Race to the Top Mandates Impossible to Implement

In the Republican Party, presidential debates candidates like Mitt Romney and Herman Cain tout their business executive experience and claim expertise at job creation. Former Governors Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman promote their management experience as the CEO of state governments. Whatever you may think of their proposals for stimulating the economy and ending unemployment, there is no question that these candidates believe, and they believe their audience believes, that knowledge and experience are important leadership qualities.

However, when it comes to educational leadership, it seems that knowledge and experience do not count for very much, certainly not to the Obama-Duncan team, the Cuomo-King-Tisch team that establishes educational policy in New York State, or the Bloomberg-Walcott team that runs the schools in New York City.

Last year, Tennessee was awarded a federal Race to the Top grant worth over $500 million based on a proposal that required teachers be rated based on student test scores and extensive evaluations by school administrators. Arne Duncan, Barack Obama's education czar, highly praised Tennessee for its "courage" and "commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students." Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam called his state "the focal point of education reform in the nation" and declared Tennessee's new motto to be "First to the Top."

Now it turns out that Tennessee, which ranks near the bottom of the country on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, may not be getting to the top any time soon. One middle school principal, who was originally a big supporter of Tennessee's Race to the Top proposal, now describes it as a disaster. According to Will Shelton, principal of Blackman Middle School in Murfreesboro, the new rules require repeated observations of the school's best teachers and force principals to complete enormous volumes of paper work. The result is they never have time to work with either the students or the teachers who actually need the help.

Shelton accuses Tennessee of agreeing to micromanage schools in order to get the federal race to the Top funds. He calls the four observations a year of his strongest teachers "an insult to my best teachers" and a "terrible waste of time." He is required to have a twenty minute pre-observation conference with each teacher, observe the teacher in the classroom for fifty minutes, hold a twenty minute long post-observation conference, and complete an evaluation rubric with 19 variables and assign teachers a score of from 1 to 5 on each variable. In addition, the state requires he keep completed copies of his evaluations for every visit to every teacher on file to show any visiting state assessors.

The situation in Tennessee has become so absurd that elementary school teachers of subjects that are not tested find themselves evaluated based on student scores on tests in completely unrelated subjects. Music teachers are evaluated based on student writing samples, first grade teachers are evaluated based on how their former students perform on tests they take as fifth graders. According to Education Week, the situation in Tennessee is so convoluted and impractical that the entire Race to the Top program is in jeopardy.

You would think the problems in Tennessee would make national leaders and the media pause a moment to rethink Race to the Top mandates. However, a recent editorial in The New York Times declared that Tennessee has made "significant headway in turning itself into a laboratory for education reform" and called on state lawmakers and educational officials to "resist any backsliding."

New York State, which secured $700 million in the Race to the Top competition, is now developing new teacher evaluation processes that it promised to implement in order to receive the grant. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has long championed using student scores on standardized tests and repeated intrusive observations to evaluate teachers and the fever is spreading. The evaluation process for teachers and schools is so complex that the New York City Department of Education has to hire expensive consultants to go into schools and explain the criteria for evaluation and the formulas to teachers.

However, some experienced New York State school principals are saying the emperor is naked. Based on what is happening in Tennessee and other states, concern over the impact of unproven practices on the education of young people, and a realistic appraisal of the educational reforms that is rooted in knowledge and experience, a number of school principals are challenging the race to test and assess. Led by the Long Island Principals Association they issued an open letter to New York State officials and the public that questions the validity of the proposed Annual Professional Performance Review or APPR. The letter has now been signed by thousands of principals, district administrators, and teachers from a wide spectrum of school districts across New York State. It is a systematic examination of educational research and best practice that concludes:

The proposed APPR process is an unproven system that is wasteful of increasingly limited resources. More importantly, it will prove to be deeply demoralizing to educators and harmful to the children in our care. Our students are more than the sum of their test scores, and an overemphasis on test scores will not result in better learning. According to a nine-year study by the National Research Council, the past decadeʼs emphasis on testing has yielded little learning progress, especially considering the cost to our taxpayers. We welcome accountability and continually strive to meet high standards. We want what is best for our students. We believe, however, that an unproven, expensive and potentially harmful evaluation system is not the path to lasting school improvement. We must not lose sight of what matters the most -- the academic, social and emotional growth of our students.

You don't want a doctor operating on patients without knowledge or experience; you don't want engineers building bridges without knowledge and experience. We need to value the knowledge and experience of these school-based educators before we establish educational policies that will undermine education in the state.

Maybe instead of repeatedly testing teachers and students, what New York State and the nation really need is a series of new tests to establish qualifications before people are allowed to run for government office or serve in government administrative capacities.