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Education: ‘Race’ not yet over

By Francesca McCaffrey, Editorial Assistant – (Photo courtesy of Marlith)

In July 2009, President Barack Obama announced his plan to initiate the Race to the Top Program. Laid out in detail in an executive summary issued by the US Department of Education in Nov. 2009, the program was designed to entice states to reform K-12 education by rewarding states that chose to adhere to the reform guidelines set out in the summary with varying grants, ranging from $20 million to $700 billion.

Whether or not a state is chosen to receive a grant, and if so, of what amount, is determined not only by the size of the 5-17 year-old student population in the state, but also, according to the program’s official summary, by how well the state “demonstrate[s] success in raising student achievement [and creating] the best plans to accelerate their reforms in the future.”

The Race to the Top program is a prominent branch of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Obama signed into law in Feb. 2009. The act was designed to stimulate the economy and encourage reform in societal sectors, such as education.

September of this year represented the final stage of the Race to the Top grant process, with all states that applied for the program’s second round of grants (the first round ended in March 2010, with Delaware and Tennessee as the only states out of the applicants chosen to receive funding) being notified of their reward, if any.

Massachusetts was shut out of a grant in the first round of competition because “a review panel doubted that the state would replace its homegrown academic standards…with a new set of national standards” and “faulted the state for giving teacher unions too much say” and refusing to connect teacher evaluations to student test scores (James Vaznis and Michael Levenson, Boston Globe).

In light of a renewed effort towards reform on behalf of the Massachusetts Board of Education, the Massachusetts government was notified in late Aug. 2010 that it had been slated to receive $250 million from the Race to the Top program. The other states that won grants in the second round of evaluations are Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia.

For state governments, however, being chosen as a grant winner is not the end of the journey. In order to qualify for a grant in the first place, states needed to not only agree to certain guidelines set forth in the Race to the Top Program Summary, but also show tangible evidence of progress towards reaching the goals set forth by these guidelines. The core areas of reform encompassed by these guidelines are

  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
  • Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
  • Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.

(US Department of Education, Race to the Top Executive Summary)

Though the grant awarding process ended recently, the lasting effects of the Race to the Top initiative on the nation’s schools have yet to be seen. Massachusetts’s legislators are well aware of the continued vigilance and adherence to the standards set forth by Race to the Top that must exist before any kind of positive educational reform can be achieved. As Boston’s Mayor Thomas Menino said in reference to Massachusetts’ grant award, “We’ve got to continue to stay focused. This is about the future of Massachusetts, the future of America” (qtd. in Vaznis and Levenson, Boston Globe).

The feeling that change is necessary pervades even the next generation of teachers. Jessica Shapiro, LSOE ’14, said, “teachers need to be evaluated more stringently.” Shapiro also voiced certain concerns, however, saying that teachers are forced to teach towards standardized tests and said that curriculum re-evaluations are necessary to fix this trend.

Margeau Frigon, LSOE ’14, highlighted the importance of a well-balanced curriculum, as well. In advocating for several changes, Frignon said, “every curriculum, no matter what the class, should include current events.”

Even with the air of excitement that is enveloping states which have received grants, a number of states have chosen to stay on the sidelines of the competition, a group which includes, among others, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming, none of which chose to apply for the second round of grants.  Reasons for removal from the program are varied, and state governments have voiced concerns ranging from “worrie[s] about giving up too much local control” to decisions that existing “academic standards [in the state are] better than the ones contemplated in the grant” (Education Week, qtd at http://blog.heritage.org/2010/06/02/race-to-the-top-some-states-choose-educational-liberty-over-temporary-government-safety/)

These concerns come at a time when the American educational system is coming under scrutiny from the filmmaking industry as well. The recent documentary Waiting for Superman focuses on the journeys of five public school students who are trying to gain access to better-performing public charter schools in their areas. The film, directed by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed the Academy Award-winning documentary on climate change An Inconvenient Truth, is unique in that it not only highlights criticisms of America’s educational system, such as schools’ consistently low math and science scores despite increased funding and questions of whether or not states participate in fair-funding practices to ensure that even low-income neighborhoods are provided for, but also offers suggestions for improvement and a call to action.

One aspect of this call involves urging “everyday Americans” to offer their time as volunteers in their local school districts, offering whatever special skills they may have to help aid in the education of America’s children.

The effect of Race to the Top’s guidelines on states that have chosen to participate, as well as whether or not some states will choose to supplement these guidelines in tandem with other methods of reform, has yet to be seen. In this context, the appropriateness of Menino’s urging of “continued focus” on educational reform in the months and years to come rings true not only in Massachusetts, but across the nation.

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