Archives for category: Race to the Top

Our friend Edward Berger returned from a long period of rest, reading, and reflection, and he is back in fine form.

He wrote a letter to President Obama and the First Lady to warn of the damage their education policies are inflicting on the nation’s children, teachers, and schools.

He writes:

“Prior to your administration, with few exceptions, public schools were not created as sources of investment income or profit. Schools were run by democratically elected boards under state supervision. Schools were accountable for financial management and academic achievement. A proven (if not100%s effective) means of teacher accountability and school effectiveness was in place and functioning well in areas where great poverty and futility were not generated by our failed economic system.

“Prior to your administration, the tax dollars Americans pay for public education could not be accessed by profiteers or religious groups and cults. No taxpayer was forced to support a religion, ideology, or partial school with their education tax dollars.

“Sadly, strengthened by your administration, an unproven and false use of testing replaced the tests used by educators to understand student needs and to teach effectively. Data generated by wrong and unproven means is causing great harm to students and teachers throughout America. The only known beneficiaries of this drive for data are the corporations creating the tests, and the egos of billionaires who use their wealth to force their “hunches” on our schools.

“Your administration supports those who can buy access to schools and thus children’s minds. Your administration accepts the whims of billionaires who have no certification, little or no contact with professional educators, no concept of the history of American education and how education is delivered, and most devastating, they have very little concern for our children. Almost all send their children to separate schools that do not follow the rules your administration is instigating.”

And much more.

The central feature of the Obama administration’s $5 billion “Race to the Top” program was sharply deconstructed and refuted last week by the American Statistical Association, one of the nation’s leading scholarly organizations. Spurred on by the administration’s combination of federal cash and mandates, most states are now using student test scores to rank and evaluate teachers. This method of evaluating teachers by test scores is called value-added measurement, or VAM. Teachers’ compensation, their tenure, bonuses, and other rewards and sanctions are tied directly to the rise or fall of their student test scores, which the Obama administration considers a good measure of teacher quality.

Secretary Arne Duncan believes so strongly in VAM that he has threatened to punish Washington state for refusing to adopt this method of evaluating teachers and principals. In New York, a state court fined New York City $150 million for failing to agree on a VAM plan.

The ASA issued a short but stinging statement that strongly warned against the misuse of VAM. The organization neither condemns nor promotes the use of VAM, but its warnings about the limitations of this methodology clearly demonstrate that the Obama administration has committed the nation’s public schools to a policy fraught with error. ASA warns that VAMs are “complex statistical models” that require “high-level statistical expertise” and awareness of their “assumptions and possible limitations,” especially when they are used for high-stakes purposes as is now common. Few, if any, state education departments have the statistical expertise to use VAM models appropriately. In some states, like Florida, teachers have been rated based on the scores of students they never taught.

The ASA points out that VAMs are based on standardized tests and “do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes.” They typically measure correlation, not causation. That means that the rise or fall of student test scores attributed to the teacher might actually be caused by other factors outside the classroom, not under the teacher’s control. The VAM rating of teachers is so unstable that it may change if the same students are given a different test.

The ASA’s most damning indictment of the policy promoted so vigorously by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is:

“Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” The ASA points out: “This is not saying that teachers have little effect on students, but that variation among teachers accounts for a small part of the variation in scores. The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum, and unmeasured influences.”

As many education researchers have explained–including a joint statement by the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education– the VAM ratings of those who teach children with disabilities and English language learners will be low, because these children have greater learning challenges than their peers, as will the ratings of those who teach gifted students, because the latter group has already reached a ceiling. Those two groups, like the ASA agreed that test scores are affected by many factors besides the teacher, not only the family, but the school’s leadership, its resources, class size, curriculum, as well as the student’s motivation, attendance, and health. Yet the Obama administration and most of our states are holding teachers alone accountable for student test scores.

The ASA warns that the current heavy reliance on VAMs for high-stakes testing and their simplistic interpretation may have negative effects on the quality of education. There will surely be unintended consequences, such as a diminishment in the number of people willing to become teachers in an environment where “quality” is so crudely measured. There will assuredly be more teaching to the test.. With the Obama administration’s demand for VAM, “more classroom time might be spent on test preparation and on specific content from the test at the exclusion of content that may lead to better long-term learning gains or motivation for students. Certain schools may be hard to staff if there is a perception that it is harder for teachers to achieve good VAM scores when working in them. Over-reliance on VAM scores may foster a competitive environment, discouraging collaboration and efforts to improve the educational system as a whole.”

