Where did the Department of Education’s ‘Race to the Top’ lead?

September 30, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama visits Wright Middle School in Madison

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.

Instead, teachers were paid solely on the basis of seniority — how long they managed to keep breathing and show up for work. Other than retail service workers, K-12 teaching is the largest single occupation in the country and arguably the most important. Yet when Duncan announced Race to the Top, most school systems were making no effort to measure or reward the quality of those doing that job.

Meanwhile, the growth of successful charter schools had begun to demonstrate that poverty didn’t cause poor academic achievement. Lousy teaching did.

Charter schools are publicly funded and open to all children via a lottery. But they are managed the way a successful enterprise is — meaning employees are rewarded and promoted based on how well they perform.

By the time the Race to the Top contest was launched, charter school systems, such as those operated by the Success Academy network in New York, had students in the country’s most impoverished communities, such as Harlem, outperforming children in New York’s wealthiest suburbs.

Yet the Success Academy schools were actually spending less money per student to produce superior results.

Other reforms Duncan prescribed included incentives for more teachers to specialize in science, technology, engineering and math (called STEM). The unions bitterly opposed that, too. Again, they wanted all their members to be paid the same — based only on how long they had managed to keep breathing.

Another change demanded in the Race to the Top applications was that states would encourage expansion of successful charter-school networks.

In 2010 and 2011, I wrote a New Yorker article (“The Rubber Room: The battle over New York City’s worst teachers.”) and book (Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools) about all this. It was framed against the narrative of the Race to the Top contest and the promises of reform that states had made in their applications to snag some federal money.

The book ended in mid-2011, after 28 states plus the District of Columbia had been awarded prize money. At the time, I speculated that some states were already falling behind schedule for the reforms they had promised. Others, such as New York, seemed to have made promises that there was little chance they could deliver on. Necessary changes in contracts were being resisted by the unions, which continued to draw on political support from much of the Democratic Party.

Near the end of the book, I asked Duncan about that, and he promised that if states didn’t deliver, he would not hesitate to demand his money back and even sue if he had to.

It is soon going to be 2015, and although I have not been following Race to the Top developments as closely as before, it seems like Duncan ought to be turning his lawyers loose in lots of federal courts across the country.

With supposedly liberal Democrat Bill de Blasio’s election as New York mayor, based in large part on support from the teachers union, the city is nowhere close to delivering on its promises to reward great teachers; identify and counsel the not-great ones, and get rid of those who stunt children rather than propel them. In fact, de Blasio promised in his campaign to thwart the expansion of the Success Academy network. (I describe de Blasio as “supposedly liberal,” because it continues to mystify me how anyone can call himself a liberal who tries, as he has, to impede the growth of successful charter-school networks and to allow incompetent teachers to keep their seats at the front of classrooms occupied by the children most in need of the education that could empower them.)

I know that other states have fallen behind or just plain discarded their promises, too.

What’s needed is a comprehensive story for which those old Race to the Top applications — with all their specific, bold promises and timetables — offer an easy roadmap. The Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal (not the New York Times, whose reporting on education reform has mostly been done from the union perspective) should audit every promise made by every state and the District of Columbia.

I can already see the grid of red, yellow and green boxes signifying promises kept, delayed or just plan abandoned, accompanied by a killer story asking Duncan and the offending state and local officials what happened.

The Race to the Top applications had exactly those kinds of grids, in which the states checked off their promises and supplied the scheduled completion dates. It’s time to update them.

Beyond that, by 2015 there should be data available to see if the states that did proceed apace with their reforms (Florida is probably one, as is Tennessee) actually improved classroom results. That’s what is ultimately important.

Finally, no story about what happened to Race to the Top can ignore what’s happened to the Common Core.

Another part of the Race to the Top contest rewarded states for committing to what governors and education superintendents, collaborating across dozens of states, had determined should be new, tougher curriculum standards, called the Common Core. It was viewed as necessary to restore the United States to a competitive footing in a global economy.

At the time, this seemed the easiest promise to make — and pretty much every state made it. After all, there should not be a different way for teaching math in Mississippi versus Massachusetts. Let alone a different standard for achievement in various academic areas necessary to earn a high-school diploma.

Yet somehow over the last two years, the Common Core has been hijacked as a political issue by conservatives, who grouse that it represents federal interference in education. (Again, it’s a group of governors who came up with it.)

The teachers unions have been only too eager to team up with their usual adversaries on the right against the Common Core. That’s because part of the plan, as envisioned in Race to the Top, involves evaluating teachers based on how well their students do in reaching Common Core standards.

Thus, some Republican governors — such as Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, whose state, under his stewardship, had been a leader in promoting education reform — have now back-flipped to please the far right.

Among potential Republican presidential contenders, only former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has done the most of any governor to promote the Common Core, remains solidly behind a program that, two years ago, seemed as politically unassailable as apple pie.

How did that happen?

And how is it likely to play out in a Republican presidential primary contest?

Speaking of primary contests, another sidebar story should be about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was great on education reform when she was first lady in Arkansas. But she sided with the teachers unions against Obama’s reform policies in the 2008 primary.

Will she stick with the union position in 2016 and be against Common Core, which Duncan and Obama have promoted so heavily?


PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama (L) sits next to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as they visit the Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, November 4, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing

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