Race to the Top ?

There is no doubt in my mind that education needs to change. We are using an antiquated, industrial era model to ready our most important resource, our children, for the world of work and participation in our free society. We have been talking about education reform consistently since A Nation at Risk was released in the early 1980’s. As a result, we have seen many initiatives come and go over the past thirty years. Because of this, many folks in and out of education have adopted the “this too shall pass” attitude and have continued to perpetuate and defend the status quo. The dawn of the 21st Century brought us No Child Left Behind. Under NCLB, schools are accountable for test scores and have been made to change, restructure, and in some cases, shut their doors if they did not make adequate yearly progress.  NCLB’s focus on narrowing the achievement gaps that exist for the poor and minorities has brought about some mixed results, but has managed to focus attention on one of the biggest educational challenges we face.  The year 2010 has dawned with the different states falling all over themselves to ready an application to be considered for round one of the Race to the Top funding. The Federal Government has set aside 4.3 Billion dollars to fund innovations and reward states and ultimately school district that meet certain criteria. President Obama called this infusion of money and incentives education’s equivalent of a moon shot.  If 4.3 billion dollars is a moon shot, what was it that Chrysler, General Motors, Feddie Mac, Fannie Mae, (insert the name of your Wall Street brokerage here) received?  Whatever the name of the nearest Black Hole is what that was called!

RttT has four major areas of focus:

· Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;

· Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;

· Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and

· Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.

(at this point, the text includes a lot of my opinion, so take it for what it is worth)

It seems to me that we are making a mad dash, no let’s make it a mad, mad, mad dash, headlong into a virulent phase of reform.  Mind you, I don’t think all the outcomes will be bad.  Shoot they made some of the most effective medicines out of bread mold….go figure!  I hear the terms standards, achievement scores, assessments, and recruiting effective teachers to the lowest performing schools, and I think….hmmm more of the same.  Let’s just try harder at the things we can’t seem to get right using the same modes of attack!  Reminds me of some well meaning teachers that say the kids just don’t get it, and yet use the same methodologies and materials over and over again!  O.K. Let’s think about some of the things RttT seeks to address:

Teacher quality 

Most teachers believe what they are doing in their classrooms is best for their students.  I do not think many teachers get up in the morning, look in the mirror and say “I am going to go in today and try my best to not help my students get better.”  Teachers, in my 21 years of experience (3 years as principal of elementary schools, 9 years as high school principal, 1 year as director of a high school cooperative, and 8 years as a classroom teacher), with very few exceptions, work very hard at what they think is best to promote academic growth for their students.  Do not get me wrong, there are teachers that fit the lazy, tenured, stereotype.  This type of worker exists in every type of employ.  Not making excuses.  It is just a fact.  They need to be counseled to find other opportunities!  What do we do to help teachers get better?  RttT prescribes giving teachers incentives by tying tenure, continued employment, and pay raises to student performance.  I know at first glance, many classroom teachers look at this and say “YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING!”  On the other hand, folks on the outside looking in see automatic pay raises, salary schedules based on seniority and levels of education attainment, with no differentiation of pay based on skills required for subject area or defined levels of expertise.  A job for life!  They also say “YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING!”  I think we can tie accountability to pay, tenure and employment decisions, but you have to build a value added model that is not based on today’s one shot, high stakes test.  We need to pre-test and post test students to determine growth.  Student accountability must be thrown into the mix as well.  In the state of Illinois, high school students have little or no accountability for their performance on the state test.  We also need to change the structure under which teachers practice their skills.  Teachers perform a professional service that requires highly refined skills.  Teachers at the high school level work with kids in 50 minute segments, seven times a day, for 176 days.  Doctors, lawyers, accountants, or any of the other professionals spend so much of their day providing their expertise and the rest developing their professional skills.  Provide teachers with the time, paid time, to prepare and practice pedagogies.  Let them experiment with new technologies and work with one another to plan quality experiences for their students.  Most teachers feel they step on a rat wheel in August and step off in June with very little time to breath much less try to improve their craft and meet all the mandates that come from the different levels.  Yes, make teachers and principals accountable, but give them the pay and professional time it takes to perform at the expected levels!