For five years, the Obama administration has been warned by scholars and researchers that its demand for value-added assessment is having harmful effects on teachers and students, on the morale of teachers, on the recruitment of new teachers, and on the quality of education, which has been reduced to nothing more than standardized testing. Secretary Duncan has brushed aside all objections and pushed full steam ahead with his disastrous policies, like Captain Ahab in pursuit of the great white whale, heedless to all warnings.

Based on the complementary statements of our nation’s most eminent scholarly associations, any teacher who is wrongfully terminated by Duncan’s favorite but deeply flawed methodology should sue for wrongful termination. What is not so clear is how the nation can protect our children and our public schools from this administration’s obsessive reliance on standardized tests to rank and rate students, teachers, principals, and schools.

The Education Law Center noted in 2012 that there was a pattern to the distribution of Race to the Top grants:

The states and districts with the most unequal funding won a large share of RTTT grants.

ELC writes:

Since 2009, the US Department of Education’s (USDOE) Race to the Top (RTTT) initiative has given billions in federal funds to states conditioned on launching various education reforms. The USDOE has awarded these grant funds without regard to how equitably the states fund their schools. States control 90% of all school funding, and successful reform requires adequate resources, especially in districts serving high concentrations of low-income students and students with special needs.

In early December, USDOE announced another round of RTTT grant awards, this time to 16 local school districts or groups of school districts. The 16 award winners will share $400 million to support USDOE school reform priorities.

Once again, the RTTT grant process ignores the key precondition for sustaining any meaningful education reform — a fair and equitable state school finance system. The winning RTTT districts are in 12 states, all of which have serious deficiencies in the way they fund schools. Some of the districts are in states with the most inequitable school funding in the nation.

Kenneth Mitchell, a school superintendent in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York, has been concerned about the costs imposed on school districts by Race to the Top. He previously estimated that six districts in his region would spend $11 million to comply with the mandates of Race to the Top, which paid these districts $400,000.

In this comment, he describes a recent meeting with lawyers about possible lawsuits that will be brought because of New York’s flawed Educator Evaluation System.


On Friday, March 14, The Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents hosted a panel of education attorneys to address the following topic:


Supervision, Evaluation & Tenure Decisions

• What is the effect of Education Law §3012-c on a school district’s ability to terminate probationary teachers and principals?

• How might overly prescriptive, rigid statutory and regulatory policy frameworks, such as §3012-c, regarding teacher evaluation, tenure, and employment decisions withstand teacher and principal appeals?

Statistical Reliability and Validity of Data in Supervision, Evaluation & Tenure Decisions

• How might the statistical reliability and validity of measures of teaching effectiveness – state assessments, VAM, SLO’s, school-wide assessment scores – affect teacher evaluation, tenure, and employment decisions?

• How will the metric of ‘confidence intervals’ be considered in a legal decision about a teacher’s effectiveness?

• How will the number of years of value-added assessment data to determine teacher quality be a factor in a teacher or principal appeal?

• In what ways will the use of locally-developed assessments, such Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), be challenged in an appeal?

• How will the individual evaluation of a teacher based on school-wide data, such as the 4th grade math assessment, withstand an appeal?

Implementation, Professional Development, and Resources

• How will such factors as consistency, training, and quality be considered in observations and evaluations developed by supervisors?

• How will equity issues, such as the access to materials (e.g., Common Core units) or technology, be a factor in an appeal?

• Experts in child and adolescent development have asked for a review of the Common Core to ensure that all of the standards are developmentally appropriate.
Since assessments are being developed on the basis of Common Core and teachers and principals being assessed accordingly, how will the aforementioned concerns be considered?

Other References

“Evaluation Law Could Limit Ability to Terminate Probationary Teachers”; Warren Richmond III (Harris Beach), New York Law Journal, (May 2013)

“Legal Issues in the Use of Student Test Scores and VAM to Determine Educational Quality”; Diana Pullin, Education Policy Analysis (2010 Manuscript)

In addition to these references, we have posted other related legal articles on the main page of our website: We have also raised other concerns about the model that we have shared with state legislators, members of the Board of Regents, officials at the State Education Department and with representatives of the governor’s office. There are many other questions that will need to be answered once this enters the legal arena.

