Race to the Top?

There’s a long article in the NY Times magazine about President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and how it might affect teachers and their unions. It’s basic premise is that the problem is teacher unions and that charter schools and teacher evaluations will solve the problem.  Let’s look at part of the judging criteria:

Thus, the highest number of points — 138 of the 500-point scale that Duncan and his staff created for the Race — would be awarded based on a commitment to eliminate what teachers’ union leaders consider the most important protections enjoyed by their members: seniority-based compensation and permanent job security. To win the contest, the states had to present new laws, contracts and data systems making teachers individually responsible for what their students achieve, and demonstrating, for example, that budget-forced teacher layoffs will be based on the quality of the teacher, not simply on seniority. (Fifteen states, including New York and California, now operate under union-backed state laws mandating that seniority, or “last in/first out,” determines layoffs. These quality-blind layoffs could force a new generation of teachers, like those recruited by Teach for America, out of classrooms in the coming months.) To enable teacher evaluations, another 47 points would be allocated based on the quality of a state’s “data systems” for tracking student performance in all grades — which is a euphemism for the kind of full-bore testing regime that makes many parents and children cringe but that the reformers argue is necessary for any serious attempt to track not only student progress but also teacher effectiveness.

Another 40 points is based on charter schools. Here are a couple problems with this approach:

  • In Massachusetts, these need to be approved by teacher’s unions, so the state scored low and looks bad. And yet, Massachusetts has consistently been scoring at or near the top in national standardized tests so something is working. Should Massachusetts be forced to drastically change its approach when its approach seems to be working?
  • Charter schools have not been shown to be better, so why exactly should allowing more charter schools bring up your score? Here’s the short important summary (with italics added):

The group portrait shows wide variation in performance. The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local  public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools. These findings underlie the parallel findings of significant state-by-state differences in charter school performance and in the national aggregate performance of charter schools. The policy challenge is how to deal constructively with varying levels of performance today and into the future.

If the focus of this award was to make states that are doing poorly improve, then one of the first two winners (Delaware and Tennessee) makes sense. Tennessee has consistently been at or near the bottom in terms of student achievement and so needs to make changes and needs help (Delaware is in the bottom third). But the fund is supposed to award states that have a plan that works to get all students a good education and here it’s obvious that Massachusetts has done better than most states, perhaps because of their strict rules for unions and charter schools (a reformer would, of course, say it’s in spite of this which is why I write it this way–really it would be very difficult to tell).

The article does the typical pretence at being even-handed in terms of charter schools:

Charter schools are not always better for children. Across the country many are performing badly. But when run well — as most in Harlem and New York’s other most-challenged communities appear to be — they can make a huge difference in a child’s life.

They then take a page to talk about how one charter school is better than an attached public school–gee, I wonder which side they believe (and really “when run well ..” is a stupid statement. The exact same thing could be said about public schools, but somehow never is.). Now go back to the above comparison: on average charter schools do slightly worse than public schools.

One of the interesting things is that a lot of rich people (Bill Gates for example), corporations (Google), and hedge funds are pushing for charter schools. It’s just assumed that their motives are pure, while teacher’s unions are working for the teachers not the students. Are they?

Wealthy investors and major banks have been making windfall profits by using a little-known federal tax break to finance new charter-school construction.

For a discussion of the problems with this project, go here.

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