03 October 2015

Re-examining Arne Duncan's signature achievement: 5 reform ideas better than Race to the Top?

The retirement of Arne Duncan after 7 years as Education Secretary has generated quite a bit of renewed interest in his record. One of President Obama and Mr. Duncan's signature initiatives was the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competitive grant program.

One of the more interesting aspects of the R2T was the unique way the program used a monetary incentive structure to achieve its goals. Using a combination of competition, "free money," and weighted criteria, R2T was able to very quickly institute country-wide specific and demonstrable K-12 public education policy changes. This was and still is probably the key innovation of the R2T; for  $4.35 billion (4% of the $115 million allocated in the stimulus bill, a hypothetical 6.5% of the yearly federal education budget) it allowed the administration to bypass congress and state governments (for the most part) and implement a broad, sweeping overhaul of key aspects of K-12 public education.

Three of the biggest desired outcomes from the R2T incentive structure was to: 1) increase use of accountability metrics for teachers, principals, and schools; 2) adapt common standards; 3) remove barriers to charter school participation in public education. Much can and has been said about the empirical successes and failures of these specific outcomes. All totaled, the results of R2T probably represent the largest changes K-12 public education has seen since Brown v. Board of Education; changes that will continue to be discussed, parsed, studied, and debated about for some time into the future.

Knowing what we know now, one interesting question to ask is a counter-factual one regarding the educational trade-offs of R2T—using the same basic incentive structure of competition and "free money" but basing the desired outcomes around different criteria. All three of the outcomes listed above have been controversial enough to second guess their selection. The teacher accountability movement (focusing on value-added modeling) and the increasing role charter schools (pejoratively called charterization) are the two most challenging outcomes to accept as we learn more about their broad consequences to the ideals of liberal, holistic education.

So, with the benefit of hindsight, a reorienting of the criteria, and the theoretical stance that what is politically feasible and what is ideal are not in conflict, what would a new $4.35 billion R2T grant program incentive structure look like?

We can ask: should the R2T have been primarily animated by the pernicious black-white / low-middle income achievement gap? And view R2T within the tradition of the scholarship started by Daniel Patrick Moynihan and James Coleman in the 1960s. One possible source of inspiration to help answer this question is the scholarship of Richard Rothstein in his book Class and Schools.

In Class and Schools Rothstein offers 5 reforms of varying levels of realistic implementation and impact that could help narrow the achievement gap. There are:
  1. Stable housing reform—something like fully funding a program similar but more efficient than Section 8 housing; an increase of $1000 per pupil, nationwide
  2. School-community clinics—low-income school based health clinics that serve children and their parents through the child's high school career; an increase of $2500 per pupil who attend these (identified) low-income schools.
  3. Early childhood education—fully fund something like well-designed pre-k or Head Start; an increase of $2500 per pupil in low-income schools
  4. After-school programming—organized after school activities, both of the academic and non-academic variety; $5000 per pupil in low-income schools
  5. Summer programming—summer opportunities for low-income students to experience a “middle class” break from school; $2500 per pupil in low-income schools
(source: Rothstein, Richard. Class and Schools. Colombia Teachers College. 2004)

The claim isn't that any or all of these could be effectively funded with R2T $4.35 billion. Take early childhood education, for example. To scale universal pre-K up to a national level has been estimated at around $25 billion per year. The claim is more that the incentive structure could have been set-up in such a way as to attract a different type of "transformational change" and "ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform" by imagining a somewhat different set of criteria.

The question then becomes, given $4.35 billion is education funding, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the direction of K-12 public education, and more or less the ability to circumvent congressional oversight and state interference, would choosing any set of these 5 have made for better R2T criteria? Would the fight for educational equity look and feel much different today if R2T had outcomes focused on narrowing the achievement gap and not ones based within the "education reform" movement? Would a focus on the achievement gap have results in a broader, bolder approach to education reform?

Unfortunately, while counter-factuals are fun thought experiments, they do not change reality. The reality is that many of the consequences of R2T have created as many or more questions as answers about its impact on the K-12 U.S. public school system. Focusing on accountability and common standards has brought with it a focus on standardized and high-stakes testing. And increasing charter participation and choice has brought conflict of interests within and across school districts who are also besieged by ever decreasing funds and political gamesmanship.

While the adoption of the common core (absent the enormous profits made by publishing companies by the nationalization of testing the standards ) can be viewed with partially rosy glasses (if for no other reason than (1) they are probably better standards than what was out there in the past and (2) guiding standards are an overall good in education), the focus on accountability and the promotion of charter schools has to be view as a misfire, and a missed opportunity.

Race to the Top is a great historical demarcation line in domestic K-12 education policy. It is becoming more and more evident that its criteria and outcomes are not the way forward. Instead, R2T may mark the end of an era, where the U.S. education policy shifted away from a emphasis on 20th century standardization, trading in "a century old factory model—the wrong model for 21st century," towards embracing new models for the 21st century, ones that re-imagines “structure and delivery” and is set-up to “explore productive alternatives.”


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