Monday, September 13, 2010

From NCLB to RaTTT

Just as I love Mondays, I love back-to-school time with its promise of a fresh start, return to structure and routine, and feeling of possibility. Come Wednesday, and February, I usually feel otherwise, but that's a different story. My family is personally having a great return to school, but back to school for me also means back to writing and thinking about education, and I continue to feel discouraged by Obama's education policies.

One of my least favorite of the current administration's initiatives in education is Race to the Top, for which
eighteen states and D.C. were named finalists. A few weeks ago, nine of those states (Hawaii, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, New York, and Florida) and D.C. were awarded a total $3.4 billion. Under Bush, we got NCLB. (No Child Left Behind), which I liked to call No Child Left Untested. There were some positive things about NCLB, for example, it forced school systems to pay greater attention to the education of ELL (English Language Learner) and SpEd (Special Education) populations, and it forced educators to document and pay more attention to achievement gaps among different groups of students, sorted, for example, by race. However, NCLB caused standardized tests to become the centerpiece of the public school curriculum, with much less emphasis on critical and analytical thinking and writing, scientific inquiry, rich experiences with literature, arts education, physical education, and conflict resolution.

Now, we have Obama's Race to the Top, which I like to call Race to the Flop or
RaTTT. There are several education academics who don't like RaTTT, either. For example, Dan Willingham, University of Virginia cognitive psychologist and author of Why Don't Students Like School? says it's a doomed bribery scheme, not much of a change from NCLB, and that it's based on ideas that fail to take scientific evidence into account. In these two blog posts, UCLA education professor Mike Rose talks about the flaws of RaTTT as a policy: Part I and Part II. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems like a good guy and I think he means well, but according to this New Yorker profile his background in education before working for Chicago Public Schools consisted of helping out in his mom's after school program. Really? Does that qualify him to run a major public school system and then to be secretary of education? Oh, I forgot, according to the same profile, Duncan was a good basketball buddy of Obama's, and he has an MBA, so those must be his qualifications. Now, don't get me wrong, I like Obama. He's a good man and the best president we've had in a long time. But he doesn't know squat about public education and he's outsourced the top education job in his administration to someone who knows only a smidgen more than he does.

The criteria for winning RaTTT funding includes allowing school districts to take over failing schools, improving curriculum standards, encouraging school innovation (meaning lots more charter schools), and retaining the best teachers possible. I don't disagree with these goals, or with the "ends" of Race to the Top. Mostly what I disagree with is the how, the "means."

I think we should have national standards, but they need to be thoughtful and superior to what they'd be replacing. So far, I don't see much evidence of that. Dr. Willingham says that
the new standards are solid, but that they neglect to include the crucial step of how they will be achieved. In these other Washington Post blog posts (Part I and Part II), Willingham talks about what else is missing from national standards.

I am not anti-charter school. I think it's good to have some public school alternatives for students who aren't successful in more conventional public schools. I have considered sending my own children to charter schools (and would in the future), and I have considered teaching in them. I can understand why people would want to form them if they feel that they can't get a decent education at their neighborhood schools. But some charter schools can pick and choose their students and often families have to provide their own transportation. We should really focus on improving our neighborhood schools first and ensuring that all children have a reasonably close neighborhood school option first.

I don't disagree that the model of teacher seniority and permanent job security needs reform. I, too, think that teachers should be laid off when there are budget cuts based on quality rather than seniority. And teachers should be paid more and be provided with better working conditions. I also don't disagree that many of the current evaluation systems are seriously flawed. But on what basis should teacher salaries be raised, and how should we measure teacher effectiveness? On what basis do you decided quality?
Furthermore, how do you classify a failing school? The answer to this, according to Duncan and the architects and supporters of Race to the Top is: test scores, test scores, and test scores. Dr. Willingham says this is a terrible idea and I agree. Test scores mostly tell you about the students who are taking the tests, and not much about who is teaching them. When I taught in public schools, there were certain evaluation criteria that I didn't make, like high test scores, but there were other ways that my administrators had of observing and giving me credit for being a decent and hard working teacher. Now, it seems like some of the new evaluations, such as IMPACT in DCPS, proceed just as the previous instruments did in that they contain arbitrary and ridiculous criteria, such as putting standards up on the walls, but they don't give administrators some space to get beyond the superficial and arbitrary.

This article in the New York Times describes how RaTTT has interacted with the institution of teachers unions. After reading this, I kind of thought, well, maybe these "reformers" have something, maybe I'm just being obstinate in my thinking, maybe I just have a bad attitude. And, yes, I guess that teachers and their unions should join 'em if they can't beat 'em. If this is the way the ship is sailing, maybe educators should climb aboard and make the best of it rather than give up. Maybe they should take a deep breath and understand that this is just a passing fad, hang on to their principles and their concept of quality education until leadership with smarter and deeper thinking comes along and puts our education system on the right track. I'll just hope for that. I'll hope that soon we can get back to focusing on the art, science, craft, and trade of educating, to reforms of quality and substance, that we'll get out of Arne Duncan's RaTTT race, out of the rat race that I, for one, went into teaching to get away from. Let's just hope that Duncan and his groupies don't do irreversible harm before it's too late.

(photo by flickr user Kate's Photo Diary)