We shared that many in our organization have concerns that a) the design of reform model is flawed on multiple levels; b) the expedited and unsupported implementation will further contribute to inevitable legal challenges; c)the weak technical basis and very limited or no research behind elements of the model will not withstand legal challenges. These are just a few of our concerns. As a result, school districts will be wasting even more time and money on legal costs. Unless significant changes are made on the basis of substantive evidence, New York’s reform model is headed for trouble that will move beyond the anxiety and frustration of over-tested students, angry parents, weary teachers, and harried administrators.

Diana Senechal, author and high school teachers, has found what is needed in American education today: a renewed emphasis on the Inhumanities.

Senechal has identified a district in Wisconsin where this new initiative is taking place.

“Rhino Falls, Wisconsin—Citing a global trend toward ruthless school and workplace practices, Superintendent Mark Sequor called on for a steep increase in the inhumanities throughout the K–12 grades. “It’s time we not only caught up with Singapore and China, but showed them who’s who,” he told an assembly of 10,000. “Our kids think they have lots of meaningless tests? They should see the tests the kids in Korea take. Our kids think they have too much homework? Compared to other kids, they’re on permanent vacation.”

“To catch up with the rest of the world, says Sequor, the schools need an inhumanities emphasis even more than a STEM emphasis. “STEM might still give you a few stargazers,” he explained; “whereas a course in inhumanities will keep every child on task.”

“The inhumanities, Sequor continued, are at the heart of the Race to the Top competition, which awards funding to districts that race into flawed reforms without really thinking them through. “The whole point here is to get ahead, not to think,” he said, “and so, by embracing the inhumanities, we’re really going the extra mile—faster than anyone else, I’ll add.”

“Telos Elementary, a model school in Rhino City, allows visitors to witness its inhumanities curriculum in action. The day is filled with rapid and strictly timed activities, where students from kindergarten on up must turn and talk, repeat, rotate, move to the next station, repeat, summarize, and get in line. “We can’t let them get dreamy,” said Holly Vide, the school’s inhumanities coach. “We need to have everyone engaged. Also, in the workplace, they’ll be switched from task to task or even fired, so we need to prepare them for that reality.”

In later grades, the inhumanities are honed to a fine art.

“Once students enter high school, they are expected to do everything, he said. “Every high school student, in order to have a fighting chance in life, must have top grades, top test scores, leadership credentials, an array of extracurriculars, athletic prizes, community service hours, and at least ten things that go above and beyond what everyone else is doing. Can you be a person of integrity and character and do all of this?” he asked with a rhetorical flourish. “Of course not. That’s part of the point. Integrity and character are relics of medievalism. I think it was the medieval writer Flannery O’Connor who said something about how integrity lies in what one cannot do. We live in a ‘can-do’ era. A ‘can’t-do’ attitude is simply out of bounds.”

No Child Left Behind became law in January 2002. Twelve years later, it is a discredited law that remains on the books only because Congress can’t agree doesn’t know what to do next. They are trapped in the quagmire of a failed accountability system and they don’t know how to get out.

But Race to the Top compounded the basic error of NCLB–relying on testing and accountability to “reform” schools–and it added a new ingredient: a frontal attack on teachers as the primary cause of low test scores. Its effort to quantify the value of teachers by the test scores of their students has not only made testing the sine qua non of daily education but has destroyed the joy of learning and harmed the teaching profession. Race to the Top made teaching to the test a necessity. Every time you hear either President Obama or Secretary Duncan say that teachers should not teach to the test, but they should be rewarded for higher scores and fired for lower scores, remember that this is what hypocrisy sounds like.

To see the harm of Race to the Top through the eyes of disillusioned and disheartened teachers, read this comment:

I met a friend for lunch today. She was a colleague with whom I taught, up until last year, before I moved to another school within our district (an urban Title I District which serves a demographic of primarily Hispanic, English Language Learners). As we talked, we both discussed our disenchantment with a broken system and mused about moving to a mythical place where we would be afforded more creative freedom to teach in way that was deeply impactful and meaningful. We talked about how our anger had turned to apathy, and how we feared getting lost in the oblivion of bitterness and burn out. We talked about how the instruction of our students had been reduced to district directives putting our students at the mercy of mind-numbing computer tutorials and scripted skinnarian intervention programs. But mostly, we talked about how, through all of this, we have been slowly and systematically robbed of the relationship we have with our students.

