Are We Racing To The Top?

Drew Ostroski sifts through the intricate language of the Delaware Department of Education in order to get to the bottom of the Race to the Top.

I have the same problem with Race to the Top—basically the post-No Child Left Behind replacement— as I do with education overall. It’s more about administrators than students. And with Race, teachers are getting the short end of the stick, too. 

When Drew Ostroski filed his story, “Race to the Bottom?“, I was floored by the amount of research (for us, that means blood, sweat and tears) he conducted. After months of writing and dealing with the seemingly daily changes in the public school system, he has offered a balanced story about Race to the Top, and has given opponents and proponents equal say. There’s a lot of spin going around in the Delaware Department of Education, yet Drew was able to swim out of that riptide, and explain what all the acronyms, jargon and shop talk means. For mere mortals who don’t speak acronym-ism, that was not easy to do. I commend Drew on a job very well done.

In 2009 Race to the Top, this $4.35 billion voluntary grant program funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—a $787 billion proposition—offered states the opportunity to reap some of that financial reward and compete for cash. State educators sweated over proposals where they promised the moon and stars. They vowed to commit to adapting a new curriculum called Common Core Standards. Twelve states were awarded. Delaware was one of them. 

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I remember the hoopla. It was if the rays of heaven had shone upon our public schools. Delaware would no longer be the brunt of school jokes. This money wouldn’t just make us better—it would make us world class better. Delaware would boast the best public school system in the nation. 

Now four years in, there are no world class dividends. To be fair, there was a $4.35 billion carrot dangling in front of cash-strapped governors in states where test scores were plummeting and dropout rates were rising. Who wouldn’t want the money? (In case you’re wondering what the heck happened with Vision 2012—now Vision 2015, of course—Drew clears it up in the story.)

I’m not sure who the underdogs are in this scenario— the teachers or the students. There’s no way to definitively say that Race has no chance of survival, since data are still being assessed—and those assessments can drag on for years. But if you burn out teachers, the kids suffer anyway. There are no winners, except, perhaps, a few well-paid administrators who are dotting all their i’s, then delegating work that seems impossible to do, let alone comprehend.

Frederika Jenner, the president of the Delaware State Education Association—the state’s largest teachers union—addressed teacher fatigue in a recent newsletter. Her words: “There are some disturbing trends: highly effective teachers are being recruited to take on a staggering number of tasks; more educators are seeking jobs outside of public education; more staff are on stress-related medical leave; good teachers, close to retirement, are leaving sooner than they ever intended.”

Teachers unions aren’t blameless either, since they help make it nearly impossible for professionals to start charter schools. Consider going face to face with bureaucrats, dissecting Delaware’s cumbersome charter laws, and raising big money to open your doors. The irony is that Race to the Top originally appealed to charter schools leaders. (And speaking of charter schools, I question the DOE’s choice to close Reach Academy for Girls. Test scores aside, the school afforded young girls the opportunity to build character and love learning. Was the DOE not fazed by the community outrage?)

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Common Core Standards homogenize student learning, and teachers teach to tests. Race to the Top is bonus and merit based, so teachers’ raises are tied to test scores. Perfectly intelligent administrators know that low test scores are often out of teachers’ control. One has to consider poverty, homelessness, deadbeat parents. Teachers aren’t supposed to raise our kids, yet we seem to be asking them to—then we hold their feet to the fire when a child from a troubled home slips through the cracks.

If the Delaware Department of Education wants a total breakdown, it should continue asking teachers to do more with less; force teachers to learn new standards before they’ve grasped the old ones—then make them change curriculum too fast to think critically about it; ensure that the best teachers feel so overwhelmed and undervalued that they leave the profession altogether. 

If we want public schools to succeed, we should reevaluate Race to the Top. Yes, some Race programs are successful. Overall, though, we may race to the bottom.

Here’s a way to increase teacher salaries: Eliminate the bloated 19 school districts in tiny Delaware and bring it down to four: two in New Castle County; one in Kent; one in Sussex. Then, decrease the 260-person staff at the Delaware DOE. Make superintendents make academic decisions and run the districts. (Don’t we pay them to do that anyway?) Then, when we’ve given teachers the cash they deserve, let’s put the rest directly into classrooms.

I want to believe that our government officials want every kid to succeed academically. But they need to listen to our overworked, underpaid teachers. Want world class results? Treat teachers like the world-class human beings they are.

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Have an opinion about Race? Do you disagree with mine? Write us. We’d love to keep the debate going.

Enjoy the issue.

» R​eturn to the January 2013 issue. 

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