Archives for category: Race to the Top

Arthur Camins, director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, writes frequently about education issues.

In this post, written a year ago, he warned that the real problem in education is that we fail to prepare our students for the challenges of citizenship. The post was prophetic.

The phrase college and career readiness has become ubiquitous in education debates, but as a slogan without significant transformational direction. Of course, students should leave K-12 education with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the next phase of their lives. Of course, students’ experiences should open rather than restrict their choices and opportunities when they graduate. Of course, they should all graduate. Of course, young people need to develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions to be successful in the world of work. Ignoring that would be an irresponsible abdication, especially for students whose parents already struggle to make a decent living. It’s not that that these are misplaced goals. They are just insufficient.

We need an education system intentionally designed to engage students to understand their values and to learn how to become effective citizens. Which questions teachers ask or do not ask influences how their students understand the world and their role in it.

There are ways to teach that promote passivity, he writes. And there are ways to teach that encourage active engagement:

In the past, how have people worked together to improve the human condition in different societies? What has supported and thwarted those efforts? What features of governments support or impede peaceful resolution of conflicts? How do scientists make discoveries? How do engineers design solutions that improve people’s lives? How do literature and the arts help us understand and value one another and our environment? How can mathematics be used to help make better decisions? What changes are you interested in investigating? These are change-oriented questions that affirm students’ capacities and encourage them to imagine themselves as agents of improvement. These are engaging motivational questions. When student engage in such action-directed learning they can develop the values, confidence and mindset to make things better.

We need a rebirth in the teaching of history and civics. We need more than ever to teach students the importance of living together with others in peace and mutual respect. We need to teach them to respect the humanity and individuality of others.

Perhaps this is the state we are in after 16 years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, focused exclusively on test scores, standardized testing, basic skills, and getting the right answer.

Civics is about asking the right questions, and questioning why those questions are “right,” not picking a bubble and saying it is the “right answer.”

Mike Klonsky wonders whether Arne Duncan’s patronizing comments about parents and critics of high-stakes testing helped Donald Trump win the election.

When 20% of the parents in New York opted out of the state testing, he sneered at them and said they were white suburban parents who found out that their child wasn’t so bright after all. This was rank condescension.

When Duncan used Race to the Top billions to bribe states into adopting Common Core, he continued to insist that Common Core was a project of the states. He became the nation’s leading cheerleader for Common Core, and he ridiculed the critics. The critics were vociferous, especially in the Midwest.

Throughout his time in office, Duncan celebrated the successes of charter schools, wherever he could find them, and barely noticed public schools. Last month, before Massachusetts voted on Question 2, Duncan turned up in Boston to argue that expansion of charters was unquestionably a good thing. Despite his ringing endorsement, Question 2 was soundly defeated in almost every district in the state.

I don’t know whether Duncan helped Trump win by making public school parents angry, but he most certainly paved the way for the full-throated privatization that Trump is now pressing. Who would have thought that Arne Duncan and Donald Trump would be on the same team, cheering for more school choice, more charters, more privatization? Trump took it to the next level and threw in vouchers. Once you endorse school choice and launch an assault on the very principle of public education, it is hard to walk it back.

For many of us who believe in the importance of public education, the Obama administration was a great disappointment. The President is a man of great dignity, but he gave the Department of Education to the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and John Podesta’s Center for American Progress. Race to the Top prioritized truly dreadful policies that closed schools, evaluated teachers by test scores (because Bill Gates liked the idea, not because of any evidence that it was right to do so), encouraged states to open more privately managed charter schools, and made data and test scores the heart and soul of education. President Obama may have been great in many other policy arenas, but on education, his Race to the Top was (in my view) a flop. With the support of the Obama administration, the public became familiar with the claim that school choice advances civil rights, despite clear evidence that school choice accelerates segregation by race, religion, and social class.

Now the U.S. Department of Education has commissioned a study to evaluate Race to the Top. Peter Greene here reviews this study by two of our leading research institutes that asks and answers the question: Did Race to the Top Work?

