December 2009
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Race to the Top: The Obama Administration’s Answer to NCLB

written by Dr. Ann Kennedy

The failure of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in a new plan, funded in part by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Last month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Fund, a $4.35 billion federal investment in educational reforms. Through an application process, states will vie for the funds by documenting their recent successes and outlining future plans for innovative changes to accelerate student achievement. The application process will take place in two phases: The first deadline is set for mid-January 2010; applications for the second phase will be due on June 1, 2010. Winners will be announced at the end of September 2010. The awards will be based on the following criteria:

  • Establishing higher standards and using assessments that will allow students to succeed in careers beyond secondary school—in college or in the workplace;
  • Establishing robust data systems that measure growth and success, which can then be used to inform and improve instruction;
  • Hiring and retaining effective teachers and principals;
  • Improving lowest-achieving schools nationwide (Race to the Top Program, Executive Summary, November 2009).(1)

As a reading specialist working in an at-risk alternative high school in Virginia, I am most intrigued by the discussion of assessment, for students as well as for teachers and principals. As it stands currently, content standards and subsequent assessment of those standards have become increasingly sub-standard–at least in the state of Virginia. Patrick Welsh, another Virginia high school teacher and part-time journalist for the Washington Post has exposed Virginia’s gradual easing with each year of the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests in his article, Passing Scores Fall My Students. As an English teacher, he felt the passing rate must be set not “more than a notch or two above bare minimum” (Washington Post, 06/15/2003).

In an interview with Michael D. Shear and Nick Anderson of the The Washington Post , Obama himself acknowledged that NCLB’s assessments were “too brittle” and that states had to “water down” standards to indicate adequate yearly progress (AYP) (2). Such strong statements indicate an awareness of NCLB’s key weaknesses; perhaps the 1,161 people who submitted input for draft proposals for the Race to the Top, (1) will feel some ownership and will force a transparency necessary for credibility and trust.

NCLB teacher evaluations were vaguely based on student achievement, as indicated by quantitative data. Race to the Top, however, encourages states to use multiple measures for teacher and administration evaluations. The focus seems to be more on student progress, or student growth. Student achievement will no longer be a “significant factor” in teacher evaluation (2). Those of us who work with at-risk adolescents are relieved that some form of realism has found its way into teacher evaluation guidelines.

Race to the Top hopes to ensure quality by raising the level of competition among the states. Charles Barone of Democrats for Education Reform in New York, says in USA Today that governors have not had much of an impetus to involve themselves directly in education reform. With the deadline of the Race to the Top applications looming, each governor understands that this is an opportune time to seize the title of “education governor” (3) and that quality of competition may be raised. As a stakeholder in secondary education, I look forward to the results of the competition and hope Virginia’s K-12 educational programs will soon match the quality of its post-secondary colleges and universities.

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