Race to the Top – A “Race … in the Right Direction?”

New York schools, despite having one of the largest percentages of students in poverty, consistently rate highly in Quality Counts, from Education Week.  The state was a second round winner of $700 million in Race to the Top funds from the Feds, and aggressively rammed new legislation through the state legislature to qualify.  The unintended consequences are now being felt by those responsible for implementation.  Teacher morale is down, the costs of implementation are proving to be unfunded mandates several times greater than what was gained from ‘winning’ the Race, and a tax cap pushed through by the Governor is wiping out district capacity to raise taxes even where the public would be willing to pay more to maintain quality schools.  Moreover, many are estimating that 40% of New York districts face bankruptcy in the next few years.

Dr. Kenneth Mitchell, the Superintendent of the South Orangetown Central School District in Rockland County, NY, contributed a wonderful analysis of the unintended consequences of Race to the Top in New York, published by the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at the State University of New York at New Paltz.  Open ‘Discussion Brief 8’ from this link to read the full article.  With the cooperation of 18 school districts in Rockland, Westchester and Putnam Counties, the three counties bordering New York City to the North, Dr. Mitchell produced an eye-opening analysis of the impact of RTTT in this relatively wealthy region.  These three counties are among the richest in New York–and the 18 districts are representative of the range of wealth found in the 60 districts in the region, though, I think, they would average somewhat above the mean in community wealth because some of the larger and lower income districts did not contribute data to the study.

Financially, Dr. Mitchell reports that the four year return to the 18 districts from RTTT funds will be $520,415, while the expense to districts is estimated to be $6,472,166, for a deficit of $5,951,751, an unfunded mandate of nearly $400 per pupil, to be funded by local taxpayers.  And because of the tax cap, which now requires a 60% super majority to pass a budget above the 2% cap, very few districts will be able to fund the mandates without substantial cuts in programs somewhere.  The cost of implementing the state’s new Annual Professional Performance Review – APPR  (teacher and principal evaluation) by itself represents a 3% increase in local costs to pay for the testing and evaluation training required for implementation without considering the costs of redesigning instruction to move to the Common Core curriculum, which requires new texts, instructional materials, shifts of content from grade to grade, and additional teacher professional development for implementation.

The effects, as gleaned from the 18 districts responses to the program, are disturbing.  Despite Race to the Top’s promotion as a school improvement program, districts will see staff cuts and larger class sizes, and non-mandated programs will be cut.  Districts are cutting maintenance despite this being a wonderful opportunity to get cost effective pricing during an otherwise slow economy.  Priorities are shifting away from instructional services that districts have developed over years of successful local control in order to fund the external mandates.  Internal professional development and staff to provide it is being cut, and training is focusing on teacher evaluation requirements, not on classroom instruction. Some districts will be required to hire additional supervisory staff to complete the evaluation mandates, which require more time than existing programs.  Curriculum is narrowing as districts prepare for extensive testing that will be used for teacher accountability.  And finally, quoting directly from the brief, “..the hidden costs may be greater than the outlay in dollars.  Teachers and administrators, stressed by the rapid change, the demand for accountability via the new testing and observation requirements, and anxieties about receiving low scores, are very likely to abandon initiatives that may be innovative and beneficial for preparing the next generation, but are out of alignment with a narrowed professional agenda for staying within the ‘Effective” range on the APPR.”

Dr. Mitchell proposes some reasonable shifts that New York politicians could make to back off and redirect this initiative.  He also identifies several sophisticated research groups that question the use of tests for teacher evaluation as Race to the Top demanded, and question the massive national shift to the Common Core curriculum.  Both these shifts are untested and lack a research base to justify the depth of the changes.  And since the changes were imposed by the legislature in New York, and by legislatures racing to get Federal funds across the nation during the economic slow-down, the changes are out of the hands of state education departments even if those leaders were inclined to back off in the first place.  Since they were generally the designers of the system, they are unlikely to be responsive–it’s full steam ahead, into the chaos that will ensure.

Download the article pdf at the link above, and see the research citations in the “Works Cited” link as well.