Of course, your reading of the study depends on what “work” mean?

Did RTTT succeed in getting most states to authorize charter schools or increase the number of charter schools in the state? The answer is yes.

Did it incentivize most states to adopt a test-based evaluation of their public school teachers? Well, yes, it did.

Did it encourage states to close schools and fire teachers and principals when test scores were low? Yes indeed.

Did RTTT make high-stakes testing the central way of measuring American education and the ultimate goal of education? Yes.

Voila! It “worked.”

But Peter wonders if implementation of bad ideas is really the best way to define “works”?

He begins:

Did Race To The Top Work?

Not only is this a real question, but the Department of Education, hand in hand with Mathematica Policy Research and American Institutes for Research, just released a 267-page answer of sorts. Race to the Top: Implementation and Relationship to Student Outcomes is a monstrous creature, and while this is usually the part where I say I’ve read it so you don’t have to, I must confess that I’ve only kind of skimmed it. But what better way to spend a Saturday morning than reviewing this spirited inquiry into whether or not a multi-billion-dollar government program was successful in hitting the wrong target (aka getting higher scores on a narrow, poorly-designed standardized reading and math tests).

Before We Begin

So let’s check a couple of our pre-reading biases before we walk through this door. I’ve already shown you one of mine– my belief that Big Standardized Test scores are not a useful, effective or accurate measure of student achievement or school effectiveness, so this is all much ado about not so much nothing as the wrong thing.

We should also note the players involved. The USED, through its subsidiary group, the Institute of Educational Sciences, is setting out to answer a highly loaded question: “Did we just waste almost a decade and a giant mountain of taxpayer money on a program that we created and backed, or were we right all along?” The department has set out to answer a question, and they have a huge stake in the answer.

So that’s why they used independent research groups to help, right? Wellll….. Mathematica has been around for years, and works in many fields researching policy and programs; they have been a go-to group for reformsters with policies to peddle. AIR sounds like a policy research group, but in fact they are in the test manufacture business, managing the SBA (the BS Test that isn’t PARCC). Both have gotten their share of Gates money, and AIR in particular has a vested interest in test-based policies.

[As someone who worked in the U.S. Department of Education many moons ago, I know that the folks who get millions to evaluate federal government programs tend not to be overly critical or they might deal themselves out of future contracts for evaluations. There is a large number of inside groups in D.C. who live for government grants, known as Beltway Bandits.]

He continues:

And right up front, the study lets us know some of the hardest truth it has to deliver. Well, hard of you’re a RTT-loving reformster. For some of us, the truth may not be so much “hard” as “obvious years ago.”

The relationship between RTT and student outcomes was not clear. Trends in student outcomes could be interpreted as providing evidence of a positive effect of RTT, a negative effect of RTT, or no effect of RTT.

Bottom line: the folks who created the study– who were, as I noted above, motivated to find “success”– didn’t find that the Race to the Top accomplished much of anything. Again, from the executive summary:

In sum, it is not clear whether the RTT grants influenced the policies and practices used by states or whether they improved student outcomes. RTT states differed from other states prior to receiving the grants, and other changes taking place at the same time as RTT reforms may also have affected student outcomes. Therefore, differences between RTT states and other states may be due to these other factors and not to RTT. Furthermore, readers should use caution when interpreting the results because the findings are based on self-reported use of policies and practices.

Hmm. Well, that doesn’t bode well for the upcoming 200 pages.

Peter then proceeds in his jolly and inimitable fashion to evaluate the evaluation. And it does it for free!

Did it misdirect the goals of American education? Did it cause a national teacher shortage? Did it demoralize experienced teachers and cause an exodus of talented teachers? Did it help grow the charter movement? Did the charter movement sap resources from public schools? Those question were not part of the “scope of work.”

Jeff Bryant noted that President Obama has been boasting lately about the success of his education policies, pointing to a rise in high school graduation rates as proof of their efficacy. Bryant says that the President’s education policies are nothing to brag about.

