Yesterday’s announcement that nine states and the District of Columbia won round 2 of Race to the Top once again showed off some of the school reform efforts biggest flaws. As others consider how pathbreakers such as Colorado and Louisiana lost out while laggard states such as Ohio and Hawaii won the day, this Dropout Nation commentary from May is as relevant to the conversation as ever.
As I have opined numerous times here and elsewhere, one of Race to the Top’s biggest flaws is that it isn’t ambitious enough. There aren’t enough players in education competing for the $3.4 billion in remaining funding; it is only a nudge toward reform not a truly bold step; and it doesn’t take advantage of the clever competition approach that has succeeded so far in getting states to take on the reforms they should have been pursuing in the first place.
What are the five steps President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should undertake in future rounds? Here are some thoughts:
- Allow school districts, charter school networks and grassroots organizations to compete in future rounds: Obama and Duncan have already said they want to allow districts to apply for Race to the Top funding. They should. Expanding the pool of Race to the Top applicants to include school districts—including reform-minded systems such as New York City and Los Angeles Unified—would force school districts to seriously change their own practices and restructure their relationships with teachers unions. Allowing districts, along with charter school organizations such as KIPP, grassroots activists and even PTAs, would also place pressure on states participating in the competition to embrace bolder reforms.
- Increase the rewards for embracing reform: Temporary funding isn’t enough. School districts must also gain additional rewards from participating and winning funding. One possible reward: Allowing winning districts to become enterprise zones of sorts, freeing them from state laws governing collective bargaining agreements and teacher dismissals.
- Parental engagement must factor into the equation: The fact that California’s Parent Trigger law, along with the expansion of charter schools, is the only tool for parental engagement emerging from Race to the Top is shameful. For the next round, the Department of Education should require applicants to enact policies and laws that place parents in their proper place as consumers and kings in education decision-making.
- Use Race funding to scale up alternative teacher training programs: Teach For America and other alternative training programs have proven they can do as good job — and particularly, with TFA, even better — than university schools of education. But there aren’t enough of them to improve the quality of school district teacher corps. Encouraging districts and charter schools to work more-closely with alternative programs (and also focus on boosting the number of men and minorities in the teaching ranks)
- Forget consensus: Contrary to proclamations from Jon Schnur and others, consensus among stakeholders is critical element of winning Race to the Top funding. It shouldn’t be. True leadership often involves breaking with those groups that refuse to move away from a crippling status quo. More importantly, school districts and state education leaders must take a more-assertive stance in their relationships with teachers unions, revamping an oft-servile relationship that yields little for students, schools and even individual teachers. Rewarding states such as Florida for taking aggressive reform measures — even if the state needs work on other elements of its application — is crucial to making Race to the Top a truly bold reform measure.
At this moment, Race to the Top is more of a nudge toward school reform that a bold leap. Considering the dropout crisis — and that 1.2 million children drop out every year into poverty and prison — nudges aren’t enough.