Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Is Obama's "Race to the Top" a Fair Game?

The Obama administration has clearly presented its stance on teacher accountability.  Speaking to the NEA and the AFT earlier this month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan maintained that teacher compensation decisions should take student achievement into account (“The Trouble With Merit Pay,” July 15).  Last week the administration put some muscle behind its viewpoint when it unveiled the “Race to the Top” program on July 24.

At stake is $4.35 billion in competitive grants, which will be awarded to states that are driving reform based on the government’s criteria.

“We will use the best data available to determine whether a state can meet a few key benchmarks for reform—and states that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant,” President Obama said in a speech at the U.S. Dept. of Education headquarters in Washington. 

The program’s goal—to improve the quality of our nation’s school system—is positive and admirable, and I applaud the President for making education a priority.  But I question whether the Dept. of Education can create a fair system for awarding grants.  I’m most concerned about the administration’s insistence on evaluating teachers based on student achievement.  States that prohibit linking data on student achievement to teacher evaluations will be ineligible for grant money unless they change their laws.

Correlating teacher quality with student achievement does seem logical.  But it’s not that simple.  I think teachers would be comfortable with this method of evaluation if a teacher’s talent and skills were the only factors influencing student performance.  But teachers know the realities:

  • An elementary school teacher in Connecticut told me parents have asked her to excuse their children from homework assignments because of hockey tournaments, family trips, pageants, or other extracurricular activities and events.  Students who don’t take responsibility for completing their assignments face no consequences, she added.  “When the parents get the test scores and they are low, they come running to us wondering what happened, asking us what we did wrong, what we didn’t teach their child in order to pass the test,” she said. 
  • A middle school teacher in New York said the most stressful aspect of test preparation is that teachers must rely on each student’s sense of responsibility and level of motivation.  Some children are not mature or motivated enough to understand that they have a vested interest in performing well in school.  And if undisciplined students don’t study for exams or do their homework, and they don’t perform adequately on the tests, it reflects poorly on the teacher.
  • A retired middle school teacher in Tennessee contended that schools and teachers should not be penalized for poor test scores because circumstances sometimes arise that prevent a child from performing well on a test on a particular day.  For instance, a child might have had a difficult experience at home the night before.  “People want education to function like industry; we’re working with human beings,” she said. 
  • An elementary school teacher in New York felt her first grade students would respond better to the “phonics” method of reading instruction than the “whole language” approach.  But her principal, a “whole language” advocate, would not allow the teacher to use “phonics.”  By the end of the year, only two of her 30 students could read. 

Detractors will say these teachers are just griping and making excuses.  I disagree.  These anecdotes (taken from “The Teacher Chronicles”) demonstrate that uncooperative parents, unmotivated students, and unsupportive administrators can adversely affect student performance, despite the teacher’s best efforts.  In addition, a student’s home life can also play a role in their academic success or failure.

Another issue to consider is whether school districts in low-income areas will be at a disadvantage when competing for “Race to the Top” grants.  Parents in affluent communities can hire tutors and purchase additional study aids to give their children a boost.  Some students in low-income areas lack basic school supplies. 

The Obama administration has the right idea—invest in education and take steps to improve the effectiveness of our school system to ensure we’re producing citizens capable of competing in the global marketplace.  But the “Race to the Top” plan has the potential to penalize teachers and schools for circumstances beyond their control, even though the intention is to motivate them to succeed.  A more direct route to bolstering student performance would be to provide schools with the resources they need to reduce class size (a proven approach to enhancing student performance) and ensure all students have access to the necessary books and supplies.

Finally, we should invest in programs that encourage parental involvement, which is a major factor in a student’s academic success.  Children benefit when their parents take an active role in their education by communicating expectations, attending school functions, and developing partnerships with teachers.

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