The emphasis on using outcome measures has been a hallmark of the Obama years in education. That has put unusual and often harmful pressure to get results, even when the results are meaningless. Take those rising graduation rates. Some schools have increased their graduation rates by assigning low-performing students to phony credit recovery classes, where they can guess the right answer until they pass and get meaningless credits.

The focus on test scores has warped education, in some cases, causing schools to cut time for recess, the arts, history, civics, and everything else that is not tested.

He writes:

For instance, according to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” academic achievement generally is declining under Obama’s watch.

As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, for the first time since the federal government began administering the exams in 1990, math scores for fourth-graders and eighth-graders declined. Reading scores weren’t much better: Eighth-grade scores dropped while fourth-grade performance was stagnant compared with 2013, the last time the test was administered. Achievement gaps between white and minority students remain large.

But the education numbers that have worsened the most are those associated with what’s being invested into the system rather than what’s coming out of it.

Drawing from a new report on government spending on children, Bruce Lesley president of First Focus finds, “Federal support for education has dropped from a high of $74 billion in 2010 to $41 billion in 2015, a decline of more than 40 percent in the last five years … Federal education spending remains 9 percent lower than in pre-recession 2008.”

Beyond the support for education at the federal level, the picture is arguably even worse.

In its most recent report on spending on education, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds, “Thirty-five states provided less overall state funding per student in the 2014 school year (the most recent year available) than in the 2008 school year.” Even in the states where local funding rose, the “increases rarely made up for cuts.”

Local funding for schools, another significant share of education support, generally fell during the same time period. “In 36 states, total state and local funding combined fell between the 2008 and 2014 school years,” the CBPP finds.

This steep decline in education funding is arguably the most significant threat to our children’s education, and thus, the country’s future.

According to a recent review of the research on the systemic correlation between education spending and school quality and student achievement, William Mathis and Kevin Welner, of the National Education Policy Center, find, “While specific results vary from place to place, in general, money does matter and it matters most for economically deprived children. Gains from investing in education are found in test scores, later earnings, and graduation rates.”

In another review of research studies on the importance of adequate and equitable school funding, Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker writes, “To be blunt, money does matter. Schools and districts with more money clearly have greater ability to provide higher quality, broader, and deeper educational opportunities to the children they serve. Furthermore, in the absence of money, or in the aftermath of deep cuts to existing funding, schools are unable to do many of the things they need to do in order to maintain quality educational opportunities.”

What Obama Never Got About Education

Emphasizing education output, while generally leaving input unaddressed, has been a feature, not a bug, of the Obama administration’s education policy all along.

This was the administration whose signature programs, Race to the Top and the waivers to No child Left Behind, demanded states rate schools and teachers based on a “learning output,” which most states took to mean student scores on standardized tests. The president’s Education Department and Secretary Arne Duncan incentivized states to lift any restrictions on the number of charter schools in the system and provided significant grant money to expand their numbers. States were encouraged to spend vast sums of money on new systems to track output data and use them to sort and rank schools, evaluate teachers, label students, and force schools into turnaround efforts that would result in being subjected to even more scrupulous data tracking.

But while the Obama administration obsessed over output numbers, its attention to the inputs in the system was ad hoc and haphazard at best.

Obama’s Education Department never showed much interest in equitable and adequate funding, nor for that matter, in desegregation. The biggest change induced by Race to the Top was more funding for privatization, and more states authorizing privatization in order to be eligible for RTTT money. Imagine if Race to the Top had awarded millions to states that created policies to promote desegregation. It is important, it is measurable. It would have changed our schools and our society. But desegregation was not a priority.

And then there are his choices for Secretary of Education. Arne Duncan was a failure as Superintendent in Chicago, where he promised that there would be a Renaissance by 2010 (the name of his program, “Renaissance 2010”). He failed. He closed schools, he opened charter schools. He failed. And then came John King, who had been an embarrassing failure in New York state. He couldn’t speak to parents, because they were so angry about his heavy-handed promotion of Common Core and high-stakes testing. Governor Cuomo wanted him gone. And now he is Secretary of Education. Based on what?

