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Friday, November 13, 2009

Why “Race to the Top” might be better called “Race to the Middle”

The Obama administration has been touting a program it’s calling “Race to the Top,” which will make available $4.35 billion to states that put forward education reform plans that meet certain federal guidelines. Those guidelines were released just a couple of days ago. There’s a lot of good stuff in there about raising standards, improving early childhood education, shrinking performance gaps among different groups of students, etc.

But sadly, there’s also a lot that would seem to doom this plan, like its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, to create an educational culture of mediocrity, where just good enough is...well, good enough.

The notion of raising standards sounds good. Who could be against raising educational standards? Don’t we all want our kids to do better? Of course we do. The problem is that, when a single standard is applied to all students, it doesn’t necessarily qualify as an improvement across the board - especially when the standard is quantified using a single, uniform test.

By definition, we want most students to meet the standard, so it will be set at a point that most students can reasonably be expected to achieve, given appropriate instruction and resources.

But also by definition, some students will have the ability to surpass the standard -- in some cases, by quite a lot -- and some students may even be able to do that with little or no instruction at all. These are the high-ability students that exist in some number in every school everywhere. For them, the standard is set below the level they can reasonably be expected to achieve.

According to my reading of the executive summary of the Race to the Top program -- and if I’ve missed something, I’d be most grateful if someone would point it out -- the program’s guidelines do not take these kids into consideration. Quite the opposite -- the guidelines specifically call for uniform standards across the board, and when most kids meet those, the job is considered to have been well done. What’s more, states are encouraged to peg teacher compensation, promotion, and retention to these standards. In other words, educators will have material incentives to make sure that the lower-performing students are raised to meet the standard, and no incentives (other than their consciences, of course) to make sure that the higher-achieving students show similar improvement, even if that means reaching a standard above the norm.

And this is why Race to the Top looks suspiciously like a race to the middle.

We need a more nuanced approach that actively elicits the best from every single student no matter what their ability level. Linking rewards to absolute scores achieved on standardized tests is a recipe for the mediocritization of public education.

And it’s not just the high-ability students who end up suffering. When test performance becomes the ultimate arbiter of success, it’s inevitable that the classroom experience is narrowed, with things like critical thinking and creativity shunted aside in favor of goal-oriented instruction that aims to wring the best possible score out of each kid during that critical week of standardized testing. At its worst, it becomes an exercise in joyless, spirit-crushing repetition more likely to turn kids off to school than to inspire them to excel.

There’s something even more disturbing to me than all that, though. Race to the Top, like No Child Left Behind before it, treats education like a business plan, in which we set quantifiable targets in order to increase productivity and optimize output. But that’s not what education should be, and it’s not the way to achieve true greatness as a society. Education is its own end, because the intellectual development of every individual enhances society as a whole in ways that go far beyond the bottom line. It informs our values, enhances our creativity, broadens our vision, and brings us together through shared interests and common goals. What concerns me most is that we seem to have given up on all that, settling instead for a much narrower vision and a more anemic ideal.

And that’s something we shouldn’t be inflicting on any of our children.

NOTE: Del Siegle, president of the National Association for Gifted Children, wrote an open letter to education secretary Arne Duncan with some recommendations on how to address the needs of high-ability students in Race to the Top. Unless I missed something, the kind of explicit acknowledgement of the needs of gifted kids called for in this letter didn't make it into the final guidelines.