Why Race to the Top Is as Potentially Damaging as No Child Left Behind
A few months ago, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan abolished the 2014 deadline set by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation. When NCLB was first passed in 2001—with bipartisan support—it required states to set achievement standards for public schools, with the goal of creating a nation of academically proficient students, taught by “highly qualified teachers,” by the year 2014. Since then, NCLB has been criticized for the way it has bungled theoretically great ideas when putting them into practice, and it should be glaringly obvious to anyone living in the United States that we will not be an academically proficient nation by NCLB’s original deadline. However, the education reform plan that Duncan supports, Race to the Top, is no better than No Child Left Behind, because it operates on the same faulty premise—namely, that education reform is a one-size-fits-all competition.
Race to the Top functions similarly to NCLB in that it’s all about funding. At its most basic, Race to the Top works like this: states are scored on a points-based rubric of education reform (which in itself is eerily reminiscent of the way students’ standardized tests are scored). The states that make the most innovative effort to close the achievement gap—including providing support to charters and improving teacher effectiveness—receive funding.
For the moment, let’s put aside the idea inherent in the word “race”—that there will be winners and losers in this education competition, which is abhorrent when we consider that future generations are at stake—and focus on the problem of providing immediate rewards for innovation in education. The government and the media have a history of rewarding “innovative” education reform without waiting for proof of its actual success, which potentially screws up a generation of students. Case in point: when Green Dot Public Charter Schools took over my former school, Locke High School in South Los Angeles, and broke it up into a group of smaller schools, it was instantly hailed as a huge step forward in leveling the playing field, regardless of the fact that the only barometer of success at the beginning of the school year was the administration’s ability to get kids to wear uniforms. Arne Duncan himself said that Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot (who has a political background, not an educational one), had “found the solution to the problems of urban schooling.”
Fast-forward two years: Green Dot’s $9 million in debt, it’s closed one of its schools due to poor test scores, and the media has deemed the Locke “experiment” somewhat of a failure because most of the Locke cluster’s small schools are posting the same abysmal test scores as they had when it was one big school under LAUSD. There are a couple of caveats in Green Dot’s defense—mainly, lumping all of the cluster schools together under one “Locke” umbrella is a fallacy, since each of the small learning communities have different administrations and teachers. But for a school that was once held up as a model to which other schools across the nation should aspire, Green Dot’s treatment of Locke stands as an indictment of immediately rewarding innovation. Charter schools are the hot thing in L.A. right now, but most of the charter management organizations that have sprung up in the last ten years have gone under, and parents aren’t informed enough to know which CMOs are good charters and which CMOs are worse than LAUSD. Innovation is needed in education, but it shouldn’t be rewarded or replicated until it shows long-term positive results.
Beyond that, one size does not fit all in terms of education reform. Teachers have to differentiate in the classroom because not all students learn the same way; therefore, politicians should recognize that reforms that work for one district may not work for others. Students in the Bronx are navigating somewhat different issues of race, class, and culture, than students in Los Angeles. Heck, students in South L.A. and students in East L.A. have, despite coming from similar backgrounds, developed distinct cultures. There are lots of nuances at play here. Education reform needs to be as varied and individualized as the students who benefit from it.