Saturday, March 29, 2014

Race to the Top Damage Assessment: A 21st Century Principal's Perspective

When the 2012 PISA scores were released, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared the American Education system “stagnant.” He said the results were “straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation.” Whether or not that’s true is debatable. What is not debatable is how the Obama Administration, Secretary Arne Duncan, and the US Department of Education have repeatedly used data like this to manufacture an educational crisis that only their remedies can fix.

Duncan's Department of Education and President Obama even released a report, not independently created mind you, to declare how successful their Race to the Top program has been. In a USA Today article "Obama Report Claims Success for 'Race to the Top'" Duncan even had the audacity to say, "The most powerful ideas for improving education come not from Washington, but from educators and leaders in states throughout the country." This statement is just not true. The "ideas to improve education" are coming directly from Washington, because under his Race to the Top and NCLB waiver system, they APPROVE what states are doing, which means they are the ones having the ultimate say. Arne Duncan has proved once again, he's a much better politician at bending the truth than being an educator. He even praised North Carolina for its "reforms" when more than half our teaching force is leaving and the flow of new teachers has slowed to a trickle. Both President Obama's Department of Education and our North Carolina government have done an excellent job of creating the most unattractive teaching environment in the nation. It is incredible that Duncan would declare my state, North Carolina, as one of the leaders in education reform when conditions in the classrooms and schools have never been worse.

But set aside all the "Race to the Top stretchers" coming from Arne Duncan and the Obama Administration. Let me tell Secretary Duncan what his policies have done to the schools.
  • Schools are more than ever focused on teaching to the test, and what’s worse, it matters not what the quality of the test is. Any old test will do as long as it provides numbers. It is one thing to use data to inform instructional decision-making; it is quite another for politicians, policymakers and educational leaders to invent tests of dubious quality and use that data to brag about their own success. In addition, the test-centric school system culture fostered by Arne Duncan's policies have forced schools to devote inordinate amounts of time to test-prep. In North Carolina, schools take whole days to subject students with ACT prep activities with hopes that such measures will help increase their scores. This test-centric school culture has created an educational environment where the only thing not-negotiable is the "test." Testing and accommodating the record number of tests in North Carolina drives over half of our decision-making.The last days of the semester and the school year are devoted entirely to testing and nothing else.
  • Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and those that stay are morally dejected. Race to the Top has fostered an atmosphere in education where the objective is to raise test scores at all costs. I have not heard a single teacher say he or she entered the profession to “raise test scores.” All teachers, including myself, entered teaching out of love for content area, love for teaching and helping kids. When that content area is reduced to test content, out the window goes the content we love to teach, and when a teacher is forced to only see a student as a test score and their potential to improve their evaluation, then how could someone possibly want to teach in those conditions.Race the Top combined with our anti-teaching North Carolina government has simply accelerated the exodus of teachers from the classroom.
  • Far fewer teachers are entering the profession. I recently attended a job fair at a university in our state. There was a time when one would expect to talk to many prospective secondary science, math, social studies, foreign language, English, career and technical education teachers. This year, I could count the number of secondary teachers I spoke to on one hand. While our North Carolina legislature and governor can certainly take some blame with their anti-public education legislation, this massive lost of interest in teaching began before their law-making activities. What the US Department of Education doesn't get is that when the focus of teaching becomes raising a test score, all else becomes irrelevant. The truth is, few people want to enter a profession that is driven by test scores. I can’t say that I blame them.
  • More and more parents are getting tired of all the tests we subject their children too, and they are starting to fight back. More and more around the country parents are pushing to allow them to have their children "opt out" of testing. This growing opposition to testing is getting stronger. There was a time when educators used test scores in sane ways, not insane, such as determining student promotion or to decide whether a teacher is doing his or her job. No Child Left Behind began this intense focus on testing and Race to the Top has only only magnified that focus. It is not surprising that there is a growing crescendo of discord from parents about all the testing. Yet Arne Duncan and our state department of education turns a deaf ear.
  • Because so much money is being spent on testing, many other areas of the budget have declined over the years. Sure, state leaders will point out that testing costs so little in comparison to other educational needs, but I have never heard an educational leader say, "We're cutting the fourth grade end of grade tests this year due to lack of funding." The testing budget is simply accommodated no matter what. Schools no longer receive professional development budgets. Textbook funding is not even enough to purchase a class set of books anymore, even if we wanted to. Computer systems and software are aging and there is little funding to improve these. In North Carolina, policymakers never starve their testing budgets, but they don't mind cutting funds from teacher assistants and classroom supplies. Race to the Top has focused budgets even more intensely in testing at the expense of other budgetary items.
Race to the Top and Arne Duncan have done more to make teaching and being an educator one of least attractive professions. Its test-centric policies are driving teachers out of the profession and forcing prospective teachers to choose other careers. Duncan's Race to the Top, fueled by false crisis education rhetoric has had such a negative impact on education it will take years for the system to recover after Duncan and Obama leave office.

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