Teachers unions and advocates gave a mixed reaction to a $4.35 billion education reform initiative announced by President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last week.

Billed by Obama as “one of the largest investments in education reform in American history,” the new program is part of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan passed by Congress and signed into law by Obama in February.

Under the “Race to the Top” program, states will compete for federal funding grants for innovation in education.

‘Rather than divvying it up and handing it out, we are letting states and districts compete for it,” Obama said as he and Duncan announced the program last Friday. “That’s how we can incentivize excellence and spur reform and launch a race for the top in America’s public schools.”

Duncan said his department will be “scrutinizing state applications for a coordinated and deep-seated commitment to reform.”

Among the more controversial elements of Race to the Top are requirements that promote the growth of charter schools, link teacher evaluation and pay to student performance and push for national student performance standards — presumably measured by standardized tests.

Duncan said states will be awarded grants based on their readiness to implement four core reforms:

* “adopt common, internationally-benchmarked K-12 standards that truly prepare students for college and careers.” To speed this process, Duncan said, the Race to the Top program will set aside $350 million to fund the development of” rigorous, common state assessments.”

* “monitor growth in student learning—and identify effective instructional practices.”

* “identify effective teachers and principals, reward and retain more top-notch teachers—and improve or replace ones who aren’t up to the job.”

* ‘institute far-reaching reforms, replace school staff, and change the school culture.”

Duncan emphasized that the four reforms are interrelated, and “one reform reinforces the others.”

“When teachers get better data on student growth,” he said, “it empowers teachers to tailor classroom instruction to the needs of their students and boost student achievement.”

“When principals are able to identify their most effective and least effective teachers, it makes it easier for them to place teachers where they are needed most—and provide struggling teachers with help.”

“When superintendents have the authority to tackle their lowest performing schools by replacing staff and shaking up the school culture, they will have the ability—for the first time—to close or remake the dropout factories in our urban districts that are at the root of our dropout problem.”

Obama said the Race to the Top competition “will not be based on politics or ideology or the preferences of a particular interest group.”

“We will use the best evidence available to determine whether a state can meet a few key benchmarks for reform — and states that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant,” the president said.

Many education reform advocates, including teachers and their unions, are concerned that the competition guidelines appear to place excessive reliance on standardized multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said in a statement that the NEA would “encourage the Education Department to think more broadly about what it views as the basic tenets of a student’s educational experience.”

“If we continue to focus narrowly on test scores, then students in need of the most support will continue to get more test prep rather than the rich, challenging, engaging education they deserve,” Van Roekel said.

“Teachers should be evaluated on their practice using multiple criteria, not just one,” he said.

Likewise, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said on the AFT website, “Hopefully we will agree that teacher evaluations must be improved the right way. We need meaningful, fair and multiple measures for supporting and evaluating teachers so that evaluations aren’t based on one observation by a principal or one standardized test score.’

Weingarten and Van Roekel along with state and local teachers union leaders were among the invited guests at the July 24 announcement of the Race to the Top initiative.

One of the local leaders, Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough (Fla.) Classroom Teachers Association, a joint affiliate of the AFT and the NEA, addressed the gathering. ‘There is no ‘one thing’ that will improve teacher quality or student achievement,’ she said.

She cited successful joint initiatives by her local union and school district including high-quality mentoring and coaching, well-trained principals who work collaboratively with teachers, adequate resources, and professional growth opportunities at all career stages.

Noted educator and reform advocate Deborah Meier says the drive for national standardized testing gives her “chills.”

In a July 14 interview posted on her web site, Meier condemns reliance on standardized tests. “We have made what can be measured cheaply (and thus is easily ranked) the definition of being ‘well-educated’,” Meier says. “We have defined ‘achievement’ and even ‘performance’ to scores on paper-and-pencil tasks, largely of the multiple choice variety, without any evidence that this is wise policy, or will produce either a stronger economy or a stronger democracy. (Or even stronger college performance!)”

The two national teachers unions said they would study the details of the Race to the Top proposal and, in Van Roekel’s words, “use the 30-day comment period to find common ground with the administration.”

suewebb @ pww.org


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more. Previously she taught English as a second language and did a variety of other jobs to pay the bills. She has lived in six states, and is all about motherhood, art, nature and apple pie.