Race to the Top gets an “F”

December 4, 2012

Adam Sanchez explains why Portland teachers are refusing to embrace the district’s attempt to be part of “Race to the Top”--and what’s at stake for students.

THE PORTLAND Business Alliance, the Oregonian editorial board, and the Portland School Board have lined up to denounce Portland teachers for refusing to sign on to the district's Race to the Top (RTTT) application.

While they all claim to support Portland students, they are backing policies that would further deepen inequity and worsen educational experiences.

All of these editorials misleadingly leave out the fact that the RTTT grant cannot be spent to hire teachers or help with class sizes, but instead must be dedicated to areas like professional development, which further adds to teacher workload, while not solving any of the real problems in our schools.

They also claim that the Portland Association of Teachers refused to collaborate with district administrators in crafting a RTTT application and the Oregonian holds up Hillsboro as a model of collaboration. But both the Portland Association of Teachers and the Hillsboro Education Association told their district officials that they would only collaborate on an RTTT application if it did not include tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.

A Portland preschool teacher with her students
A Portland preschool teacher with her students (Sarah Gilbert)

The only difference is that Hillsboro administrators agreed to collaborate with their union, while Portland officials did not. Rather than craft a RTTT application based on the hundreds of places where we agree, the school board insisted on including the one thing we disagree on--tying teacher evaluation to student test scores.

So why are teachers opposed to tying our evaluations to test scores? If you've been reading Oregonian editorials, you would think that we're doing this because teachers don't want to be held accountable and that those who dedicate their lives to working with children also happen to want horrible educational experiences for them. This couldn't be further from the truth.

Contrary to what these editorials have claimed, while state law currently mandates that "student growth" be part of teacher evaluation, the district's RTTT application would take this one step further by implementing a value-added evaluation model that would label teachers "highly effective," "effective," or "not-effective" based on their students' standardized test scores.

Several studies have shown that value-added models are highly unstable. Up to 35 percent of teachers move from being labeled "highly effective" one year to "not-effective" (or vice versa) the next.

But our stance against Race to the Top isn't just about rejecting an error-prone model of evaluation. It's about standing up for students, because our working conditions are students' learning conditions.

STUDENTS WILL be hurt by further emphasis on standardized tests and by punishing good teachers who--for reasons often outside of their control--cannot improve their students' standardized test scores. Because standardized tests tell more about a student's zip code than their academic ability, this model of test-and-punish unfairly labels public schools--and its students, parents and teachers--as failures.

The single most important factor contributing to low student achievement is poverty. Study after study has shown that there is a strong correlation between family income and test scores. Those who have wealthy parents are at the top, and low-income students are at the bottom.

Evaluating teachers based on student test scores punishes teachers who choose to teach the least fortunate. Even value-added models that try to take into account student's prior achievement assume that all students will improve at the same rate. This does not hold true for English language learners, students with disabilities or others who have traditionally performed poorly on tests.

And while teachers can play a crucial role in student success, evaluating teachers through standardized tests assumes that teachers can overcome any obstacle in students' lives. But as educator Jesse Hagopian writes:

[A] student whose home is foreclosed on will not be able to do their economics homework. A student whose loved one has been killed in a war in the Middle East will have a difficulty connecting with the science teachers' attempt to bring alive the learning of human body systems. A student whose parents have been deported will have difficulty crossing the barrier of the parent signature needed for a field trip to the civil rights museum. A student with parents who have been laid off may see their dream of going to college deferred for lack of funds. A student whose family lacks affordable health insurance may find themselves chronically absent from health class.

Society's ills don't magically disappear the moment a student enters a school.

Race to the Top's evaluation model isn't about measuring teacher effectiveness, but driving a political agenda that weakens teachers' job security, puts even more emphasis on standardized testing, and attacks teacher unions and public schools. The $400 million in RTTT funds that are being offered to districts is less than 1/25th of what Wall Street gave out in bonuses in 2011. If the federal governments can bail out the banks with virtually no strings attached, why can't they fully fund our schools?

And at the state level, we need real revenue reform. Oregon has a regressive income tax and one of the lowest corporate taxes in the nation. Yet in 2010, both the Oregonian and the Portland Business Alliance urged a "no" vote on Measure 66 and 67, which temporarily raised taxes on the rich and corporations to fund our schools. It's clear that they only want money for our public schools when it doesn't inconvenience wealthy Oregonians.

We need to demand progressive income and corporate taxes that fund quality public education for all and aren't attached to biased standardized test scores.

First published at Oregon Save Our Schools.

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