Comments on Race to the Top Proposal

The Obama Administration has provided a proposal for spending $ 4.5 billion in Federal funds to push their education agenda. The full proposal and a form to submit comments can be found here. I submitted the following comment:

Comments on Obama Administration’s Race to the Top Proposal.

Patrick J. Sullivan, Manhattan Member, Panel for Educational Policy, NYC Board of Education

The proposal emphasizes increased uses of standardized testing and expansion of charter schools, two strategies for improving student performance that do not have a research base supporting their efficacy.

In contrast evidence-based strategies such as class size reduction are not anywhere supported by the proposal. Beyond small class size, attributes of high performing public and private schools – enrichment programs, arts, foreign language, and sports – are nowhere to be found in the proposal despite the fact that these programs are always found in schools already at “the top”.

The definition of effective teacher and student growth are too narrowly dependent on standardized tests. Application of these definitions as proposed for teacher tenure, compensation and termination decisions will have negative consequences for teaching and learning.

The “effective teacher” and “very effective teacher” are defined as those who demonstrate “student growth” which is itself defined to be changes in “student achievement”. “Student achievement” is defined as changes in state standardized test scores. Once enshrined as criteria for making tenure decisions, rating and termination decisions as suggested by the proposal (Reform plan criteria C2), this approach will lead to narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test. Only tested subjects will be emphasized. There is also significant risk that educators will avoid schools where factors outside of a teacher’s control such as overcrowding, underfunding, poverty, crime, weak administration and lack of parental support create a more difficult environment for teaching. Rather than seeking to define effective teaching, the RttT proposals should focus on proven tactics for improving teaching effectiveness such as lower class size or innovative solutions for addressing the challenges teachers face.

Proposed interventions for underperforming schools lack vision and emphasize measures that, in practice, will be punitive toward educators.

The interventions required in “Turning Around Struggling Schools” (Reform Plan Criteria D3) include closing schools, elimination of the majority of staff and forced conversion to charter or private management. The emphasis of these tactics will cause talented teachers to avoid low performing schools likely to lead to situations where teachers will be terminated or otherwise stigmatized as failing.

The proposal systematically excludes parents as stakeholders in the education of their children.

One factor considered in awarding the grants to each state is the extent to which support and commitment of key stakeholders is enlisted (Overall Selection Criteria E3). While the administration has a long list of stakeholders, parents are not on it. Charter schools, teachers unions and foundations are deemed to be important stakeholders but not parents. These criteria should be extended to explicitly include parents, parent groups and Parent Associations as stakeholders. There is only one place where parents are even mentioned in the proposal, as consumers of reports produced by the proposed data systems. The proposal’s exclusion of parents and the rejection of their role in the education of their children are inappropriate and will undermine any genuine reform effort. Reform efforts must engage parents as they play an essential role in maintaining a supportive environment for learning and must set expectations for their children. This type of thinking appears to be alien to the drafters of the proposal who appear to seek only to hold teachers accountable to the exclusion of all other factors or stakeholders.

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