Let me explain how I came to know this colleague. She is a middle school social studies teacher and, hands-down, one of the finest teachers with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working. I have drawn from her strength, as I witnessed her question the “status quo”, stand up against arbitrary policy, and show a depth of understanding for each and every student that crosses the threshold of her classroom. I was the special education teacher who supported the identified students on her team, for which she was the team leader. Never, in my twenty-four years of teaching, had I heard so many students express such a love of social studies, or a specific teacher, for that matter. When I would ask why, the response was generally the same. “I don’t know, she just makes it fun.” Or, “It’s just really calm in her classroom and you want to learn.” Or, “She just cares about us.” This came from Middle School Special Education students, many of whom were reading between a first and third grade reading level, but nonetheless, experienced success in her classroom.

So, why is this story significant? This year our district has taken Special Education and intervention to new heights. We have been directed to pull out our lowest twenty-five percent during science, social studies, and elective classes when providing support. Consequently, many students get one day per week in the classes that many typically thrive in and enjoy the most. We are over-dosing, yet essentially depleting, our most vulnerable, struggling students. When I questioned my administrator on this directive last year before leaving, her response was something like, “Well, who really needs social studies in life? Who needs to know where this country is on a map? It’s just not that important.” After attempting to recover from her flippant, uninformed comments, my response to her was, “But it’s the only class many students like and she teaches reading and writing through her content. Plus she is masterful at meeting the needs of every level of student.” She hemmed and hawed and finally conceded that that was just the way it was.

Now that I think about it, I believe the students just like my friend and feel safe in her classroom, regardless of what an excellent teacher she is. They are learning despite themselves. This, my friends, is not quantifiable. This is about relationship. Yet, given the new teacher evaluation mandates, she will be measured and evaluated on the progress of students who spend eighty percent of their week in front of a computer or being read scripted questions, verbatim, which must be answered on the cue of a bell or clicker; pre-packaged programs which, by their very nature, prevent inquiry, creative thinking, and most importantly, a relationship with a trusted teacher.

“Where do we go from here?” we asked each other. I don’t know. I do know that we have both found ourselves mourning a profound loss. Then my friend shared her own personal insight. “It’s like when you are in a bad relationship”, she said. “You start to compromise who you are. First, you let go of this. Then you let go of another thing. Pretty soon you realize that you just can’t go on because you aren’t being true to yourself anymore.” I am glad I met my friend for lunch, because she continues to give me the courage to find my own voice. She once said to me that people who have a gift for teaching urban middle school students have a moral obligation to continue the work. Now I see her wavering, not because she does not love her students, but because she cannot be true to the relationship, and ultimately herself. I am terrified that this will be yet another a piece of the carnage left behind in this battle–just one more casualty soon forgotten in the sweeping, dispassionate corporate take over of our American Public Education System. But even more, I am soul sick for the students who may never have the opportunity to cross the threshold of her classroom.

Bill Moyers is one of my heroes. He is one of the few people in the media who is as concerned about the privatization and monetization of the public sector as I am. He has a long memory, and he has not forgotten that a good society needs both a strong public sector and a strong private sector. Nor has he forgotten that the real civil rights movement was about tearing down the walls of a segregated society and creating equal opportunity for all, not the current effort on the part of billionaires to promote school choice and decimate public education.

I enjoyed talking to him. Here is the full interview as it aired on PBS.

This teacher explains: She loves teaching. She loves her
students, but she wants the high-stakes testing and the Race to the
Top to stop. She knows that her students are set up to fail. It is
all so wrong, so mean-spirited, so cruel. This is what she knows:
“I am a NYS certified public school teacher teaching 3rd grade in
an economically disadvantaged school district in rural upstate New
York. I happen to be one of the unfortunate teachers in a “test
grade” and am in fear of loosing my job, my livelihood, and the one
thing I used to enjoy waking up to every morning (my students)!!!!!
I went into teaching to teach precious little minds to learn and
not fear the consequences if they do not get something. “That has
all changed in the last several of years as state and federal
politics have stepped in to tell us how poorly our students are
doing. We, as teachers, are so under pressure to make a round peg
fit into a square hole with these new core standards. The people
who write these tests and demand that all students achieve at the
same level have never stepped foot into a classroom to see the
diversity of the students we work with everyday. “Last year during
the first year of the common core testing, I had students who were
crying because they did not understand the question, did not have
time to finish under the allotted time, or were just simply
overwhelmed by the complexity of the test. Is that why I became a
teacher, no it is not! I teach because I want to see my students
learn, but as more and more pressure comes down on us as teachers
so too does it in our students! “There has to be a time when we
stop thinking about the race to the top and start thinking about
the children we are supposed to be encouraging to want to learn!
The only thing we are doing with these common core state tests is
setting them up for failure and in the same process making teachers
look like they are not doing their jobs. “I’m tired of people who
have never stepped foot into a classroom telling me that I am not
“effective” because my 8 year old students can’t pass a test that
even a college graduate has difficulty completing!!!!!!! Whether I
am effective should not depend on how my students do on a three day
test, it should be based on whether they show growth from beginning
to end, just like they should not be considered as not meeting an
impossible state mandated goal in a three day test!!! Enough is
enough, let us get back to teaching and let our kids be kids,
after-all your childhood only lasts so long!!!!!”

