Race to the top or to the bottom?

November 2, 2009

Why shouldn't education reform be about getting rid of poverty and class inequality as the way to improve ailing public schools, asks Adam Sanchez?

BURIED IN the 1,588 pages of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package that Congress passed in February, was $4.4 billion set aside to provide money for education to the states.

Normally, I'd be celebrating more funding for education. But in this case, the so-called "Race to the Top" funds for schools have some dangerous strings attached. Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are making states "compete" for these grants by using eligibility requirements the further the agenda of school "reform" and privatization.

In order to be eligible for Race to the Top funds, states must allow student performance on tests to determine teacher evaluations--basically, a means of imposing merit pay.

What's wrong with merit pay schemes? The creators of the clever Web site Teachers for CEO Merit Pay explain:

Performance pay structures in education force teachers to compete for a limited pool of merit-pay money, instead of collaborating to provide the best possible education. This creates a disincentive for teachers to share information and teaching techniques. Thus, the main way teachers learn their craft--studying from their colleagues--is effectively discarded. If you think we have turnover problems in teaching now, wait until new teachers have no one to turn to.

A teacher at P.S. 48 in Harlem works with students on reading skills
A teacher works with students at a school in Harlem

Although there is very little research on the long-term effects of performance-based pay in education, one recent study conducted by Patrick Schuermann and James Guthrie--and funded by the pro-merit pay George W. Bush administration to boot--concluded that there is no clear evidence on "the power of financial awards in promoting more-effective teaching and elevating student performance."

In addition, standardized tests have a long history of cultural, racial and class bias. Many critics have pointed out that questions on standardized tests require a set of knowledge and skills more likely to be possessed by students from a privileged background. This means that basing teacher pay on student test scores builds a direct monetary disincentive for teachers who choose to teach in low-income communities, which are disproportionately minority.

Furthermore, the whole idea of merit pay centers on the myth that good teaching can be motivated by money, and shifts the blame for our underfunded, poorly performing schools away from the people who actually have the power and capital to fix them, and on to teachers, who are all-too-often victims of the atrocious conditions in public schools.

MERIT PAY isn't the only problem with the education provisions in the stimulus legislation.

States that receive a Race to the Top grant are required to use at least 50 percent of the award to provide sub-grants to local educational agencies (LEAs), including charter schools that operate by siphoning money from the public schools system. This is particularly difficult for many states that have no charter school law or a cap on the number of charter schools allowed.

A recent study put out by Stanford University--and funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the pro-charter school Walton Family Foundation--found that in a survey of 16 states, students perform no better in charter schools than public schools, and in some cases, worse. When charter schools do succeed, it's because they have lots of extra cash, which all schools should have access to.

Charter schools also get to choose their students, decreasing the amount of power that students and parents have in the decision-making process and allowing for the exclusion of English Language Learners and special education students. Other studies have shown that charter school teachers are often less experienced and lower-paid than teachers in public schools.

It should have been a wake-up call when the New Teacher Project, a non-profit organization that analyzed each state's eligibility for Race to the Top grants, announced that Louisiana and Florida, two states that have consistently ranked at the bottom in education quality, were the only states considered "highly competitive" for the funds.

Despite these obvious problems, cash-strapped states are now racing to the bottom for Obama's "Race to the Top."

Since July, eight states have lifted or completely removed caps on charter schools, with a few other state legislatures planning similar legislation in the coming months. California, Wisconsin and Colorado are moving to lift restrictions linking test scores to teacher evaluation.

BARACK OBAMA and his administration rightly point out that the public school system is in crisis and needs major changes. What they don't mention is that, across the board, studies show the biggest reason students do poorly in school is because of social class.

In 2002, the Economic Policy Institute published a report which found that by the age of five, average cognitive scores for children with the highest socioeconomic status were 60 percent higher than scores for children with the lowest socioeconomic status. The study also reported that poor children have more health and behavioral difficulties, which negatively impact school performance.

In 2004, Richard Rothstein found that social class accounts for most of the differences in test data between Black and white students--in other words, that lower-income students tend to score low and higher-income students to score high, no matter what their race.

When it comes to attending college, the statistics are even worse. As Business Week pointed out in 2003:

Only 78 percent of students from low-income families who rank as top achievers attend college--about the same as the 77 percent [college attendance for] rich kids who rank at the bottom academically. The reason is all too clear: Financial aid programs have failed to keep pace with the skyrocketing cost of attending college...A generation ago, [the Pell Grant] covered 84 percent of the cost of attending a four-year public university...Today, the Pell covers just 42 percent.

As the economic crisis worsens and states are forced to slash education budgets, we can be sure these figures will only get worse.

Equally important is the research that shows when low-income parents get better jobs and increased family support, like access to medical care, their children are more successful in school. Jean Anyon, in her 2005 book Radical Possibilities, reviews several studies that confirm this. One study reviewed in the book showed that family income supplements as low as $4,000 a year improved children's school achievement by 10-15 percent.

So what would a real "Race to the Top" program look like? We could start by taking the largely taxpayer-funded $23 billion in bonuses that Goldman Sachs is giving out this year, and put that money toward giving nearly 6 million families that $4,000 income supplement.

Then we could pass single-payer health care giving low-income families equal access to quality medical care. Next, instead of spending nearly six times more on the Pentagon than education, we could ask ourselves why we need a budget for the Pentagon at all.

These are the kind of arguments that you might expect to hear from teachers union leaders. Yet instead, they are working hand in hand with the Obama administration to push through charter schools and merit pay.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the American Federation of Teachers "recently issued a batch of innovation grants to districts that are tying teacher pay to performance," and the National Education Association "is taking similar steps to encourage tougher evaluations and to loosen seniority systems, moves that Mr. Duncan called 'monumental breakthroughs.'"

Earlier this month, the teachers union in New Haven, Conn., agreed to a contract with tougher performance evaluations and fewer job protections that AFT President Randi Weingarten, who helped negotiate the deal, touted as "a model or a template" for contracts around the country.

For too long, the mantra of school reform has only meant interior educational policy: new ways of grouping students, high-stakes testing, zero-tolerance discipline policies, or changes in principals, teachers or curriculum.

It's time to build a movement that can put forward getting rid of poverty and class inequality as one of the main ways to close the achievement gap. We need more socialist teachers, students and parents trained in the history and theory of class politics and organizing to fight for a world where all people have access to food, shelter, health care and a liberating education.

Further Reading

From the archives