Nothing to brag about here.

An object lesson in what not to do to improve American education.

Valerie Strauss writes about a visit by President Obama to a highly selective public school in Washington, D.C. He brought with him his two Education Secretaries, Arne Duncan and John King.

He said he wanted every school to be as great as the school he was visiting, Benjamin Banneker. But there was much he did not mention.

Strauss writes:

“There’s no denying that Banneker is a top-performing school in the nation’s capital, and that 100 percent of its seniors graduate. But it’s unclear if Obama knows that if every school did what Banneker does, the high school graduation rate might plummet. That’s because Banneker is a magnet school where students must apply to get in — but the only entry grades are ninth and tenth. And they must maintain a B- average to stay. Kids who can’t cut it leave, but that attrition isn’t counted against the school’s graduation rate.”

He did not talk about his administration’s preference for charter schools over public schools. He did not acknowledge how Race to the Top had promoted privatization and led to the closure of thousands of public schools, mostly in communities of color. He didn’t talk about Common Core or the $$360 million that Duncan spent to create two testing comsortia aligned to Common Core, nor about the slow collapse of both consortia. He did not mention Dincan’s obsession with “bad teachers” or his mandate for evaluating teachers by test scores, which has generated a widespread teacher shortage.

President Obama is a brilliant man. Why is he so oblivious to the damage caused by Race to the Top, Arne Duncan, and John King?

Cathy Rubin interviewed several well-known educators and asked what they would do if they were Secretary of Education. I was one of them. Here is the interview. The interview was conducted about four or five years ago. I focused on the errors of the Bush-Obama agenda of test-and-punish. It was a bad idea in 2002, a worse idea in 2009, and today it is a proven failure.

If I were Secretary of Education, I would focus federal funding on greater resources for the neediest students. My theme would be equity and equality of educational opportunity. I would create a fund to promote increased desegregation. I would campaign for community schools and wraparound services. I would not fund privately managed charters. I would fund only charters that are created and supervised by school districts to meet needs. I would be a champion for the principles and values of public education and a champion for teachers.

When this statement first appeared in 2014, I said at the time that it should be on the bulletin board of every public school.

The American Statistical Association explains here why the evaluations of individual teachers should not be based on their students’ test scores.

Here is an excerpt. Read the whole statement, which is only 8 pages long:

It is unknown how full implementation of an accountability system incorporating test-based indicators, such as those derived from VAMs, will affect the actions and dispositions of teachers, principals and other educators. Perceptions of transparency, fairness and credibility will be crucial in determining the degree of success of the system as a whole in achieving its goals of improving the quality of teaching. Given the unpredictability of such complex interacting forces, it is difficult to anticipate how the education system as a whole will be affected and how the educator labor market will respond. We know from experience with other quality improvement undertakings that changes in evaluation strategy have unintended consequences. A decision to use VAMs for teacher evaluations might change the way the tests are viewed and lead to changes in the school environment. For example, 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. Overreliance on VAM scores may foster a competitive environment, discouraging collaboration and efforts to improve the educational system as a whole.

Research on VAMs has been fairly consistent that aspects of educational effectiveness that are measurable and within teacher control represent a small part of the total variation in student test scores or growth; most estimates in the literature attribute between 1% and 14% of the total variability to teachers. 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.

The VAM scores themselves have large standard errors, even when calculated using several years of data. These large standard errors make rankings unstable, even under the best scenarios for modeling. Combining VAMs across multiple years decreases the standard error of VAM scores. Multiple years of data, however, do not help problems caused when a model systematically undervalues teachers who work in specific contexts or with specific types of students, since that systematic undervaluation would be present in every year of data.

Despite the warning from ASA, which has no special interest and does not represent teachers or public school administrators, many states continue to use this method (called VAM, or value-added measurement or value-added modeling).