Peter Greene noticed in his scan of reports from Arne Duncan that Duncan singled out the super stars of his Race to the Top.

Most surprising of all was that North Carolina won a gold star for improving the teaching profession.

To call this startling is an understatement.

Don’t take my word for it: Read what Duke University Professor Helen Ladd and former New York Times education editor Edward Fiske wrote about the appalling attacks on teachers and on public education in recent years in North Carolina.

Teachers are bailing out of North Carolina because salaries are so low and have not increased since 2008.

The legislature has passed law after law stripping teachers of any and all rights and privileges.

Teachers can no longer get a raise for earning an advanced degree (just shows you what the legislature thinks of education).

The legislature killed off its successful North Carolina Teaching Fellows, which produced well-prepared teachers who made a career of teaching, yet found $5-6 million to bring in Teach for America, guaranteed not to stay in teaching.

North Carolina has one of the worst climates for teachers in the United States, and it has gotten progressively worse over the past three years since hard-right Republicans took control of the legislature and the governorship.

What exactly did Arne find admirable about teaching conditions in North Carolina?

Was he misinformed or does he approve of the war against teachers by the state’s extremists in the legislature and its governor?

The bottom line is that Race to the Top was a waste of $5 billion that might have been used for the arts, for reducing class sizes in needy schools, for opening health clinics, for doing what was actually needed by students and teachers and communities. It could have been a national competition to reward the districts that produced actionable plans for racial integration. Instead, it piled on more testing, demoralized teachers and principals, added tons of paperwork, and rewarded consultants, entrepreneurs, and snake-oil salesmen.

Jeff Bryant of the Education Opportunity Network writes in Salon that voters are increasingly disenchanted with the bipartisan Bush-Obama education policies of high-stakes testing, Common Core, and privatization.

He points out that the attacks on public education are not playing well at all in the political arena. The overwhelming majority of parents are very happy with their local public schools and respect their teachers. The public is beginning to see through the lies they have been told about their schools. So much of the rhetoric of the “reformers” sounds appealing and benign, if not downright inspirational, but it ends up as nonstop testing, the closing of local public schools, merit pay, union-busting, the enrichment of multinational corporations, and standardization.

Bryant predicts that Democrats will suffer at the polls for their slavish espousal of hard-right GOP doctrine.

He writes:

“The only overriding constants? People generally like their local schools, trust their children’s teachers and think public school and teachers should get more money. Wonder when a politician will back that!

“Many observers, including journalists at The Wall Street Journal, have accurately surmised that the American public is currently deeply divided on education policy. But that analysis barely scratches the surface.

“Go much deeper and you find that the “new liberal consensus” that Adam Serwer wrote about in Mother Jones, which propelled Obama into a second term, believes in funding the nation’s public schools but has little to no allegiance to Obama’s education reform policies.

“Outside of the elite circles of the Beltway and the very rich, who continue to be the main proponents of these education policies, it is getting harder and harder to discern who exactly is the constituency being served by the reform agenda.

“Most Americans do not see any evidence that punitive measures aimed at their local schools are in any way beneficial to their children and grandchildren. In fact, there’s some reasonable doubt whether the president himself understands it.

So is Arne Duncan making education policy on his own? Or is the policy agenda of the Obama administration indistinguishable from that of rightwing Republicans like Bobby Jindal, Rick Scott, Scott Walker, John Kasich, Mike Pence, and Tom Corbett?


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