In what must be the most startling development of the past month, year, and perhaps decade, the U.S. Department of Education is now launching a Race to the Top competition for districts. It has nearly $400 million to award, but as we have seen in the state-level competition, the amount of money was sufficient to compel almost every state to rewrite its laws so as to be eligible.

So with this relatively small amount of federal discretionary money, Arne Duncan has set the stage to impose his will and his flawed ideas on districts across the nation.

Districts will have to show that they have the data to track students from pre-k through post-secondary education, as well as to tie test results to individual teachers. The data systems will be elaborate and they will track everyone from age 3-21. And teachers will be held accountable!

What is worse, as the article in Education Week cited above noted, is that “districts will have to promise to implement evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account–not just for teacher and principal performance, but for district superintendents and school boards. That’s a big departure from the state-level Race to the Top competitions, which just looked at educators who actually work in schools, not district-level leaders.”

Think of it. Who will evaluate superintendents and school boards? Will they be evaluated by test scores? Will the federal government fire school boards if test scores are flat? Will it fire district superintendents and replace them? Will Arne Duncan tell school boards and superintendents to raise test scores or resign? Did anyone in Congress approve this bizarre program of federal over-reach?

Even conservative blogger Rick Hess was taken aback. As he put it, “My only reaction to reading the info on this new Race to the Top-District was, “You have…got…to…be…kidding.” It’s like they read all their admiring press clips from RTT, strenuously tuned out any criticism or lessons learned from the, um, uneven track record when it comes to implementation, and wanted to see whether they could take the hubris meter up to 11 (with apologies to Spinal Tap).”

Hess disapproves because he thinks that the new competition will result only in vague promises and punch-list compliance. I am appalled because the U.S. Department of Education should not be in the business of telling districts how to do their job. They lack the competence to do so, and by doing so they ignore decades of history, tradition, and precedent. Is it really appropriate for Arne Duncan to take control of the nation’s schools?

Has anyone at the U. S. Department of Education ever heard of the principle of federalism? Does Arne Duncan think he was appointed the national Superintendent of Schools? Is there no limit to his desire to impose his bad ideas on others? His belief in the value of standardized testing is startling, to say the least. One might even say it is faith-based.

Diane