Today, the U.S. Department of Education named 18 states and the District of Columbia as finalists for phase 2 of the Race to the Top program, a competitive grant program that rewards, among other factors, collaboration with teacher unions. Grantees will be announced in September.
WASHINGTON—We congratulate the Race to the Top finalists, the best of which have made a concerted effort to bring together parents, educators and community leaders to develop a thoughtful, student-focused approach to improving public education.
AFT members in states like Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island fought for and won a seat at the table, and their management counterparts engaged with them in a respectful, professional way. Fully recognizing that Race to the Top is far from perfect, our members nevertheless worked tirelessly to ensure that stakeholders in these states focused on students’ interests and offered solutions that make sense in their classrooms.
The centerpiece of Race to the Top is meaningful teacher evaluations developed with teacher input and focused on student learning. The Department of Education’s rhetoric, and its scoring rubric, purport to reward states that work with teachers to develop this kind of evaluation system. Logically, then, Washington, D.C.’s application, which includes an evaluation system developed and implemented solely by the chancellor, without regard to considerable criticism this year from frontline educators, should have ranked among the lowest. By naming D.C. a finalist, the Education Department is sending a message that is completely opposite to its earlier calls for states to engage all community members, including teachers, in the effort to improve schools. No one wants bad teachers, but no one should want bad teacher evaluation systems either.
While we encouraged our local and state affiliates to be involved in every aspect of Race to the Top, we have always been troubled that this competition, by its very construct, leaves out millions of students across the country. Rather than picking winners and losers, our education policies should represent a comprehensive approach focused on preparing every student to succeed in college, work and life. Last month in Seattle, delegates to the AFT’s convention embraced such an approach: namely, to ensure that every neighborhood school is an excellent school; to build on what works and replicate it for all kids; to create a school environment in which students have what they need to succeed, including a well-rounded curriculum; and to provide teachers the necessary support so they can constantly improve.
With all the attention that Race to the Top has received, some have lost sight of the fact that students’ success is threatened by Washington’s failure to help states and districts that are still feeling the effects of the recession. Even after today’s announcement, Race to the Top has delivered funds to just two states, Delaware and Tennessee. Meanwhile, schools across the nation face hundreds of thousands of educator layoffs, ballooning class sizes, cuts to after-school programs, four-day weeks, and the elimination of advanced placement, music, art and P.E. classes. The U.S. House of Representatives showed great leadership in passing a bill to avert these cuts, but the Senate’s failure to act on the educator jobs bill leaves our students and schools in a precarious position. This failure dwarfs whatever changes Race to the Top might effect because, as our members know, education reform faces impossible odds when schools face massive budget cuts.