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Politics of public education reform - exploring Race to the Top's common standards goal


U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, left(AP Photo/The Journal & Constitution, Bob Andres)

In July of 2009, President Obama announced his education reform initiative Race to the Top:

This competition will not be based on politics, ideology, or the preferences of a particular interest group. Instead, it will be based on a simple principle—whether a state is ready to do what works. We will use the best data available to determine whether a state can meet a few key benchmarks for reform—and states that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant. Not every state will win and not every school district will be happy with the results. But America's children, America's economy, and America itself will be better for it.

There are already several indicators that the Race to the Top will be rife with politics, ideological battles, and special interest groups vying for a slice of the pie.  Once again, it will be business as usual.  The only losers in the game will be public school students. 

Various components of Arne Duncan’s education reform initiatives, including Race to the Top, will use more than $10 billion from the 2009 federal budget and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to encourage states to adopt international benchmarks and assessments; to help recruit, develop, reward, and retain effective teachers and principals; to help build data systems that measure student performance and inform teachers and principals how to improve their practices; and to help turn around low performing schools.

Schools, school districts, and states are already jumping through masses of paperwork and funding hoops to meet the demands of Title I and No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  They will now also be contending with a state competition for federal dollars in Race to the Top, if they participate at all.  Some school districts are understandably hesitant to sign on to yet another federal program with many strings attached.  According to an article in the Huron Daily Tribune, some school districts in Michigan are making sure they can opt out of the program in the future if they decide the strings attached are too costly.  

The first goal of the federal Race to the Top is to have states work together to adopt common, internationally aligned benchmarks rather than the states continuing with their individual state standards.  State education standards drive the curriculum, textbooks, and assessments for each state.  However, states do vary in the robustness of their standards.  For example, students can move from one state where they were learning certain math skills in 7th grade and go to another state where those particular skills are not learned until later or where those skills were learned earlier.

An unforeseen consequence of federal mandates on states has led to some states getting around the stringent NCLB yearly adequate progress requirements by lowering the quality and depth of their state standards and assessments.  In doing so, states make it appear they have shown progress in test scores when they really have not.   Intentionally or not, in this case, the very problems federal intervention intended to solve caused even more problems.  

There is also a question as to why the goal of aligning standards was even included in Race to the Top.  Is this component of Race to the Top a federal power grab since a project similar to this had already been started by state governors? 

In June of 2009, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the governors of 48 states, 2 territories, and the District of Columbia announced the Common Core State Standards Initiative.    At this point, the governor’s version of common standards seems more logical and efficient since there are indications most of the work will be done by February of this year.  It is redundant to have state governments and the federal government working separately on the same issue unless there are other purposes for including it in Race to the Top.

An often unmentioned byproduct of federal education reform is the special interests that will benefit.  With little doubt, America’s federal bureaucracy will be the special interest that will profit the most from an increased federal role in all things formerly state-controlled.

All Race to the Top applicant states will be scored on a rubric by the Department of Education using “independent reviewers who have been chosen from a pool of qualified educators, scholars, and other individuals knowledgeable in education reform. The Department will thoroughly screen all reviewers for conflicts of interest to ensure a fair and competitive review process.”   Will the independent reviews be from various education reform philosophies?  Will the teacher's unions be represented?  Will there be ideological roadblocks to true reform?

Any attempt at public education reform cannot help but have an agenda.  The Race to the Top competition is no exception.   Time will tell if the winners of the Race to the Top prize money are selected because of an agenda as well.

This is a multi-part series on the Obama Administration’s public education reforms.

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  • bpeterson1931 5 years ago

    In connection with “Race to the Top” it would seem that distributing public funds based on some type of competitive scheme not approved by Congress would be unconstitutional.

  • Michael 5 years ago

    So the first goal of this federal program is to have states work together on something they are already working together on?

  • Wayne 5 years ago

    Excellent article! I look forward to your next installment...

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