Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

A Race to the Top Shouldn't Have So Many Hoops

December 22, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow
The Obama administration's attempt to dictate education policy is preferable to the Bush administration's attempt to do the same. Bush's much-derided No Child Left Behind law sets a list of goals that are ultimately unreachable then punishes schools when they don't reach them. Obama's policy, called Race to the Top, offers states millions in grant money if they knuckle under to the federal government's idea of quality education.

Perhaps there are some states that don't have a good idea of what constitutes a good education. They could use a few million to figure it out.

Minnesota, however, knows exactly what constitutes a good education. It takes quality pre-school education. It takes well-trained teachers in every classroom teaching to classes of between 16 to 20 students. It takes curriculum that is constantly updated. It takes appropriate facilities. It takes special attention for those students who are emotionally or physically disabled. It takes special attention for those students who are going through a difficult transition and need help. It takes special attention for those students who don't speak English, or who move regularly, or who are poor, or who are in danger of dropping out. It takes getting all students to graduate and move to some form of higher education.

These things require well-trained professionals, and well-trained professionals do not and should not come cheap. That's Minnesota's problem: For more than a decade, Minnesota's education system has been financially strangled to the point where now schools must beg local property taxpayers to raise taxes or force them to provide a sub-standard education for their students.

In this atmosphere, it is easy to leap at the federal government's offer of millions of dollars for education. It's water in a desert created by state lawmakers' irresponsibility.

Why shouldn't we leap at the money?

The first reason is that the money comes from the federal stimulus package and runs out after four years. Therefore, when the money runs out, state or local school districts will either have to dismantle programs begun under Race to the Top, or fund them on their own. Race to the Top could become just another federal burden on Minnesotans.

Another reason is that the state must take schools whose students achieve in the lowest 5 percent and close the schools, turn them over to an education management organization, restructure them or turn them into charter schools.

The problem is that the verdict is still out on these "fixes" - some studies say they work, some say they don't. In either case, it's safe to assume that the lowest performing schools have a high percentage of low performing students, which studies conclusively show are mostly minority students, poor students, homeless students and those who speak English as a second language.

These students need more help, not different help. They need well-trained teachers and aides led by competent, imaginative administrators, most of who are already on hand but are swamped by a too-high teacher-student ratio. Fixing this problem will do more for students than simply turning the school over to a private education company.

Another question lies with the requirement that state develop a way to recruit, develop, retain and reward effective teachers. The key here is "reward." No one has developed an effective way to measure teacher performance and thus reward effective teachers and punish poor ones.

Students deal with big problems like teen pregnancy, drug use and sexual abuse as well as more manageable ones such as too little sleep, hunger and being academically behind. Good teachers help each student with their individual needs. That means teachers are successful with many students, but unsuccessful with some others.

How are teachers to be assessed? By student performance in tests? By student advancement? By peer or administrator reviews? These methods all come short of determining teacher performance. The governor's Q-Comp plan was sold as an attempt to assess teacher merit, but that plan comes up short for many of these same reasons. That's why, years after implementation, only a handful of school districts have adopted Q-Comp. Perhaps some day a method will be created to assess teachers, but until that day comes, to base millions of dollars in federal grants on the subject is ridiculous.

Then there's the issue of Minnesota's official input into the plan. Race to the Top guidelines require the state Board of Education to sign off on the plan, but Minnesota has no Board of Education. Its Education Commissioner is unelected as well - current commissioner Alice Seagren was appointed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. That means no elected official has any real input into the grant application. This means Minnesota's commitment to this program could be misrepresented.

Curriculum development is another issue. What is taught to students is decided on a state-by-state level, but some say Race to the Top's requirements could lead to a national curriculum. This might be desired in lower-performing states, but in Minnesota, we can develop our own curricula just fine, thank you very much.

Applications are due to the federal Education Department by Jan. 19. We hope Minnesota's education leaders and policymakers will consider Race to the Top's implications before they go chasing after the money.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.