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Race to the Top Wins Send Mixed Signals

By Cynthia McCabe

March 31, 2010 --  When the Obama Administration this week awarded $600 million in Race to the Top grants to Delaware and Tennessee it sent a strong signal about the power of collaboration with educators for school districts hoping to achieve real education reform. But even as the Administration was indicating it grasped the importance of teacher-union-district partnerships, the awarding of such competitive grants to fund schools sends mixed signals to the public education community.

In the winning states, educators and their unions worked closely with district leaders to craft the plans that earned the federal stimulus money. Delaware and Tennessee’s plans focus on using comprehensive data collection to boost student achievement, and more effective teacher evaluation systems.

Rewarding such partnerships stands in contrast to the administration's continued promotion of the “turnaround” model of school reform that calls for firing teachers and staff at a school, which, in places like Central Falls, R.I., cuts off substantive work to boost student achievement already under way.

In announcing the Race to the Top winners, Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledged that it was a statewide effort that included support of the unions in the states.

With these first two selections for the $4 billion in grant money, the Department of Education did what was right for students, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said. “You can’t build a good plan that will yield long-lasting, sustainable results that are positive for students and their schools without having buy-in from all stakeholders.”

And the selection of Delaware and Tennessee sends a powerful message to the states that now wish to be considered in the second round of competition for the remaining $3.4 million this summer.

But the administration's apparent intention to extend competition into the nation's signature K-12 law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is raising concerns in light of the pressing needs of students in all states. With budgets in freefall, layoffs mounting and class sizes set to bulge in the next school year, NEA is warning that pure competition -- even one that rewards collaboration -- needs to be examined closely.

“The competition cannot comprehensively take on the looming problems of fiscal inequity among America’s public schools or systemically improve our nation’s schools,” Van Roekel said. “Students need more than a program that only rewards a few throughout the country.”

The $4 billion funding Race to the Top comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with President Obama requesting an additional $1.35 billion from Congress for the program next year. At the same time, Congress is now taking up reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- the biggest source of federal funds for public schools and includes the Title I program for disadvantaged students.

As someone on the frontlines, where student achievement meets funding realities, Salisbury, Md., teacher M. Emily Wells-Suznavick pondered recently in an NEA Today Facebook discussion, “how can we expect children to succeed when grants to schools are competitive? I can’t see a plan put together by businessmen being successful in schools.”

What can succeed? A plan put together by educators in cooperation with all other stakeholders – parents, community members and administrators. That’s the premise of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, which fosters innovative partnerships around the country.

Turning around lower-performing schools is a high priority for the 3.2 million members of the National Education Association. By leading permanent changes in these Priority Schools, it seeks to transform the lives of tens of thousands of students by significantly raising academic achievement.

For the union, that commitment includes a vow to work side-by-side with communities and with policymakers in state capitals, in Congress and the Obama administration; to partner in pursuit of innovative programs to measure student success and teacher quality; and to fight to attract and keep the best educators and necessary resources for the schools of greatest need.

And in the weeks ahead, the Association will press the administration and Congress to move forward to revamp and reauthorize ESEA in a way that meets the needs of all students with adequate education funding.

On Friday, the NEA sent to Capitol Hill its prescription for improving ESEA, focusing on the need for less standardized testing replaced by multiple measures to determine how well students are learning, smaller class sizes, more mentoring for new teachers and intensive professional development for all teachers.

“Children are not experiments,” Van Roekel said in related testimony to Congress.  “Policies on accountability, assessments and transforming low performing schools into great public schools should follow research—not dogma.”   


Full text of NEA's ESEA proposals sent to Congress on March 26, 2010

NEA's Positive Agenda for ESEA Reauthorization

NEA's Top Legislative Priorities for ESEA

Priority Schools Campaign

NEA members on the blueprint: Where is the collaboration?