information on this we will share this with you. The reporting required for Race to the Top will be supported by the funding LEAs receive.”

Race to the Top sounds like more time and money spent on paperwork than on engaging students in learning. I don’t always want to be a skeptic, so if there is anything positive about RTTT, please someone, share it with me.


  1. Welcome back! I'm glad your blog is up and running.

  2. Thanks for doing the research on this topic!

  3. Great piece! A lot hinges on that "student growth" measure. I do think teacher quality is absolutely essential & pay should be linked to quality, but how you measure quality is the $6 million question. Way too easy to pin the whole thing on standardized test scores, which doesn't promote good teaching. How about 360-degree performance reviews, as businesses often use? Teachers would get eval'd annually by their principal, peers, students, parents, even submit a brief self-eval as part of the process ("how did I do this year?"). Test scores could factor in, to ensure that kids aren't completely missing the basics...but should be just a fraction of performance measurement, so that someone who's teaching to the tests but not really "growing" students wouldn't have an unfair advantage. Yes, a 360-degree system would be complicated, but technology could help. Some brave state needs to take on this challenge & work w/teacher union to pilot this kind of system, or something like it. Or maybe someone already is, but we (I) don't know about it?

  4. I saw "Race to Nowhere" last night confirming my concerns about the community in which I live. The school system is only part of the problem.

    Since funding always seems to be the problem, why hasn't anyone in this state had the courage to repeal Proposition 13? All our funding problems started there. (Dig up the documentary "First to Worst" for more info.)

    If we still have problems after that, disolve the teacher's union and put a merit system based on academic, social and life skills achieved in their students and parent surveys.

    Anyone want to join me in setting up a charter school in Lamorinda? I think its time.