We are fast approaching the fifth anniversary, on Jan. 10, of when state applications are due to apply for awards under President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program.
Passed in early 2009 as part of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package, Race to the Top offered $4.3 billion to be split among states that won a contest demonstrating they would use the money to enact what administration education reformers, led by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, outlined as steps to improve America’s failing K-12 public education system. This system perennially spends more money per student compared to other countries, yet produces results at the middle or low end when it comes to how American children compare to their peers around the world.
Because Race to the Top was cleverly cast as a contest among states and their governors for much-needed federal dollars, it attracted outsized publicity, and quickly made education reform a high-profile political issue.
At the top of Duncan’s list of prescribed reforms was overhauling the way school systems evaluate teachers, reward them for good performance and weed out the worst performers.
Put simply, the teachers unions had, by the end of the 20th century, become so dominant across the country in education governance and local politics, especially in the Democratic Party, that teachers were treated like interchangeable “widgets,” as Duncan liked to say. They were not evaluated at all. Or if they were, 95 percent to 99 percent were given “satisfactory” ratings that then led to permanent tenure. They could not be fired unless convicted of a crime — although even convictions didn’t necessarily mean they lost their spots in the classroom or on the government payroll.