I was inspired by a few different sources to start this blog. It’s the first time I’ve seriously thought of putting my thoughts out there. While I am more than happy to give my opinion verbally, it is rare that I put things down on paper (or screen as the case may be). First and foremost, I want to thank my friend Jason whose own blog, while completely unrelated, nevertheless gave me the courage to believe that I can do this myself.
The other major inspiration for this blog was my participation last week in an education forum. I receive emails from Teach For America about education-related opportunities and one of those opportunities was a discussion with other education-interested people about teacher retention. The discussion was hosted by InformEd Action, an organization run by Debbie Lee and Sara Erickson, two Teach For America alumni. Both Debbie and Sara worked at the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, so clearly they have some experience in teacher retention issues. If you couldn’t tell by now, I was a Teach For America corps member myself and this blog will probably be littered with references to TFA. My glasses I’m sure are tinted a TFA hue, which will influence this blog to some extent, but despite my brainwashing, I would like to consider myself a fairly rational person and will hopefully be able to remain such in this blog itself.
I suppose I shouldn’t just leave it at that, considering that if you are reading this blog, it probably means you have some kind of interest in education, so I might as well relate the topic at the InformEd Action meeting that got me thinking I needed to have a place to air my views. We ended up on the topic of Race to the Top at one point. I suppose I should back up and give a little context. The meeting was essentially a brainstorming session on the causes of high performing teachers leaving the field and what can be done to keep them teachers. Ideas thrown out included defined career paths, compensation, stronger support systems, benefits – you get the idea. One idea that we talked about, one that TFA likes to tout, is accountability for performance. If good teachers are rewarded for doing well, while poor teachers are weeded out, then the good teachers are more likely to stay. Of course, this is a particularly complicated issue, since many teachers don’t believe that a teacher’s evaluation should be tied to students’ performances. According to a recent poll of 40,000 teachers by Scholastic and The Gates Foundation, 36% of teachers thought that a teacher’s performance shouldn’t influence their pay at all. Only a quarter of teachers thought it was very important or essential. This is not even a question of a particular measure of performance. It’s not saying that their pay needs to be tied to their students’ test scores or who is evaluating. A large portion of teachers simply do not think their jobs should depend on their performance, which in most industries would sound absolutely absurd.
This talk about evaluation and accountability eventually led us to a discussion of what specific actions can be done to make these important changes that will encourage good teachers to stay, which brought up recent developments in accountability on a grander scale. We began talking about the article in the New York Times from that day about some governors’ displeasure at how Race to the Top has panned out in its first year. Many states were disappointed that only two states, Delaware and Tennessee, were awarded money and that the selection criteria biased some states over others. For example, one requirement was for 100% of districts to participate in the contest, which is much easier done in Delaware with 38 districts than California with 1500. On top of that, each state was given a limit to how much they could win. With all of the dissatisfaction with Round 1, questions are popping up as to whether many states will continue with the contest into Round 2. In our small group, we discussed some pros and cons of the concept of Race to the Top. For those not familiar, Race to the Top is essentially a $5 billion contest among states to improve their schools, mostly through legislation. The Obama administration has decided that the stick of NCLB didn’t really work, so they’re hoping carrots will be better. The White House is hoping that through these efforts, states will be riskier in trying new ways to educate their students and in many ways, it has worked so far. There are a number of states who have relaxed their laws on charter schools, something many see as a path to diversity, which could potentially lead to new better methods.
This is all a long and roundabout way to get to what I really wanted to mention, which is the issue of rewards and criteria. I had originally thought about the weakness of Race to the Top as its inflexibility. The governors were complaining that some states have it easier, because they can make certain changes due to various issues of control, such as their court systems or their teachers’ unions. Why not give more states rewards for what they are doing successfully, instead of telling them that because they didn’t reach all of the goals, they won’t get anything? I was quickly told why. Essentially, the strength of Race to the Top lies in its focus not on single initiatives, but on comprehensive change. It’s not useful to have better administrators if there are not accountability systems put into place. It doesn’t make sense to spend millions of dollars recruit bright teachers if they’re just going to leave after a year or two from dissatisfaction. Rewarding states for one change, rather than a family of changes ends up being a waste of money and in the long-run, not a means for growth in this model. This ended up being our consensus as our get-together came to a close. However, after mulling over this more and feeling like this didn’t quite jive with me, I realized what the problem was. On the one hand, for a student to excel, they need comprehensive change in their school. On the other hand, states don’t always have the power to change everything about every school. This doesn’t mean that those states need to be looked past for funding. Instead, they should be getting funding based on the proportion of schools that are affected by comprehensive reform as well as the strength of those improvements. Despite the many documented problems with NCLB, one of its strengths was looking at schools and districts (or at least attempting to), rather than at states as a whole. A child is educated by a school, and over the course of their schooling by a district, rather than by a state as a whole. One argument against proportional funding is that it waters down the process. If every state gets something, then why should they bother making any effort at all? I would propose that just because states are being measured proportionally does not mean that funding has to be doled out equally proportionally. Perhaps funding only starts at the top 25 states based on growth in the areas measured. Or perhaps money is conditional upon improving areas that were the weakest or those that would affect the most schools. There are lots of options of how to ensure that more students are learning more and growing faster.
Hopefully that was a nice little taste of what is to come. Please leave comments and tell me why I’m amazing or why I’m an idiot for thinking such dross.