Real Reflections on Race to the Top

I read a very length piece by a former Governor Phil Bredesen staffer on Race to the Top.  There was nothing really new in the piece and I was unsure why it needed 16,000 words.  I would have summed it up briefly like this if I wrote it: “The state needed money, so we took a bunch of federal dollars, now we are unhappy.”  

It is worth the reminder that both Race to the Top, and the subsequent First to the Top legislation began under former Governor Bredesen.  “When the planets line up is when you jump for it,” Gov. Bredesen told Education Week.  Everything that has transpired since those events were clearly defined in that proposal and legislation necessitated for the proposal.   So, it should not have been a “surprise” to anyone.  The journey was clearly mapped in the federal grant application.  Read it for yourself

Bredesen proposed lifting the TVAAS prohibition for the state. Rachel Woods, the communications director for the Tennessee Department of Education in 2010, clearly identified state objectives at the time to the media, such as redesign of the “evaluation system,” “pay-for-performance,” “national standards,” and a “recovery district, that would be a real takeover of the school.”  The federal proposal itself, submitted by Governor Bredesen, says: “we have created an ―Achievement School District allowing the commissioner of the state Department of Education to intervene in consistently failing schools.”  In addition, it stated clearly the intent was to create “new charter schools” to maximize the impact of the Achievement School District (ASD). 

Earlier this year I described the Shelby County Schools Innovation Zone (iZone) stating the “results are somewhat promising, in comparison to the state’s own Achievement School District.”  Test scores in the Shelby County Schools Innovation Zone have increased faster than other school improvement efforts.  It is a clear reminder that government closest to the people has the best chance of success when enacted properly.  It wasn’t the failure of personnel to enact the policy for the state, it was that the proposal itself was flawed from the onset.  There is no dispute that the teacher’s union was deeply involved in Race to the Top process at the time. 

The marriage between education practitioner and education policymaker is not easy.  It is why I spend a great deal of time with educators nearly every day, and it helps that it is my actual background.  While I have certainly been critical of various education policies, and at times some policymakers, it serves us little to go back and criticize previous leaders, or failed policies. However, sometimes we must go back for historical purposes to prove a point.  Let’s read the actual Race to the Top document, which really laid the groundwork for changes the last decade.    

Whether you believe that Race to the Top is good or bad, depends upon your individual perspective.  We must think both short-term and long-term in education policy.  In 2009 and 2010, our state leaders were strictly focused on $501 million dollars. It is sometimes easier in public policy to create these short-term fixes to problems.   Do not let revisionist history tell you otherwise.   As President John Adams once said: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

So, it is clear that some people have buyer’s remorse with their involvement with Race to the Top.  However, that guilt should not be because of other people in other administrations involved in completing what was outlined in the proposal, but rather the content of the proposal itself.   States could have also accomplished turning around low achieving schools, adopting high-quality standards and assessments, promoting conditions that allow for more successful charter schools, and improving teacher and principal performance, stated goals of Race to the Top, without the federal government according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES).  Future policymakers should view Race to the Top as a cautionary tale of the federal role in education.  That’s my takeaway. 

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.