Race to the Top: A New “Diet” for Schools?

To understand the Race to the Top, think of Education Secretary Arne Duncan as a diet doctor and public education systems as obese, out of shape individuals in need of a better nutrition program.  But here’s the catch: state-controlled school systems are not Secretary Duncan’s children. They are independent adults, and ‘Dr. Duncan’ can’t just order them to eat better and work out regularly. He has to cajole and entice them into behavior that he is certain is in their best interest.  And so he’s offering rewards ($4.35 billion) to those who come up with the best ‘diet’ of education reforms.Arne Duncan

Make no mistake about the educational shape our schools are in—it’s bad!  More than one million students drop out of school every year, costing the economy billions of dollars. International comparisons are downright embarrassing.  Only 1.3 percent of our 15-year-olds scored at the highest level of mathematical proficiency, putting us 24th out of 30 nations participating in PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment.  By contrast, 9.1 percent of Korean and 6 percent of Czech 15-year-olds scored at the highest level.

Duncan believes he knows how states can shape up.  For openers, they have to step on a reliable scale.  In education, that means a transparent data system that tracks students’ progress throughout their school years, and it means common standards, so that everyone is using the same weight measures.  (Today each state chooses its tests and decides what constitutes passing.)

His plan for better nutrition, educationally speaking, includes a diet of charter schools, publicly funded but independently run institutions.

Losing weight requires more than better food.  Serious dieters also work out sensibly, focusing on the parts of the body that need attention.  In the gym, one might use the Stairmaster to tone up the legs and thighs and free weights to develop upper body strength; in education, that means putting the best teachers in the lowest performing schools.  It means paying the best teachers more money.

Another key to getting in shape is getting rid of bad habits, whether it’s smoking, snacking or eating a big dessert just before bedtime.  The bad habit that education’s diet doctor wants eliminated is the failing school.  Duncan wants states to close down their persistently bad schools, perhaps as many as 5,000 of them across the country, and reopen them only when there’s a serious plan for improvement.

Most states have just submitted their ‘diets’ to Washington, which will review them and decide which deserve a big reward. This spring some states could receive as much as $700 million.

But winners won’t get the money all at once.  Duncan plans to monitor their ‘diets’ over the next several years and will dole out the money only to states that stick to their promised education reforms.

Will Arne Duncan’s nutrition plan, his ‘Race to the Top,’ be successful?  Will school systems across the country lose weight and get in better (educational) shape?  If it does, it will be the exception to the rule, because, as nearly all of us know from personal experience, most diets fail.

8 thoughts on “Race to the Top: A New “Diet” for Schools?

  1. Don’t let Arne fool you. He’s slipping in fast food rote-memorization, standardized education and pretending that it’s quality nutrition. He’s a slick salesman and someday, like the Atkin’s Diet, we’ll realize that we were duped.


  2. John, you really need to read the research on international comparisons. That we are doing so poorly is all hype. Please read the work of the late great Gerry Bracey. Also the work of Yong Zhao, who warns against comparing us to other countries who emphasize test-based achievement. Yes, there are a lot of problems with the US schools, the most dire, I believe being the drop-out rate. However, nothing in this RTTT plan and Duncan’s ideology speaks to this problem. In fact, it seems that it exacerbates the alienation that high-schoolers feel in a school where they are seen as data bits, and not as vibrant human beings bursting with potential. Focusing on standards is alienating, and having higher standards, without regard for children’s needs, even more so. I am very disappointed that your segment did not explain why teachers are so skeptical of RTTT and maybe even downright hostile. It is not because we don’t want to be accountable, it is because we want desperately to be accountable to the CHILDREN. Education, under this administration, looks to be MORE test-obsessed than the Bush regime. And I was hoping for a change for the better. RTTT as a sign of things to come, is change for the worse. Please tell the other side of the story, what is wrong with RTTT?


  3. Better nutrition? Actually, what we are doing is weighing the pig with greater and greater frequency, and increasing the consequences for poor results. And any farmer can tell you, the pig doesn’t grow just because you weigh it more often.

    Furthermore, the measurements we are gathering are out of date, and encourage teaching to the test. We have had eight years of this diet, and no real weight has been gained — while the dropout rate continues to climb.

    Meanwhile, in my urban district, we are looking at a funding cut of about 8 percent in the coming years — and teachers here have already suffered from a ten percent decline in our pay, adjusted for inflation, since 2004. We are on a diet alright.

    As Diane points out, it would be great to see some coverage of the true sentiments of educators committed to our students. We do not fear accountability. But we are responsible for more than test scores. And we want our evaluations to reflect that. We want our schools to be accountable for more than that. Our students deserve much better.


  4. John,
    I’m in total agreement with the first three commenters, and I’ve sent my e-mail to stpeter@hvn.org asking for just a few more words from my old friend Gerry Bracey. We need him more than ever now.

    The most serious problem with RTTT is the same one that doomed NCLB: our attenuated notion of accountability, coupled with an almost visceral distrust of professional educators.

