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Will â€œRace to the Topâ€ Accord Race Proper Weight?Â
These days, much of the talk in public education is about Barack Obama's education reform, Race to the Top. The President says, "This competition will not be based on politics, ideology, or the preference of a particular interest group. Instead, it will be based on a single principle-whether a state is ready to do what works..." Good luck, Mr. President.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was in Los Angeles last week and could have been mistaken for a 21st century incarnation of the Pied Piper as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa shepherded him, and an obsequious crowd around Gompers Middle School--all the while, the Mayor giving over-the-top assessments of Gomper's and LAUSD's progress on education reform. "We brought the Secretary here today to Gompers Middle School to show him that the education reform movement in Los Angeles is like no other in the country." (If this were true, the sorry state of education throughout America would be even worse than it actually is.)
Villaraigosa and a good part of the education establishment in California, including its governor, are pushing to get Race to the Top funds. California's teachers' unions, however, are ambivalent, at best, about tying teacher evaluation to student performance. As of now, California does not qualify for these funds because it prohibits such a requirement. But using student performance data to evaluate teachers is a fundamental requirement for Race to the Top funds and California must remove that restriction to qualify.
The budget for Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion competitive grant fund to encourage and reward states making dramatic education reform. It is part of the $100 billion federal economic stimulus aid to education with only two absolute requirements: States must have been approved by the Department of Education for stabilization funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and must not have any laws barring the use of student achievement data for evaluating teachers and principals.
Race to the Top will highlight and replicate effective reform in four areas: adopting benchmarked standards that prepare students for success in college and the workplace; recruiting, developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principles; building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers how they can improve their practice; and turning around the lowest-performing schools.
Turning around the lowest performing schools is its core objective. In order to receive School Improvement Grants (SIG), school districts must identify Tier I Schools (lowest achieving 5%), and Tier II schools-secondary schools that do not receive Title I--(compensatory education) funds, and Tier III schools--Title I schools that are not Tier I schools.
After identifying the schools for reform, local school districts must determine which of four intervention models is best suited for those schools: Turnaround Model-replace principal and rehire no more than 50% of the staff; Restart Model-convert a school or close and reopen it as a charter school; School Closure Model-close a school and enroll the students in higher-achieving district schools; Transformation Model-implement a combination of strategies that include replacing the principal, comprehensive instructional reforms, increase learning time, operational flexibility and sustained support.
The complexity, and detailed requirements for Race to the Top funds alone, are sufficient reason to provide parents, and interested others, hands-on assistance to better understand the goals, objectives and process. This is not being done.
At a recent briefing on Turnarounds by U.S. Department of Education, it was stressed that Race to the Top applicants (and grantees) "must get it right." "Getting it right," was defined by giving examples of "getting it wrong", such as no increase in student achievement, ineffective teachers, little actual participation of parents and inadequate funding.
The examples, though clear, related only to outcomes. The more salient and immediate question is what "must get it right" means on the front end: Are applicants (and later, operators) required to inform and engage parents at every stage of the process? Are racial/ethnic disparities taken into full account? These and similar questions are indispensible, but often given short shrift. The implications of Race to the Top for Black students in particular are not mentioned even though the nation's lowest achievers. They main only faces at the bottom of the well.
The success of Race to the Top will be significantly defined by whether schools with the greatest need were in the race from the beginning.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail