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Race to the Top: lasting damage in exchange for peanuts for a few

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that 10 states won education reform money in the second round of the administration’s “Race to the Top” contest. Now that nearly all the federal finance has been distributed, perhaps people will sit back and evaluate the competition in a more sober way.

New York was one of the 10 states, winning $696 million. As the New York Times writes, “The state’s success comes after months of wrangling in Albany and fights with the state and city teachers’ unions, who initially opposed most of the changes, most notably increasing the number of charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores.” The Times notes that hedge fund executives bankrolled the campaign to pressure lawmakers to raise the limit on charter schools, from 200 to 460 state-wide. Other moves included closing low-performing schools; making it easier for teachers to earn certification; and building a statewide curriculum.

But buried in the Times article is a revealing fact: “the amount that New York will receive is a small fraction of the state education budget”. This is most likely the case in other states too (given that the prize money was adjusted for the number of students per state). This fact should raise a question: why have politicians and officials gone to such efforts of overhauling their education systems – with all the disruption that causes, especially since the reforms were rushed through - if all they win for it is a tiny portion of their funding? Race to the Top just gave these politicos leverage (an excuse) to push through the reforms they wanted anyway.

As I’ve said before, Race to the Top is a crazy way to establish education policy. The sight of states scrambling to complete application forms and begging for money was pathetic. The game was never going to be an answer for the nation as a whole, given that by definition only a few states would win. 

Today's Times identifies another problem: there seems to be a geographic bias in Duncan’s Race to the Top decisions. Eleven of the 12 winners (Tennessee and Delaware won in the first round) are from the East, most on the coast. In particular, the administration’s reform ideas are impractical in more sparsely populated and rural locations. Three of the federal government’s four-part strategies for turning around failing schools involves firing the principal – something that exacerbates the existing recruitment and retention issues in rural areas.

There have been many casualties from the Race to the Top. One that caught my attention last month was about Joyce Irvine, principal at Wheeler Elementary School in Burlington, VT, as reported in the New York Times. Colleagues and parents rave about her, especially given her ability to lead a school in a district that includes a large number of immigrant and poor families. Irvine’s most recent job evaluation began, “Joyce has successfully completed a phenomenal year.” But she was removed from her job. “Mrs. Irvine wasn’t removed by anyone who had seen her work (often 80-hour weeks)… Ms. Irvine was removed because the Burlington School District wanted to qualify for up to $3 million in federal stimulus money for its dozen schools.” Irvine accepted the decision, as she realized that her resignation would be the least disruptive way for the school to appeal for money.

Vermont learned yesterday that it lost the Race to the Top contest. Wheeler Elementary lost a great principal.

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