This is the inaugural essay in a new series of bimonthly pieces on the politics of education by Nation editorial board member Pedro Noguera.—The Editors
On August 24 Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the ten winners of the latest Race to the Top competition. "These states show what is possible when adults come together to do the right thing for children," said Duncan. The winners—the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island—were understandably thrilled. Each will receive tens of millions of dollars (large states, even more) to implement reforms that the administration believes will spur innovation and promote academic excellence.
The losers, however, were more than just mildly disappointed. Some, like the governors of Colorado and New Jersey, were enraged. Chris Christie, New Jersey’s new conservative governor, blamed bureaucrats at the Education Department, then sacked his education commissioner. Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, a Democrat once seen as an Obama ally, claimed his state’s exclusion was part of a "communist plot" and charged that it reflected a bias against Western states.
Their anger over Race to the Top, while a bit extreme, is nonetheless understandable. The bad news comes at a time when states across the country are making severe cuts to public education. As the nation struggles to emerge from recession, school districts nationwide have been forced to lay off teachers in droves, defer maintenance and repairs to school buildings and, in states like California and Michigan, allow class sizes to increase to levels never before seen.
The administration should receive some credit for trying to reform public education and for directing some of the federal stimulus funds to support its goals. However, by choosing to reward some states over others because they followed the preferred reform strategy, the administration runs the risk of alienating more than just a couple of governors. At a time when so little is going in its favor, the Obama administration has adopted policies on education that have angered an important part of its base—teachers and their unions.
With backup from the Bill & Melinda Gates and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations, the administration has focused its reform efforts on four strategies: raising academic standards, expanding charter schools, evaluating the performance of teachers using student test scores and turning around chronically underperforming schools. In its "Blueprint" for education, released in March, all four strategies were touted as initiatives that will lead to better schools and higher levels of student achievement.
Despite the administration’s preference for "evidence-based" measures, however, ideology and favoritism rather than sound research appear to be the primary rationales for the policy direction it has prescribed.
For example, the administration recently awarded $50 mil lion through its innovation grants to Teach for America (TFA). Many liberals and conservatives are enthusiastic about the program because it provides teaching jobs to Ivy League graduates. They are dispatched, with little training, to the most challenging schools, in high-poverty communities (and they typically stick around for no more than two years). But a growing body of research shows that low-income children need highly trained teachers. Indeed, it is telling that KIPP—the Knowledge Is Power Program, an organization that runs a number of relatively successful charter schools, and whose CEO is married to TFA’s CEO—will hire TFA fellows only as assistants until they have proven their effectiveness in the classroom.