Won’t Back Down – The Attacks Keep Coming

This new Hollywood anti-union propaganda film will be stirring up lots of commentary as it spreads throughout the nation.  Rather than comment on it’s distortions, I’ll offer two links to other sites that do a great job of identify the problems with the film.

The first comes from Professor Mark Phillips, who writes for Edutopia.  His article Won’t Back Down: An Engaging and Misleading Film includes a few additional links to expand on his thesis.

One of those links is worthy of a direct mention on it’s own.  From the newly formed and still struggling Save our Schools organization, this posting illuminates the agendas and funders who are promoting the anti-union, anti-public school movement in considerable detail.  They are also the funders behind Waiting for Superman, which was a similar distortion of educational reality.  Articles On “Won’t Back Down” The Film and “Teachers Rock” Concert

These are good reads, and shed light on some of the behind the curtain groups who are most influential among those who constantly attack public education and public educators.

On Critical Thinking

While I don’t agree with many critics of public education, my critique would be that schools are failing to produce critical thinkers.  Within schools, the older generation of teachers will often be heard saying the expectations for critical essays in English or History found on state exam questions has declined over the years.  Proof that we don’t value critical thinking is all around us—we reelect politicians who don’t govern for the common good; we uncritically devour the vitriol of the Internet and broadcast media; we too often believe that all sides of an issue have to be reported or respected or given equal time even when one side is objectively or scientifically unfounded. We accept news stories without fact checking.

How would we recognize if renewed efforts to teach critical thinking work?  The next generation would demand truth in advertising, news that’s more than thinly disguised editorializing, and government of the people, by the people, and for the people rather than government by the biggest pocketbook.  We would see decisions based on evidence rather than emotions.  (Isn’t this what reformers are suggesting with changes in the way they propose to evaluate teachers–use test data, not the opinion of administrators?)  The Common Core, if done well, expects critical thinking to be deeply embedded in all that is done in classrooms.  If that actually happens, we are on our way back to the reasoned ideals on which America was built.

A good example of Common Core efforts to improve our critical thinking skills is a model lesson reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Students reading this should come to understand Dr. King’s indictment of Southern white ministerial leaders for their lack of support for the civil rights of minorities. This content will make some parents and teachers uncomfortable.  So teaching critical thinking can be controversial.  Societal discomfort with teaching critical thinking is illustrated by the Texas GOP party platform passed in the early summer.  (Google ‘Texas GOP platform’ for several links, or check out Valerie Strauss’s blog on the topic.) Their platform positions exemplify the occasional local opposition to any instruction that questions authority figures and traditional societal norms.  Teaching children to think for themselves is anathema to some critics of the Common Core, and rote, uncritical classroom instruction is a highlight of some voucher programs and charter schools across the nation.

As students begin to practice critical thinking skills, teachers and parents must be open to those who reach informed and reasoned conclusions that are different than their own. I think good educational practice inevitably challenges traditional authority–we have to teach for the future, and teaching critical thinking will certainly challenge the old ways of doing almost everything. We need young people to learn the skills to pursue ideas in a critical fashion and use that skill to become our future leaders. The Common Core’s emphasis on deep reading and critical thinking is a step in the right direction.

Eight Problems with the Common Core

I am always delighted with the daily column from Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post.  In the last year or so I keep seeing her columns reposted again and again by other writers and bloggers in education.  Well, the August 13 column featured a guest writer, Marion Brady, writing “Eight problems with the Common Core Standards.”

Wow!  Mr. Brady hits the nail on the head.  Great points here.  He’s the latest educational expert who points out the behind closed doors development of the Core Standards, a point which most Americans and even fewer parents actually understand.  I particularly like his analysis of controversial Michelle Rhee, who pushed D.C. teachers and administrators into a major cheating scandal and then left the district to become every teacher union member’s worst nightmare.  His highlighting of the consistent unfairness in the way international test results are reported for American students is right on, as are his comments on poverty and school achievement.

I wholeheartedly recommend Valerie Strauss and her own regular commentary as well.  Do yourself a favor and sign up to get her column every day.  At the bottom of the column–under the comments–you can sign up for an RSS feed and get this rich source of current educational commentary from Valerie and from top-notch other writers every day.