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Race to The Top to Continue in President Obama's Second Term

by Michael Higham, published

Race to the Top

The country's state of education presents many challenges for the government and President Barack Obama. Some question the national role in education, saying it's an entity best left to the states. Emphasis on standardized test scores to evaluate student and teacher performance meets heavy criticism. President Obama will continue the Race to the Top program and will likely face criticisms during his second term in office.

Race to the Top (RTTT) provides monetary incentives to schools who apply and participate in the program. However, the money given to schools is tied to meeting test score requirements built upon Common Core standards. The program also ties teacher performance evaluations to test scores. States compete for additional federal funding through producing the highest performance. The program's total value is $4.35 billion and is administered by the US Department of Education.

United States education can expect to have Race to the Top available for the next four years. President Obama told the Des Moines Register the following:

"I want to build on what we've done with Race to the Top, but really focus on STEM education -- science, technology, engineering, and math. And part of that is helping states to hire teachers with the highest standards and training in these subjects so we can start making sure that our kids are catching up to some of the other industrialized world."

Critics of Race to the Top say the program encourages teaching to the test. Susan D. Blum, Department of Anthropology chair at the University of Notre Dame, says that RTTT doesn't change the culture of education:

"Race to the Top, liked its predecessor No Child Left Behind, and like Pell Grants and loans of various types, is designed to provide more of the same. None of these go to the heart of the matter. What is it that students should be learning? How should they learn it? And for what goals? What is the nature of the person we wish to welcome into what kind of society?"

School districts can emphasize critical thinking on their own volition. The San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), the 19th largest school district in the nation, adopted their own education plans known as Vision 2020. The district-specific plan relies on community-based reform. The author of the plan and president of the school board Dr. John Lee Evans stated:

"Professional learning communities allow teachers at each grade level to take the responsibility for the achievement for all of the students at that school. Teachers will not be isolated in the classroom without peer and supervisor input. We will not just collect data. We will constantly analyze student achievement data to guide and improve instruction." "We didn’t just look at what the state is requiring of us. We asked ourselves: what do we want our students to learn, how are we going to define student achievement and how are we going to measure it? We have our schools focusing on critical thinking. We don’t want our students to grow up to be robots, listening to Fox News or MSNBC, swallowing it whole without any critical thinking in terms of what’s going on."

Board trustee-elect of San Diego Unified, Marne Foster, also weighed in on how to take student achievement beyond testing:

“We don’t want teachers teaching to the test, we also want to look at student portfolios, samples of their work and presentations. Students are able to demonstrate that they’ve mastered necessary skills. They can talk about trigonometry or English arts. They can talk about The Crucible and relate it to real-life, so the curriculum is relevant and engaging for young people.”

San Diego Unified has not applied for Race to the Top funds. Some school districts who have participated in the competition are experiencing a lack of cost-effectiveness. In some cases, the cost of implementation to comply with RTTT exceeds the funds received. A study released by the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach looked into what RTTT has done to certain New York schools. The study states:

"As a result of its adoption, every school district in the state, no matter how well students and teachers in the district had performed in the past, must revise curriculum, restructure assessment systems, reopen union contracts, adjust ongoing strategic planning, modify long-term budget plans, and fund new mandates." "In six Rockland County districts, leaders projected a total four-year cost of almost $11 million. This compares with an aggregate revenue of about $400K in Race to the Top funding – a $10 million deficit representing an increase in average per pupil spending for this single initiative of nearly $400 per student. In a sample of eighteen Lower Hudson school districts, the aggregate cost just to get ready for the first year of RTTT in September 2012 was $6.47 million while the aggregate funding was $520,415."

Earlier this year, the Center for American Progress released a national study of RTTT's effects. The study notes that implementation in New York has met several roadblocks:

School districts and their unions need to come to an agreement about the exact details of the teacher evaluation procedures. If a district does not have a deal with its union within a year, Gov. Cuomo has said that he will deny a scheduled 4 percent increase in state aid, which would total $800 million, including $300 million for New York City schools. The U.S. Department of Education has not ruled out the possibility that the state could still lose funds over other issues.

Race to the Top thrives off the notion that competition brings out excellence. Top-down reform movements are challenged by local-specific educational needs such as union contracts or community-based reform. The federal government would be hard-pressed to find a one-size-fits-all type of solution.

Any federal government evaluation of school performance will most likely have to be through test scores as a means of quantifying success. Programs like Race to the Top present nuances in its application to schools that may or may not be beneficial to students.

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