Saturday, December 7, 2013

3-Year Damage Assessment: What Has Race to the Top Done to Us?

I think I have been fairly clear. I am no fan of Race to the Top. I have never been due to its over-reliance on standardization of education, over to the top emphasis on testing, and its hyper-focus on competition. Just like its older cousin, No Child Left Behind, at the end of the day, Race to the Top will most likely go down in the history of education reform as just another failed and misguided educational reform. As someone who has worked in trenches with teachers since its inception, I have seen no improvement in education, but I have seen a great deal of deterioration in working conditions of the schools.

The biggest problem for those of us working in the schools brought on by Race to the Top has only brought is the enormous amount of new regulation, new restrictions, and new mandates that take more of our valuable time that could otherwise be used teaching and working with our students. For example, in North Carolina we now spend even more time prepping students for tests and administering tests, because in our state we subject our students to more standardized tests than has ever been done in state history. The education practitioners in the schools are also having to spend an enormous amount of time learning new software and data collection programs, purchased with Race to the Top funding, and these programs still are not fully functional and are too often causing data errors and more work staff in the schools. Because of constant glitches, staff have to take even more time trying to make this technology work. The constant failures of all this technology only adds to the burden our teachers  face in the classroom. This added technological burden comes at a time when teachers have more students in their classrooms than ever, and less instructional materials and text materials than ever, all because of a governor and state legislature unwilling to fund education in North Carolina. I scratch my head in wonder, because the philosophy behind charter schools, for which Race to the Top advocates, is to allow schools to operate with less red tape and less restriction because that is somehow better, yet our own government and state department of instruction turns around and heaps more regulation, more state mandates, and more red tape on how we operate. If that regulation is so bad, then why keep pushing more and more of it? Go figure! Ultimately, what Race to the Top has done to those of us in the schools is heap a ton of new rules, a gaggle of new mandates, a host of floundering new software and data systems, and an extra large dose of standardization and testing on our heads. 

In a time when we should be emphasizing the personalization of education in North Carolina, we're still trying to turn our schools into efficient factories to churn out students with high test scores. Somehow our leadership has come to believe that high test scores is the only equivalent to being college and career ready, when in fact, such thinking may only mean students are good test-takers. Instead to pursuing the false promises of standardization, we should be turning our schools into places where innovation, creativity, and collaboration thrive. Such schools are the opposite of standardized, one-size fits all schools we currently have.

What is the answer? The answer is, perhaps its time to let go of this fetish that if we somehow test students more and hold teachers accountable to those test scores no matter what, our students will learn more. We keep ramping up the testing, changing standards, but we cut instructional materials and professional development funding. We keep thinking that if we make the test stakes high enough, somehow teachers will miraculously rise to the occasion. What's happening instead is teachers are saying, "I quit," leaving the profession and/or moving to other states in increasing numbers. As a school leader, it becomes harder and harder to promote teaching as a career opportunity.

What our state leadership does not fully understand is that this massive increase of teacher turnover in North Carolina isn't just about pay; it's the working conditions too. With all this standardization, testing, and mandates coming down from Raleigh due to Race to the Top, it is getting less and less fulfilling to be a teacher and educator in North Carolina. Teachers are being treated more and more like factory workers whose job is to work on a assembly line and churn out students with high test scores. If they don't, then they're branded less effective or worse. Teacher professional judgment has been slowly replaced with test scores and systems of test data. In a word, being a teacher in North Carolina has become less about being a professional, and more about being an assembly-line worker, and if production isn't met, then you're out! The working conditions caused by Race to the Top and our state's efforts to meet its mandates has made being an educator in North Carolina much, much less palatable.

What then is the way out? In years past, these kinds of reform measures usually run their course and those pushing it move on to other things, then they slowly die out. This time, my fear is that our public education system will not survive. Race to the Top's push to standardize, its push to elevate testing to an even higher level of importance than No Child Left Behind, and its incessant focus on using competition to try to better education is leaving our schools tangled in a mess of new testing. It is leaving our teachers demoralized and dejected. It is turning our students off to schools and education. It is turning our schools into places of discord and competition instead of collaboration. It is making it much more difficult to personalize and meet the needs of students because we are too busy trying to meet the needs of latest federal or state mandate. I can only hope that our public education system survives it all.

2 comments:

  1. Well said. Some things just can't be quantified with a number. Well - lots of things, now that I think about it!

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    1. Thanks. While education and political leaders might think more and more tests and higher stake accountability systems will improve things, they don't understand that such things are causing teachers to become demoralized and dejected. Higher pay alone won't make teaching more attractive in NC.

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