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Working In These Times

Friday, Nov 20, 2009, 8:21 am

Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’ Could Pose Hurdles for Teachers

BY Michelle Chen

(Photo by Rainer Ebert via flickr)

The Obama administration is enlisting the nation's schools in a "Race to the Top," but teachers and politicians are still figuring out where to draw the finish line. The program offers a $4.35 billion pot of funding to spur “innovation” and boost student achievement. The premise is simple: lofty goals aren't enough, and money talks.

The recently released criteria for the funding provide a bunch of carrots that seem designed to undercut bureaucracy and union protections, which are often viewed as barriers to reform. The program rewards states that adopt tighter curriculum standards and revamp methods for evaluating teachers. Grant applicants score "points" for measures like “Using data to improve instruction” and developing charter schools.

Not everyone is eager to jump through these hoops. The initiative has been clouded by labor and political tensions, with teacher groups running up against hardliners who equate school reform with underming union power.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan's brand of reform emphasizes charter schools, glossy alternative teacher-prep programs like Teach for America, and philanthropic largess. Yet to progressive educators, the policy question isn't whether reform is good or bad, but whether schools should be run like corporations or a public trust.

As we've reported previously, the program's focus on data-based assessment raises fears that test scores will be misused to dismantle “failing” schools and teachers. The advocacy group FairTest argues that Race to the Top could spiral into a pavlovian numbers game:

Students and teachers should not have their fates determined by flawed and unreliable data....

Most teachers’ primary motivation is not high pay. If it were, they would have chosen another profession. Teachers know test scores are a poor barometer of their abilities, so pay for performance damages rather than enhances their sense of professionalism and morale.

Contrary to the stereotype that unions prioritize paychecks over students, the labor experience of educators is deeply tied to children's educational experience. While union members may buck at the mere mention of “merit pay”—some advocates believe financial incentives can be structured to reward good work without punishing teachers arbitrarily. Barbara Miner of the progressive education journal Rethinking Schools writes:

Much of the impetus for re-examining the pay structure has come from noneducators, in particular politicians and the business community. But within teaching, younger teachers are more open to looking at changing the pay structure. At a time when teacher retention is a growing problem, it is hard to attract and retain young people who feel the current structures are unfair because they have to wait 20 years to reach the same pay scale as the burned-out teacher down the hall. What’s more, if they move to another district, they often lose their seniority-based pay....

It’s easy to develop a performance pay plan that will distort the curriculum and enrage teachers. The more difficult question is whether and how to modify the traditional pay structure in a way that has the potential to promote better teaching, improve teacher pay, and give teachers control, via the union contract, of the program’s implementation.

Even AFT President Randi Weingarten has warmed to the Obama administration's criteria for assessing “effective teachers” (which is broader than originally proposed).

But more radical critics fear the Race to the Top will ultimately dumb schools down. Jim Horn at Substance News says the fixation on standardized tests and overrated charter schools are setting the stage for privatization:

What it will likely do is continue shrinking school curriculums into the box built by the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, weaken the teaching profession and teacher unions, make test scores even more high stakes and certainly more high profit, and solidify the education industry as the dominant voice for urban school matters in America. ...

The reason that charters do no better, and frequently do worse, than public schools is that they do not provide the promised innovations, have higher turnover and less qualified staff. Also clearly emerging from the findings is that charter schools segregate by wealth and race. It is troublesome that our leaders who promised to be "evidence-based" have not based their initiatives on the evidence.

Critics argue that the trendiest reforms, like alternative teacher-certification programs and teacher pay hierarchies, promote educational apartheid; schools in poor communities and communities of color are transformed into petri dishes for untested “innovations.”

Dubbing Race to the Top as "Bribe to the Flop," Horn writes:

The question faced by states: is it worth it to jeopardize public schools for what amounts to chump change, just to expand the education industry and to create a new unaccountable and unregulated corporate bureaucracy to be in charge of the children we have essentially thrown away?

Aside from bread-and-butter contract disputes, school reform may not seem like a labor struggle on the surface. But just as school is a community institution, what goes on inside is a unique and undervalued craft.

While Race to the Top defines innovation within a taxonomy of “points," a different kind of innovation happens in a classroom where teachers and learners mutually empower each other. The final product is something that can't be quantified: intellectual equity.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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