"Race to the Top" Federal Education Rules are Misguided

"Race to the Top" Federal Education Rules are Misguided

Background Resource by Jan Resseger, Minister for Public Education and Witness


U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has released rules to guide the distribution of the “Race to the Top” fund, the $4.3 billion he controls as part of the federal stimulus. I believe that Duncan’s strategy will fail to improve struggling public schools. It should be redesigned.


Duncan requires that states tie teachers’ pay to student test scores: “…a State must not have any legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers to linking student achievement or student growth data to teachers for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation.”  With myriad variables affecting achievement—student attendance, for example, and families that move very frequently—it is dangerous and unfair to tie teacher salaries to standardized test scores. Merit pay may encourage teachers to seek positions in wealthy districts where children encounter fewer barriers to learning.


Duncan requires that states turn around struggling schools, but school turn-around is almost always defined as a governance change, not improving the public school itself. 


One proposed “school improvement” strategy would rapidly expand the number of charter schools. Unless and until charter schools are better regulated, it is a bad idea to require states to lift caps on the number of new charters. A new StanfordUniversity study demonstrates that only 17% of charter schools perform better than their comparable public school; 46% perform the same; and 37% perform worse. School choice has worked best for children who already have advantages. What happens to children, perhaps with special needs, who are unlikely to choose or be chosen?


Duncan’s rules reward reconstituting the staff, turning schools over to private managers, or closing schools and relocating the students, strategies that have rarely proven effective.  Although replacing entire staffs has improved schools in some instances, it has often been difficult to rebuild the school community. Contracting with Education Management Organizations has too often failed to improve schools and has at the same time diminished democratic access for parents because EMOs report to private boards. Closing schools and moving the children contributes to undesirable churning of students whose families may already be very mobile.


“Race to the Top” rules reward states that refrain from cutting school funding in the recession. They should also reward strategies to expand opportunity. Duncan proposes continuing to overlay No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish strategy on extreme resource inequity. The federal government should invest in equity and use federal power to pressure states to equalize state tax investment before punishing struggling schools. In a country where children neither start at the same place nor play by the same rules, justice cannot be served by attention to test-score outcomes alone.


Secretary Duncan’s “innovation” strategies do not do enough to improve the public schools that will continue to serve most of our nation’s 50 million children. While it is common to blame the victim and assume that children can do better at school if they and their teachers try harder, public education policy has conspired with housing, transportation, criminal justice, and social welfare policy to drive school segregation and concentration of poverty. Arne Duncan’s proposals for merit pay for teachers and more charter schools don’t begin to address the challenges we face.