Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’ falters


In 2009, President Obama issued a fact sheet outlining his new education reform plan. Race to the Top, as it is called, has four key areas: rigorous standards and assessments, adoption of better data systems for reporting, support for teachers and school leaders to become more effective, and a plan for rigorous interventions when a school fails to meet standards. In the seven years since this announcement, the results range from somewhat satisfactory to outright disastrous.

Obama wrote a preamble to the fact sheet on July 24, 2009, which stated: “America will not succeed in the 21st century unless we do a far better job of educating our sons and daughters. … And the race starts today. I am issuing a challenge to our nation’s governors and school boards, principals and teachers, businesses and non-profits, parents and students: if you set and enforce rigorous and challenging standards and assessments; if you put outstanding teachers at the front of the classroom; if you turn around failing schools—your state can win a Race to the Top grant that will not only help students outcompete workers around the world, but let them fulfill their God-given potential.” [i]

As stated, Obama’s goal for this program was to ensure that students could outcompete workers worldwide. But as a goal for educators, it set an ill-conceived precedent involving winners and losers.

Kevin K. Kumashiro, in his 2012 book “Bad Teacher,” outlined the shortcomings of recent federal educational reform plans: “Politicians and pundits today seem to be unable to talk about educational reform in terms other than competitions, such as being the best in the world or racing to the top, in which only some can win while all others must lose. Even reforms that seem to say that everyone can win are nonetheless creating winners and losers, such as [the federal act of 2001] No Child Left Behind’s mandate of 100% proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014—a rate that has never been reached by any nation in the world—which actually sets many up to lose because of the sanctions that follow when failing to meet that unattainable standard. School reform is making the failures of vast numbers of America’s children inevitable.”

As Race to the Top’s mandate for rigorous standards and assessments became translated into Common Core and high-stakes testing, schools across the nation began to focus their energies into “teaching for the test,” in order to acquire much needed funds in a time of seemingly permanent fiscal crises and to prevent punitive measures if their children failed to meet the required benchmark.

In her book “Reign of Error” (2013) education historian Diane Ravitch stated, “So we are left with the short-term strategies. [University of California professor Thomas B.] Timar says that the strategies of ‘bureaucratizing the process of school improvement and turning it into a chase for higher test scores’ have not worked. They have not made schools more stable, more coherent, and more professional. NCLB [No Child Left Behind] plus the Obama administration’s Race to the Top have made schools less stable, encouraged staff turnover, promoted policy churn, and undermined professionalism.”

A large part of what make these schools unstable is the practice of holding schools accountable when they find themselves at the bottom of the test rankings. For accountability starts with increased pressure to turn the school around quickly and proceeds to firings and school closings when they inevitably fail to improve. This does not address the prevalence of poverty and the ways in which poverty affects the communities that many of these schools are located within.

Ravitch underscored the fact that “poverty matters. Poverty affects children’s health and well-being. It affects their emotional lives and their attention spans, their attendance and their academic performance. Poverty affects their motivation and their ability to concentrate on anything other than day-to-day survival. In a society of abundance, poverty is degrading and humiliating.”

Furthermore, getting a “quality education,” including a college degree, is not necessarily enough to ensure a quality job that would put the student in a position to, in Obama’s words, “outcompete workers around the world.” In a competitive model, those who are born at the bottom, the “losers,” will most likely attend public institutions. Even if they succeed at getting through high school and graduating with a bachelors-degree, they are still competing against those who have gone through the most prestigious high schools and universities.

“This stratification of college attendance by social class matters,” stressed the late education theorist and activist Jean Anyon in her 2011 book “Marx and Education.” She pointed out that “selective institutions spend up to $92,000 per student, while colleges with low selectivity spend about $12,000 per student. And per-pupil subsidies at selective universities are eight times greater than at non-selective institutions. Moreover, the prestige and networks one acquires at a selective school are invaluable in future job searches.”

Race to the Top might have benefitted a few schools that, with the help of federal funds, have managed to pull themselves away from the brink of being closed. For a great many schools, however, this program has meant devastating interventions that included firings and closings and the opening up of charter schools in their place. The charters are privatized and unregulated institutions where young people can possibly get a quality education but are more likely to find themselves in ramshackle profit-making enterprises where education is the least of concerns.

Going forward, true educational reform would have to start, not from a position of increasing competition but from the idea that we are all of one worldwide community, facing a global climatic crisis, and that we need to address structural issues that have resulted in high levels of poverty, including geographical issues that have arisen due to climate change, policing, and judicial racism. These items have given rise to the school-to-prison pipeline and gender inequalities that are manifested in a myriad of ways, including the persistent wage-gap between men and women. As these issues remain, so do differentiated educational outcomes that favor those who possess the most resources.

[i] Barack Obama, July 24, 2009 https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/fact-sheet-race-top

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