Education is a popular platform for politicians. Nearly every successful President in the last century has included education reform among the issues they want addressed once they are in office. Regardless of their party affiliation they've promised change. The message has changed very little over the years, with each candidate calling for an increase in graduation rates and college readiness. Over the past thirty years the platform has been altered to include terms like "equity" and "access" - but it is still basically the same.
When the Obama administration first announced its Race to the Top (RTTT) program, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it an alternative to the Bush administration's "significantly flawed" No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The idea was to bring "reason" back into education reform. It was marketed as positive reinforcement rather than negative. Where No Child Left Behind penalized states and schools that failed to show average yearly progress, under Race to the Top states would be rewarded for doing things well - passing legislation aimed at improving education rates, linking teacher pay with student performance, etc.
But are they really all that different?
Both NCLB and the new RTTT are based on high stakes standardized tests that have been shown to further marginalize the very students they are allegedly seeking to help. Washington is not alone in seeing students of color, immigrant and non-English speaking students and low-income students failing these tests and dropping out at disproportionate rates.
Both NCLB and RTTT link those standardized test scores to school performance evaluations. If students at a school fail - then the school is failing. Under No Child Left Behind that meant a school failed to attain average yearly progress projections and faced the threat of state takeover or outright closure if scores didn't improve. Race to the Top also ties test scores to school performance and part of the application process includes a requirement for provisions for closing the lowest performing schools.
Despite all the fanfare at Governor Christine Gregoire's Wednesday news conference heralding the state's foray into the battle for $3.4-billion in federal RTTT monies, experts think Washington doesn't stand a snowball's chance of winning. The state opted not to enter the first phase of the competition which puts Washington at a disadvantage in round two. Those states that did enter the first time have gone through the process and have gotten feed back on their proposals - providing them with valuable input as they prepare their new applications. Where Washington might score high in categories like teacher/principal preparation programs, the state falls woefully short when it comes to narrowing the achievement gap and charter schools, even though charter schools have not been proven to be any more effective than traditional classrooms in improving student performance.
Both federal programs call for sweeping unfunded mandates, among them the creation of complex education data systems, putting further pressure on already strapped school systems.
Both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have worthy objectives - improving student performance among population groups that need it most - but both lack any clear, substantive ideas in achieving that goal.
One wonders when politicians are going too move beyond the rhetoric. Children fail for a variety of reasons that, in many cases, have little to do with what goes on at school. More on that in our next blog.