About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Race to the Top of What?, Part II

The results of the first round of competition for Race to the Top funds came in last week, and my home state of California wasn’t one of the lucky 16. This failure has caused much consternation. After all, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan paid special attention to California, and Governor Schwarzenegger and the legislature engaged in serious political wrangling to clear the way: we removed our cap on charter schools and removed the firewall between teacher evaluation and student test scores. Secretary Duncan praised these moves. Yet we didn’t make the cut. Some states that didn’t go as far (like New York and Kentucky) were among the early winners. God knows how the decision was made, though that will be revealed in April – presumably not April 1. So California policy makers are trying to decipher the tea leaves to gear up for the next competition.

It was interesting to read the commentaries that followed the decision. Lots of puzzling and head-scratching – both in California and elsewhere – and some finger pointing: mostly at teachers unions and recalcitrant districts that didn’t sign onto the state’s plan. But I didn’t read any commentaries that raised more basic questions.

I don’t for minute want to deny that California (as do the other states) desperately needs the money. And I wish we were still eligible. But this whole “race” business, this fevered competition pitting state against state is public policy madness, a pretty unenlightened way to think about the public good.

Hardly anyone in the mainstream media is pointing out that Race to the Top itself is flawed policy filled with contradiction. The Department of Education stresses the importance of “research-based” and “data-driven” education policy. Yet so much of what it champions – and has been promulgating through the carrot of Race to the Top dollars – is not built on a solid research base. Take charter schools, which the Department characterizes as “engines of innovation.” A number of research studies demonstrates the kind of variability one finds in many public school districts: there’s some good charters, some bad ones, and lots that fall in between. (See Jeffrey Henig’s wonderful Spin Cycle for a balanced summary.)

Or consider the politically popular proposal to link teacher evaluation to student test scores. Again, the research complicates this seemingly straightforward move. As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, research from a number of sources (including an economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisors) raises doubts about both the technical aspects as well as the practical outcomes of evaluating teachers through student scores.

Another discordant feature of Race to the Top (and of NCLB before it) is the way it stresses the importance of good teaching while disparaging, even insulting, the current teaching force. The initiative embodies a terribly reductive model of teacher motivation and development, a one-dimensional, punitive one: teachers don’t try hard enough and the way we’ll make them try harder is to tie their professional awards to test scores.

Hand-in-glove with the above is the absence in Race to the Top language of much deep, on-the-ground knowledge of classrooms, of teaching and learning. The thin understanding of the act of teaching and the teaching profession is a case in point.

So, no wonder the results of the Department’s March 4th announcement are confusing. You’ve got a contradictory, flawed policy embodied in a high-prize competition. The Department of Education noted that the decisions were based on a complex point system. Perhaps it will be released in April. That release might clarify the confusion about the awards. Or it might reveal an elaborate machinery of compliance. And remember, it was an elaborate and contradictory machinery of a different sort that characterized NCLB.

Bottom Line: It’s just so disheartening. School boards are faced with further reducing the number of days in school or closing schools to make their budgets. Teachers are getting laid off. Tuition rates are going up in colleges, and colleges are cutting classes. And here we are with our local policy makers arranging and rearranging the bits and pieces of reform around an uncertain racetrack, getting ready for one more sprint to the top.


  1. Well put Mike. Obama continues to pursue a warmed over "No Child" policy that is all surface and no substance. I guess it's worse than that. There is some substance, but in the wrong direction: continued reliance on faulty testing, explicit threats to teachers and school districts, and "the magic bullet" fantasy that you've pointed out. And, as you say, the overall tone of this kind of "support" from the feds re-enforces the wrong kind of fundamental relationships of trust, integrity, and guided effort that teachers and learners naturally grow in.

  2. I would agree with your broad comment that "Race to the Top" is too narrowly focused on evaluating teachers and schools by test scores and other quantitative criteria. At the same time, I would make the following observations:

    -If tests are bad for many years, and are so far outside any reasonable measure of statistical probability, we should be able to assume that a school or a teacher is bad. For example, if a school district has an average of 25% of students at grade level in standardized testing, and one school has been at 1% for five years in a row (a real-life situation in Bridgeport, Connecticut), we should be able to assume that something is wrong. Test scores are not good tools for telling us what to do, but outlier results should be able to tell us that something must be done.
    -Similarly, with respect to teachers, a consistently worse result than other teachers in similarly situated schools year after year should trigger an inquiry based on broader criteria. Test scores should be trigger mechanisms for a richer analysis, not absolute performance determinants.
    -We clearly need to do far more work on finding other markers of good quality performance by teachers, even some evaluation systems that have been proven over many successful school districts around the world.
    -Nevertheless, your critical comments about the clumsy, bureaucratic, one-dimensional way the Bush and Obama administrations have tackled this problem are right on point.

  3. In response to Michael's comments...

    1. Yes, outlier schools might be a sign of a problem, but it might not be a problem of the school's making.

    2. I agree that outlier data among teachers might be worth a look, but I would refrain from assuming that it has to do with the teacher. There are so many factors involved - regarding scheduling, other classes, other teachers, prior teachers, time of day, changes in school routines and policies - that we can never know for sure what the test scores show us about a teacher. There is no substitute for classroom observations and multiple measures of student achievement, using more rich and authentic assessments.

  4. Something no one seems to want to talk about is that students themselves regardless of the teacher often resist education, are flagrantly absent or worst interupting the educational experience of other through their defiant behavior. Teachers are blamed for not being able to engage these students when the problem is clearly larger than any one teacher in causation or solution. Looking for students to shape up rather than for teachers to make them interested in school may be unpopular, but it is a real issue. Test scores will continue to be poor when we have students high school classes who clearly have difficulty reading and writing, as well as having a poor attitude and worst behavior, partly perhaps as a result of their functional difficulties with learning. But also as a result of social influences and ineffective parenting. A test may tell us about a child's schooling, but often says volumes more about their home life.

  5. I fell asleep and did not realize I have so many grammatical errors in my own response. Oops! Mea culpa

  6. I agree the No Child Left Behind act has left us with inadequate funding and unrealistic standards at times, yet there has been growth as a country. We do need formal testing to keep us going and parents convinced of progress. We also need real support.

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  8. See: