Get Serious about Public Education

Recently the Pittsfield Public Schools, although eligible for Race to the Top funds from the US Department of Education, did not file its application on time and, thus, will not receive the funds. The reason was that the school administration did not consult with the teacher’s union when it put together the application, which was, as I understand it, part of the requirement for receiving funds.  The union voted overwhelmingly against signing off on the application.  The administration, however claims that it tried to engage the teacher’s union.

It was a lot of money.  But, I’m not going to point fingers.  Rather, we might take a step back from this situation and ask some questions.  What seems clear is that the grant application had to be done quickly, just over a month, and that the school administration worked very hard to put together the 195-page document.  No doubt the money dangled before the school administration was a huge carrot.

But maybe that’s the problem.  Race to the Top is the Obama administration’s keystone in its contribution to public education reform.  It seeks implementation of rigorous standards and high-quality assessments, attracting and retaining excellent classroom teachers, greater use of data to inform decisions and improve instruction, ask states to prioritize and transform persistently low-performing schools, and demonstrate and sustain education reforms by promoting collaboration between educators, business leaders, and other stakeholders to raise student achievement.  All of this sounds pretty impressive.  (It should, I drew this from the Obama administration’s material.)

Except that it relies upon student test scores, also known as standardized tests, to evaluate teachers and identify low-performing schools.  Consistently low-performing schools could have their staff, including principal and faculty, fired and replaced by a charter school.  This seems reasonable if all our students were widgets.  Heavily relying upon standardized test scores to determine pay and school performance will only encourage teaching to the test.  It fails to see children as individuals.  It will discourage critical thinking.  It will discourage spending time on topics outside of the test.

I’m puzzled also by the push towards charter schools as though they are the answer to traditional schools.  The National Assessment Governing Board released a study in 2003 in which it did not find that charter schools did any better at educating children than traditional public schools.  A 2009 study from Stanford University comparing charter schools against traditional public schools  found that 17% of the charter schools provided superior education, almost half showed no difference, and 37% of the charter schools performed worse than their public school counterparts.  The idea that low-performing schools should be converted to charter schools implicitly buys into the belief that they will automatically be better, despite data to the contrary.

Then there is the name itself, Race to the Top.  It sounds great – encouraging states and school districts to do their best.  It implies they will have strong performances.  A race also implies winners, which means there are also losers.  Fundamentally, it’s wrong because there will be students who will not be recipients of these grants because their state was a “loser.”  The students weren’t participating the race – they just want to get an excellent education.  Students who are not “winners” lose through no fault of their own.

Race to the Top is terrible public policy.  No student should “lose” because his/her state education officials couldn’t put a plan together or the local school administration and teachers union could not sign off on a document together.  Public education is fundamental to creating a society rooted in justice.  Recently, the United Church of Christ published its 2013 message on public education, which stated “Our society has understood government as a moral force for fairness and greater access to opportunity. Ensuring that schools are universally available and expanding equal access to education has been understood as an essential moral purpose of our public system.”  The National Council of Churches issued a pastoral letter in 2010 that said in part, “We further affirm that our society’s provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—while imperfect, is essential for ensuring that all children are served. As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.”

The Race to the Top is a bare fig leaf our public officials use to cover the basic problem with public education in this country, poverty.  Until this nation addresses poverty in a real and honest way, we can’t educate our children as we would wish.  More than 20% of this nation’s children live in poverty.  This is not to say that all the reform efforts in the last few decades have been worthless, but to continue to blame teachers and the public school system, to insist on measuring performance on batteries of standardized tests, and to dismantle traditional public schools in favor of charter schools only diverts attention from the real problem with school reform, poverty.

Dangle all the carrots before us, but unless we address poverty, we really aren’t serious about education reform.

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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