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.