States were coerced into adopting this unproven method by the U.S. Department of Education, which said that states had to adopt it if they wanted to be eligible to compete for nearly $5 billion in federal funds in 2009, as every state was undergoing a budget crisis caused by the economic meltdown of fall 2008.

Many states adopted it, and it has not had positive effects in any state.

In Colorado and New York, among others, VAM scores count for as much as 50% of teachers’ evaluation.

A state court in New York ruled this method “arbitrary and capricious” when challenged by fourth grade teacher Sheri Lederman and her lawyer-husband Bruce Lederman.

Some states assign VAM scores to teachers based on students they never taught in subjects they don’t teach.

This is an example of federal and state policy that has no basis in evidence and that has harmed the lives of many teachers. It very likely has caused teachers to leave the profession and contributed to teacher shortages.

This link will take you to the opening pages of the revised “Death and Life of the Great American Dchool System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” The book was originally published in 2010. It became a surprise national bestseller.

The publisher at Basic Books, Lara Heimert, invited me to lunch a year ago and made an unusual offer. She said that I could revise the book any way I wanted. This was an extraordinary offer. Publishers usually warn you not to add or subtract unless you keep the line count exactly the same. They want to avoid the expense of resetting the entire book. But I was offered the opportunity to change, add, delete as I wished. It was an offer I could not refuse.

The two big changes I made were these:

I removed my long-standing support for national standards and tests in light of the Common Core debacle.

Second, I revised my estimation of the 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” which gave rise to the myth that American education was broken.

I hope you will take the time to read this new edition. It reflects much of what I have learned from YOU on this blog over the past four years.


Earlier today, I posted a piece by Andy Jones, a high school language arts teacher in Hawaii. In the introduction, I mistakenly said that Hawaii had eliminated the teacher evaluation system that was created in response to winning Race to the Top funding. I wrote: “This past spring, Hawaii dropped the test-based teacher evaluation that Race to the Top had forced on the state as a condition of winning RTTT funds. The money was all gone, and so was this bad idea.” That was not completely accurate.

Andy Jones sent this note to correct me:

“I so hate to ask, but…the HSTA secretary, who along with everyone else here is a great admirer of your work, just asked me if I could mention to you that your intro to my article is somewhat inaccurate, in that the teacher evaluation system (EES) is still in place. We were merely successful in eliminating test scores from the evaluation. We are, however, almost equally angry at present, because in the months since that announcement was made, they have insisted on maintaining the excoriated SLO component (Student Learning Outcomes) – the mindbogglingly ridiculous quasi-action-research template we have to go through in our evaluations in which we choose learning objectives, administer pre-assessments, make predictions about student learning, collect evidence of student growth, etc., and are only rated “distinguished” if 90% of our predictions are accurate. This is now worth 50% of our evaluation, along with the standard Danielson-based observation cycle and Core Professionalism (basically a portfolio on Danielson Domain 4) comprising the other 50%.

“HSTA secretary Amy Perruso wanted me to post you on this, because she’s afraid that HSTA will now be bombarded with emails and telephone calls asking “How did you get rid of the teacher evaluations?” – which, unfortunately we have not and which we’re going to be attempting very aggressively this year to get rid of.

– Andy”

John Thompson, teacher and historian in Oklahoma, is a frequent contributor to the blog.

Diane Ravitch publicized an educator’s concise and astute critique of Florida’s standards of instruction where “The FLDOE has absolutely no clue on how long it takes to teach each standard effectively.” An educational software company “looked at the standards that a fifth grade teacher is required to teach effectively and stopped counting when we found it would take a minimum of at least 300 school days to teach the standards to an effective level.” The obvious problem is that covering the tested standards would take 2/3rds of a school year more than the time students are in class – even if there were no disruptions of learning ranging from assemblies and class disruptions to the time wasted on benchmark and other form of testing.

