Race to the Top program spurs school-reform debate

Citing research that suggests charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools, Ravitch says charter schools are actually hurting public schools because they’re skimming off many of the students who are most motivated succeed.

The reforms also have drawn criticism from teachers’ unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). AFT President Randi Weingarten says she supports reforming how teachers are evaluated, but relying mainly on student test scores is unfair.

In a statement on the finalists for round two of RTTT grants, Weingarten said:

“We congratulate the Race to the Top finalists, the best of which have made a concerted effort to bring together parents, educators, and community leaders to develop a thoughtful, student-focused approach to improving public education. AFT members in states like Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island fought for and won a seat at the table, and their management counterparts engaged with them in a respectful, professional way. Fully recognizing that Race to the Top is far from perfect, our members nevertheless worked tirelessly to ensure that stakeholders in these states focused on students’ interests and offered solutions that make sense in their classrooms.”

However, Weingarten criticized the administration for including Washington, D.C., as a finalist. The D.C. school system made headlines last week when Chancellor Michelle Rhee fired 241 teachers, or 5 percent of the district’s total, under a new evaluation system that held them accountable for their students’ standardized test scores.

“The centerpiece of Race to the Top is meaningful teacher evaluations developed with teacher input and focused on student learning,” Weingarten said. “The Department of Education’s rhetoric, and its scoring rubric, purport to reward states that work with teachers to develop this kind of evaluation system. Logically, then, Washington, D.C.’s application, which includes an evaluation system developed and implemented solely by the chancellor, without regard to considerable criticism this year from frontline educators, should have ranked among the lowest. By naming D.C. a finalist, the Education Department is sending a message that is completely opposite to its earlier calls for states to engage all community members, including teachers, in the effort to improve schools. No one wants bad teachers, but no one should want bad teacher evaluation systems, either.”

Weingarten also blasted the administration for its practice of encouraging reforms through competitive grants–an approach that many others are concerned about, too.

“While we encouraged our local and state affiliates to be involved in every aspect of Race to the Top, we have always been troubled that this competition, by its very construct, leaves out millions of students across the country,” she said. “Rather than picking winners and losers, our education policies should represent a comprehensive approach focused on preparing every student to succeed in college, work, and life. … Even after today’s announcement, Race to the Top has delivered funds to just two states, Delaware and Tennessee. Meanwhile, schools across the nation face hundreds of thousands of educator layoffs, ballooning class sizes, cuts to after-school programs, four-day weeks, and the elimination of advanced placement, music, art, and P.E. classes.”

Civil-rights leaders, meanwhile, are worried that the administration’s reforms leave out many minority students. Eight civil-rights organizations, including the NAACP, contend in a document released July 26 that the Education Department is promoting ineffective approaches for failing schools.

“We want to be supportive, but more important than supporting an administration is supporting our children across the country and ensuring that they have an opportunity to learn,” said John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation for Education, one of the groups that developed the document.

Duncan and a White House adviser met with the groups on July 26, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and the presidents of the National Urban League and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. The groups distributed the document to members of Congress last week.

Duncan has called education “the civil rights issue of our generation,” and many of the reforms the administration has pushed aim to improve educational opportunities for the most vulnerable students.

“The administration is dedicated to equity in education, and we’ve been working very closely with the civil rights community to develop the most effective policies to close the achievement gap, turn around low performing schools, and put a good teacher in every classroom,” Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton said.

The group’s proposal calls into question many of the department’s initiatives, including RTTT and a $3.5 billion program to turn around low-performing schools.

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