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.

We Remember September 11

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Our nation was attacked on September 11, 2001 and our world changed.  Terrorists called al-Qaeda, with training camps all around the world were responsible for the death of the more than 3,000 victims.  This is an enemy unlike any we have ever faced.  There are multiple countries, multiple fronts and multiple threats.

This enemy is committed to the absolute destruction of the American way of life and imposing their beliefs and values upon the world.  In their world, law is determined by force—those with power—whether military strength or political dominance—make the rules. It is our belief in freedom, human rights, idealism, personal responsibility and economic opportunity that extremists dislike the most.

If you were a classroom teacher today how would you address the events of September 11, 2001 with your students?  Would you blame the incident on the very people who lost their lives?  Would you blame those with a misguided ideology for killing innocent people?  To me, the answer is very apparent.   And those who would blame victims or our nation are siding with evil-doers and promoting savagery.

Since Jeremiah Wright first shocked our nation with his comment in 2008, parroting a Malcolm X phrase, that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” which was widely understood as meaning that America brought the September 11 attacks upon itself.  Every year that has passed since 2001 that sentiment has been voiced in one manner or another. Eventually that will end up in our classrooms and textbooks.  My fear is that the victims will be posthumously put on trial while the terrorists are seen as genial freedom fighters.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

It seems to many that we treat perpetrators of evil kinder than we treat their victims in our society.  It is an obvious assault on law and order.  It is law which enables man to live together, and creates order out of chaos.  We first and foremost a nation of laws. Founding Father and future president John Adams called America “a nation of laws, not of men.”  These rules should not be subject to the whims of those in power.   And those who fail to understand history in the proper context will write textbooks to inform future generations.  It is why curriculum has been such a highly debated issue.

Historian Bruce Kauffmann wrote about “the Soviet Union’s infamous dictator, Josef Stalin, who in the late 1930s had millions of innocent people incarcerated and murdered after they underwent show trials, or no trials, in which the “nature and cause of the accusation” against them were such specifically identified and legally provable crimes as being “foreign agents,” “counterrevolutionaries,” “enemies of the people” or “enemies of the state.” Have we become so politically correct that only one opinion is allowed?

I accept that countries lie to their citizens, and that we are, regrettably, governed by men and women who are sometimes corrupt.  That is undesirable, but it is a fact of life.   Often choices made by government is not between good and bad, but between bad and worse.  We have done exactly what George Washington warned us against by embracing entangling alliances.  We have largely abandoned our Judeo-Christian heritage, in fear of lawsuits and in the name of inclusion.  However, we still have the rule of law, right?

I am reminded of Robert Kennedy’s speech in which he was discussing the law.  He said about the law: “The road ahead is full of difficulties and discomforts. But as for me, I welcome the challenge. I welcome the opportunity, and I pledge to you my best effort — all I have in material things and physical strength and spirit to see that freedom shall advance and that our children will grow old under the rule of law.”

People of reason can disagree with issues and have civil discourse.   “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” according to the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  Who also reminded us that culture, not politics, determines the success of society.  Respect of our fellow human beings is the core outgrowth of a nation committed under a rule of law.  It is our shared history in America, and one in which we must be personally committed to follow.  That is the real lesson to teach.  If we fail to pass that to the next generation, freedom, the political process, civil liberties, individual rights and media independence will be lost to the dustbin of history and no longer tolerated.

We must remember September 11th in our homes and in our classrooms and engage in this important dialogue.   Never let it be said that the flame of freedom was extinguished on our watch.   That can be summed up in two words:  We Remember.

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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.