Standards and assessments

The other day I had a teacher tell me she had some former students visit her and the conversation turned to what high school needed to do to prepare students for college.  They said that they needed to know how to outline chapters and have the ability to follow longer college lectures.  So much for the need to change to a student centered approach.  With all the talk about what students do not know or cannot do, the adoption of a national set of standards, I often stop and scratch my head and wonder why such a broad approach to standards needs to be considered.  We already have spread what we teach so thin so we can hope to touch on every standard that is measured by THE TEST.  Student lack true understanding and the ability to apply new found knowledge and skills because they are required to “swallow” so much information and then regurgitate at regular intervals, with no need to develop a deep understanding of what is learned.  No need to apply newly acquired knowledge, much less synthesize new ideas and meaning by delving into a subject and getting to know it well enough to question it or create new knowledge to share with others.  When was the last time we truly discussed what a high school graduate needed to be able to do (notice that I did not say know)?  Did this discussion exclude politicians, text book publishers, and others with interests other than what is best for education?  Did the discussion include students, teachers, parents, employers and post secondary educators? That is where we need to begin, then build the assessment, and for once, let’s try one that does not include filling in the bubbles.  Very few jobs require someone to fill in bubbles well….nor take tests for that matter.  We need to concentrate on skill sets that are used outside the school.  Think about all the things students do during their day that they only do in school and will never do again when they leave school. Eliminate those things and you will eliminate the difference between schooling and education.

Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom of this….Mom.  If you feel like it leave a comment.

10 thoughts on “Race to the Top ?

  1. You're right about the rate of reform (I wish we could say it was more innovation). Iowa is applying and I hope we can receive the grant. As a state, I would rather be in control of the system rather than the sytem dictating to us.

    Check out my blog at http://leadlearnserve.blogspot.com/
    where I offer ideas about making professional development better. Maybe then we would have better measures on teacher performance.

  2. Thank you Mr. Meister for posting this blog. Too many people outside of education believe that anyone can do a teacher's job, but like you said, we are highly trained professionals who deserve to be treated with the same respect as doctors. lawyers, etc. Many, many teachers work hard, come in early, stay late, and still take work home with them, and they work the same number of hours in 9 months as other professionals work in 12 months. It seems that educators need to be involved in this reform and drive the change instead of letting it happen to them. Why should someone outside of education get to mandate what educators should be doing? Why is everyone an "educational specialist" even if they have no training in education? Yes, the educational system needs a reform, but a standardized test is not the best way to do it.

  3. It has always bothered me that no matter how hard I worked or how much I tried to do what was asked of me, I could never earn as much money as a more experienced teacher who didn't seem to be pulling his or her weight. I don't have the money to get an advanced degree; there is not a Special Ed department head at PCHS, so the only way I could earn extra money was to take on additional duties on top of my regular job.

    So yes, I would agree that there needs to be a change in the way that teachers are paid.

    However, tying our pay to a test score will destroy what I love about education. It will make schools production lines and our kids products. We will see kids as scores that determine our take home pay. Instead of wanting to help struggling students make even a tiny improvement and rejoicing when that improvement is made, we will want only high achievers and good test takers in our classrooms.

    Kids are not widgets. You can't take the human element out of education. Who in their right mind would want to?

  4. Dave,

    Great post. The systems needs blown up so we can start all over. Innovative leaders like you will lead the way. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Very well stated. This past weekend I went through a point-by-point analysis of the RttT proposal, providing reasoning as to why our local association agreed or disagreed with particular areas. And, unfortunately, this was such a mad dash (as is the school year, like you stated) for something that might potentially change the game that too many will miss out. If real reform is going to happen, it needs to be given appropriate thought and planning ahead of time. How could one expect any entity to sign off on something so vague? How can you agree to anything without any details?

    @Mr. Franklin, I think you pointed out a great inequity of education in the way compensation is provided. Regardless of how much you do, you'll get paid based on education and years of service. I could do less than what I do, but I care about my students too much, and many teachers think the same way. Tying to test scores won't fix the issue, as there will be students who have a teacher who might do less but come to me for help. I won't turn them away, but does that mean that other teacher now gets to reap the rewards of my hard work even more?

  6. I have to agree with Pam. There are students out there who will never score high enough on standardized tests no matter what we as educators do. I too look at the small successes as well as the large ones. I guess what I teach lends itself to this. Sometimes it is not what we teach, but how we teach. I don't mean our curriculum as important as that is, but rather how we see students as individuals and treat them as individuals. We need to do a better job keeping kids in school. Take a look in your own classrooms and ask yourself if this is the best place they can be. For a lot of students, school is the best place: roof over their heads, food, warmth, someone who cares about what they are doing, etc. I know what I do matters to kids. Do all of them learn everything I teach? I would like to say absolutely, but I know better than that. I would like to be able to say they know they are always welcomed in my class and that they know it. If this is the basis for merit pay, then I am all for it; otherwise, forget it.

  7. Nice post,

    I don't have a problem with being able to earn more. But most merit pay systems tie an entire teacher salary to test scores, hence I agree with Ms. Franklin, as I have had the same opinion for a while now.

    I once read about a merit pay system where the starting base pay was about $20,000. Then the teacher had to earn everything else through bonuses, just to make a living wage. YIKES! I am not sure kids would learn more and I would really worry about teacher/student relationships in this system.

    Just some thoughts. Again good post!

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