Despite shrinking budgets and staff cuts, many school districts across the country have refused to apply for Obama's Race to the Top grant. (UNC - CFC - USFK)

Race to the Bottom?

The Obama administration’s education reform is little better than its predecessor’s.

BY Andrew Elrod

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'Continued reliance on competitive funding is a policy approach that creates and supports a system of winners and losers when it comes to America’s schools and students.'

On October 3, school districts across the country let the Race to the Top application deadline fly by, leaving unclaimed tens of millions of dollars in grants from the Obama administration’s signature education program. The Newark, N.J. district did not apply, nor did school districts in Portland, Ore. and Topeka, Kan., to name just a few.

With districts across the country cutting budgets and shedding staff, such passed-up opportunities for additional funding might seem surprising. But the abstentions signal reluctance among educators and administrators alike to subject their schools to competition-based reforms, even when millions of dollars are on the line.

Nearly four presidential terms after George W. Bush inaugurated his controversial education-reform program, No Child Left Behind, its questionable evaluation methods appear to be mostly intact in Race to the Top. NCLB’s approach, which attached funding and staffing penalties to schools for inadequate improvement on students’ high-stakes testing scores, was criticized by education advocates for shifting class time away from non-cognitive skills like civics and self-confidence and for lowering state standards in a rush to meet adequacy goals for student achievement. In addition, the initiative has led to some district-wide cheating scandals, potentially motivated by a fear of staffing changes prompted by so-called inadequate measures of improvement.

In 2009, the Obama administration added a rewards-based, competitive state-level grant program, Race to the Top—a proverbial carrot to complement the Bush-era stick intended to beat higher test scores into the states. The voluntary program asked states to propose reforms around four areas: standards and assessments, data systems, teacher effectiveness and improvement in the lowest-performing schools. It ranked their proposals accordingly, and only the states with the top proposals received grants—hence the name.

The grant proposals are often composed by writers hired from education consultancies like Education First and with money from the Gates Foundation, which some officials feel gives certain districts an unfair competitive advantage in addition to diverting public funds into a growing sector of education business. The Education Department only pays the winners, but in order to qualify, all the competitors have to commit, at least in writing, to the program’s vision of change—leading publications like the New Republic to laud Race to the Top as a fiscally efficient “strings-attached approach to reform [that] may be just what some of the nation's worst schools need.” Race to the Top’s own summary states its purpose as helping to “spread the best reform ideas … across the country.”

Race to the Top-District is the program’s newest incarnation, kicked off in 2012 as an alternative contest for districts whose states shrugged off the original state-level competition. As with the state-level program, according to Race to the Top-District’s executive summary, eligibility for grant money rests on a demonstrated plan for teacher evaluation systems, measurement systems for “all student progress and performance”, and a “robust data system” that ties individual teachers to their students’ performance.

In the first year of Race to the Top-District, there were 371 applicants, representing more than a thousand school districts nationwide. This year there were only 219 applicants, representing just 700 districts—a 40 percent drop in applicants.

The waning application numbers seem in keeping with growing dislike of the existing reform programs among district education leaders, who make the decision about whether to apply for the district-level funding. In a statement emailed to In These Times, a representative of the superintendents’ organization American Association of School Administrators said about Race to the Top, “AASA thinks that continued reliance on competitive funding is a policy approach that creates and supports a system of winners and losers when it comes to America’s schools and students, and that is not something we can support.”

The superintendents’ association is “not opposed to competitive funding in theory,” the email continued, “but think[s] that the federal government’s continued reliance on (and priority for) competitive funding is premature” given the severely unequal playing field among states and districts. Instead, it advocates a fuller funding of Title-I (students in poverty) and IDEA (students with disabilities) grants. “Until then,” it clarified, “the continued focus on driving critical additional dollars to a select number of recipients is poor policy, and something that we oppose. AASA has opposed all round[s] of [Race to the Top].”

This attitude was mirrored in a three-year program evaluation released by the Economic Policy Institute’s Broader, Bolder Approach to Education project in September. “Superintendents really hated Race to the Top,” says report author Elaine Weiss, who interviewed more than two dozen stakeholders—including superintendents, principals, school board members, teachers, and state legislators—for the paper. In addition, the report drew on annual Race to the Top data from the Department of Education as well as hundreds of articles about and studies of the program during the first three years of its implementation to make its claims.

“[Superintendents] are not teachers’ unions,” Weiss continues. “They work with teachers, they supervise teachers—in a sense, you would think they have motivation to assign the blame [for underperforming schools] on teachers. Never did I hear one of them do that.”

Principals have also been opposed to Race to the Top, she says, likely because of Race to the Top’s suggested assessments for principals and administrators along with teachers. She cites an example in New York where principals authored a letter protesting the Annual Professional Performance Revue that the state implemented under the program, a letter that has now collected over 1500 principals’ signatures. “They felt put-upon,” she says. “They felt demeaned.”

Given that instructor evaluations can severely limit professional autonomy, the labor wing of policy opposition has taken a similar view to the education leaders Weiss interviewed. In Newark, where labor representatives’ refusal to sign this year’s grant proposal has been a driving force against Race to the Top’s policy goals, teachers’ union president Joseph Del Grosso feels Race for the Top is also not cost-effective. “Reform from the top down is expensive,” he says about Race to the Top during a phone interview. “When you … reform from the bottom up it’s much more effective, and a lot cheaper.”