    We have come to view test scores as the equivalent of student achievement. They are not now, never were, and never were intended to be. Achievement is made up of so many more things. This overly narrow view of achievement has led us — with Arne Duncan at the head of this fool’s parade — to view them as sufficient for a decent accountability system. They are not. Get in touch with Richard Rothstein over at EPI and have him talk about the last chapters of his 2008 book, Grading Education. The accountability system he proposes has analogs around the world. It is not only fairer and more revealing of what goes on in a school than is our current test-driven system (or the national standards-based system that thrives in Sec. Duncan’s fevered brain), it also has built into it the means of turning what we learn from the accountability system into help with a process of continuous improvement for schools.

    Of course, Rothstein’s system does depend, in part, on some measure of trust being vested in professional educators. We do this routinely with our attorneys, physicians, accountants, even realtors. But teachers? You know the answer as well as I do.


  5. Here are my concerns with “Race to the Top” (editorial-that title just sounds AWFUL and inhumane to me):

    1. Low and middle class kids get fewer and fewer violins and paint brushes in exchange for greater standardization and an emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). This makes me sad.

    2. Wealthy kids continue to have access to violins and paint brushes and the world’s finest museums, travels etc.

    3. Number crunchers will display the success stories associated with merit pay…there will be many situations where students perform well on some isolated 4th grade math test and the teacher gets a 1K kick back. This is gross to me. Meanwhile, you won’t hear about how merit pay largely has not worked in a state like Texas, where there continue to be all sorts of education related challenges. When will human beings learn that bad things happen when you apply capitalistic principles to human lives (this rings true in ALL social sectors, including health care and education).

    I believe that the “Race to the Top” is the worst type of perverse incentive system possible. I wish the President and the Secretary of Ed would read Dan Pink’s “Drive” and watch his TED talk titled, “The Surprising Science of Motivation.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y

    Deb Meier summed it up in 140 characters quite well yesterday: “Everytime I see the words “race to the top” it chills me. Who is racing where? What’s at the finish line? A gold star?” http://twitter.com/DebMeier/status/7958449895


  6. I think most if not all of these comments come from teachers. For example, this comment: “Rothstein’s system does depend, in part, on some measure of trust being vested in professional educators. We do this routinely with our attorneys, physicians, accountants, even realtors. But teachers? You know the answer as well as I do.” I basically sympathetize with this response. I wouldn’t want, myself, to be ‘held accountable’ for something I couldn’t control. Who would? What seems logical is for teachers — confronted with these pressures for ‘accountability’ — to say in response: “Give teachers the ability to control what matters for school and student success and we will accept responsibility for school and student success”. In my state and in districts elsewhere in the country there are now schools organized as professional partnerships, where the teachers are in charge and have the administrators (if any) working for them. Let me ask the teachers responding, here, about your comments on “Race to the Top”: Would you be interested in working in a school organized as a partnership, where teachers control the learning program? [You can see this model described if you’ll look at http://www.educationevolving.org] Public Agenda found in 2005 that most teachers would be interested in that arrangement. It does seem like the logical response from teachers — and their unions — to the pressures for ‘accountability’ that are currently working mainly to enlarge the management role under current arrangements.


  7. Ted,
    Speaking as someone who taught for 18 years, and now works as a mentor and coach directly with classroom teachers, I would say that yes, I would be interested in the arrangement you describe. I visited the website you referenced and greatly appreciate the attention you give to the issue of student engagement and motivation. As Dave Russell pointed out on my blog this week, we cannot make the mistake of thinking that the government can compel students to perform at a certain level of proficiency — and we further compound this error when we make teachers accountable for attempting to enforce this compulsion. See here: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2010/01/misguided_educations_biggest_m.html

    But if we focus on real student engagement and motivation, then we are halfway there.


  8. The real keys to the “Race to the Top” program is the transparency associated with data and the expectation that by tracking students, we’ll be able to help them more. Frankly, the teachers need to be in charge BUT they need to also have assessment data that enables the teachers if no one else to determine what’s working and what’s not working.

    The biggest errors in the “Race to the Top” program were/are:
    1. the proposals just submitted should have required an assessment of the inadequacies of the present approach – based on data or the lack thereof.

    2. Any follow-up funding should be based upon the assessments done of presently funded work with changes called for depending upon the analysis of that asssessment – NOT simply how well one has followed the previously submitted plan.

    I just read the reviewers are being kept ananomous. That for sure is important. Even more important is that the reviewers need to be honest and strict and they need to be listened to. If NO proposals are worthy, then they should all be rejected and revised for Round Two. Unfortunately, this is a political world; it is highly likely that the states with the most political clout will be funded because of nothing else. The states that won’t be funded will be those that have good ideas that don’t fit with the politically correct thinking …

    Every time I hear or read about why something cannot be done or some change cannot be accomplished, I’m reminded of the quote from Lee Iacocca:
    “We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”


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