Reader: It Takes 300 Days to Teach the Florida Standards Effectively

Moreover, even a Florida true believer in test-driven, competition-driven reform should understand “that these tests are not built to test your child’s learning knowledge, they are built to evaluate the schools and teachers on their effectiveness on teaching the standards.” Consequently, “In order for a teacher or school to score effectively on these tests you have to hope that the students that are coming into your classroom have at least some prior knowledge of the standards.” That, of course, helps explain why the contemporary reform movement, which was designed to help poor children of color, has inflicted the most damage on the kids that it was supposed to help.

We need far more press coverage of the absurdities fostered by high stakes testing. To know about the real-world effects of corporate school reform is to recognize why it should be ridiculed to death. We must also explain, however, that teaching and testing to a standards regime that is disconnected to reality is more than a farce. It is a tragedy. For our poorest children of color, the test, sort, reward, and punish path to school improvement has been especially cruel. And, don’t even get me started about the damage done to our society’s education values by bubble-in accountability.

In Oklahoma City, before NCLB, administrators would grin when they passed out aligned and paced curriculum guides. All types of educators were mostly amused that anyone would seriously contemplate such a guide for our Standards of Instruction as anything more than some silly paperwork to be filed away and forgotten. The time it took for students to master material obviously was the time it took to master material. There was no possible way that the rate of learning could be predetermined and, back then, administrators knew that there was no alternative to trusting the teachers’ judgments on the pacing of instruction. Besides, teachers and students need to be free to build on the kids’ interests and strengths, and get off the beaten path to engage in class discussions, take field trips, and pursue project-based learning.

The pacing guide listed the standards, or major concepts and skills, that students were supposed to master on its schedule. I was supposed to cover a major standard, something as complex and sweeping as the New Deal or the Cold War, every eight minutes, every hour of every day. A unit on World War II, for example, prescribed a one-day lesson to examine the rise of nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s, describe the causes of the war, elaborate on its outcomes and effects, from the Holocaust against the Jews and other groups, to economic and military shifts since 1945 to the founding of the United Nations and the political positioning of Europe, Africa, and Asia. This lesson was known in the curriculum guide as “Standard 16.4.” Another typical one-day lesson, known as Standard 7.2, was to describe China under the Qin, Han, T’ang, and Sung Dynasties; discuss the traditions, customs, beliefs, and significance of Buddhism; document the impact of Confucianism and Taoism, and detail the construction of the Great Wall.

Since history test scores were not included in the NCLB accountability matrix, nobody bothered to ask whether I followed the pacing guide. By 2005, however, freshman math and sophomore English teachers had to organize their instruction around those standards and, on Fridays, give benchmark tests, provided by the central office. Teachers resisted the micromanaging, so grades were mandated for benchmarks.

Soon failure rates soared from below 20% to 80% to 90% in tested subjects. Within three months, our school lost 40% of its students, mostly to the streets. This occurred as the percentage of our students on special education IEPs peaked at 30% and the number of high schoolers who could not read their name jumped from zero to twelve.

After that horrible fiasco, the doubling down on teach to the test according to a mandated schedule grew worse as individuals were supposed to be held accountable for test-score growth. My students complained that they had been robbed of an education. Their entire career had been dominated by fill-in-the-blanks, worksheet-driven pedagogy. Now, a full generation of kids have been subject to bubble-in malpractice.

And that raises the question of what else has been lost to corporate reform. Since 9/11, the global village has faced incredible challenges, but how many classes have been required to keep their aligned and paced schedule, and thus denied an opportunity to grapple with world historical issues. Digital miracles abound, but have schools introduced the younger generation to cultural literacy and media ethics? The economic and racial divide has exploded into view, but how many classes are denied the time to address the issues raised by Black Lives Matter? Global warming has accelerated and time is running out for wrestling with ecological dilemmas. But, how many minutes are allotted to environmentalism? Someday, our generation may be condemned for ignoring, and allowing our children to ignore, these crucial issues. Our reply – that we had to get through Standard 18.2, or whatever, before the standardized test – is likely to ring hollow.