As a labor leader, Del Grosso, who is familiar with the Broader, Bolder report, has many of the same frustrations with Race for the Top as those Weiss quoted: insufficient time and resources to both evaluate and implement the goals the district proposed in its application, such as teaching technological literacy and perennially changing data evaluation systems. Del Grosso feels that the promises that districts often make in their proposals, shaped by Race to the Top’s requirements, were inappropriate to his particular district’s needs. “There was more pork in that application than at a Memphis barbeque,” he said. “It was just riddled with things that I found that would not do anything to alleviate any of the significant problems that we have in Newark.”  

Those problems, as Del Grosso sees them, include an inadequate focus on reading in classrooms and underfunded, understaffed schools. “It’s laughable,” he says, “that in the application for Race to the Top, [the district] talked about expanding parental involvement; they laid off all the community aids. In the application they [say] one of the things that Newark needs to improve is student attendance. We had fifty attendance counselors in the district; they were laid off last summer.” Since the spring of 2013, the district has laid off more than 100 employees. Grant expenditures are earmarked in the application, and, according to Del Grosso, the district did not include provisions in its grant proposal to use funds to rehire laid off staff.

Both Del Grosso and Weiss also point to Race to the Top’s exorbitant management fees as a source of consternation among those opposed to the policy. To remain competitive in the eyes of the government, districts tailor their grant proposals to the program’s assessment criteria, often including expenditures that some union officials—including Del Grosso—consider unnecessary. Del Grosso claims that in Newark, the fees were as high as $15 million dollars, or a little less than half of the entire award for which the district would have potentially qualified. In an open letter posted to the Newark Teachers’ Union website, Del Grosso said that the proposal the district offered the union—whose approval is a requirement in the applications process—included, among other things, six project manager positions with $500,000 salaries each, $800,000 for a social-emotional learning advisor, two million dollars for a student support services partnership, and no provisions to rehire laid off-staff. In turn, the Newark school district has claimed Del Grosso intentionally did not participate in planning the proposal. In the end, he did not sign—and Newark did not make the application deadline.

In addition to costs, Weiss says the program’s demand for increasingly arbitrary measurements for success has actually limited its effectiveness. “You have somewhere from 50 to 75 percent of teachers who don’t have a standardized test that you could you use the scores to evaluate them,” she explains. “You often have to come up with alternative methods.” In doing so, Weiss found that districts were using “seemingly random” metrics to satisfy the Race for the Top grant requirements, citing one example of an attempt to evaluate school nurse performance by setting goals for reducing the number of sick day absences, something completely out of nurses’ control.

In general, Weiss says that Race to the Top’s focus on hard data fails to consider the potential extra-curricular causes of low academic performance. “None of the Race to the Top policy agenda components addressed what [education leaders] thought [of] as their biggest challenges,” she says, “which were related to poverty.” 

The academic issues she lists include students not having stable study environments at home, hungry students not receiving free breakfast and being unable to focus and student absences for sickness due to irregular and inadequate healthcare. “Behavioral problems … came out because of how many stresses the child was dealing with at home or in the community,” she said. “On and on. And district leaders and parents and principals [say] not only isn’t Race to the Top recognizing this, not only isn’t Race to the Top addressing this, but it’s ratcheting up pressure on [them] to achieve ever higher levels of attainment without giving [them] any tools to do it, and kicking them as failures when [they] don’t do it—when of course it’s impossible.”

Del Grosso agrees that addressing poor students’ basic needs should be a high priority for any reform. In his home district of Newark, two out of every three schools applied for Title-I funding, which means at least 35 percent of students at the school are from low-income families. More than a quarter of Newark residents live below the poverty line, and median household income is a little over $35,000 a year. “Before we ask for laptops for every student,” a goal the union claims the district set in its Race to the Top proposal, “we’d get some type of a reading program, or maybe even crayons, or maybe books we don’t have in some of our schools,” says Del Grosso.

There is some indication that the Obama administration is beginning to address these concerns. Though $370 million were allocated for Race for the Top-District's inaugural run, only $120 million will be awarded to this year’s grantees.

“One [explanation] would be that they [the Department of Education] just don’t have money, that Congress has not been willing to appropriate anything,” says Weiss. “Another could be a shift in focus. I know that the department again has moved very heavily in the past year to making early childhood [education] its top priority, and it may be trying to focus on that.”

Race to the Top-Early Learning—an assessment-driven reform program targeting preschoolers introduced by the Obama administration in 2011—could be an obtuse example of such a change, but even that reform, which doles out federal dollars according to the same strategy of interstate competition, has seen some participants depart, the most recent being Virginia.

As states individually withdraw from the federal government’s voluntary education programs—and as the 2014 No Child Left Behind deadline for universal proficiency approaches—there will be an opening for a shift in policy at the federal level.

The administration should take cues from recent incidents of regional pushback against neoliberal reform in public education, the most pronounced of which was the widely publicized Chicago teachers’ strike last year. In California, for example, the newly signed AB 484 takes the “high-stakes” out of testing for two years by suspending the academic performance index scores superintendents use to rate schools; in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has approved only six charter schools to open this September, as opposed to the 33 he approved for last year. And in New Mexico, teachers and parents filed a lawsuit in September seeking to end the state’s test-based teacher evaluations.

Though the reform machine is far from defunct—various private endowments, such as the Gates, Walton and Broad Foundations, continue to funnel money toward its survival—potential collapse of a federal competition-driven reform program would be an important development for those with a more nuanced vision of public education.

“At a point in time,” says Weiss, “when our poverty levels are at record highs, our inequality is at a record high … it makes no sense to focus on a competitive grant program when we could be using that money to target the schools that need it most.”

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Andrew Elrod is writer living in New York. He is a contributor and former intern at Dissent. He is from Texas. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewelrod or reach him at elrod.andrew [at] gmail [dot] com.

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