OPINION | What’s wrong with Race to the Top, and what’s right with Minnesota schools

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Minnesota, and the country for that matter, needs to focus on a “pace-setting commitment to education,” not “education reform” as the term is currently being used. President Obama and Secretary Duncan’s Race to the Top program is every bit as bad for public education as President Bush’s No Child Left Behind.

The requirements to receive Race to the Top funding represent an attempt to take Arne Duncan’s “Chicago model” nationwide.  Where is the evidence that what Duncan did in Chicago brought about changes the rest of the nation should imitate? The “Chicago Miracle” created by Arne Duncan is as mythical as the “Houston Miracle” produced by Rod Paige (Bush’s Secretary of Education).  Even the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank, concluded: “The NAEP results indicate that there was no “Chicago miracle” and that Secretary Duncan performed no better than the average superintendent of schools in the nation’s big cities” (“Questioning the ‘Chicago Miracle,'” July 2009).

The changes called for by Pawlenty, the Star Tribune Editorial Board, and others in an attempt to win Race to the Top dollars are nothing more than the latest “reform” fads.   If our goal is to improve education overall and close the achievement gaps, why would we suggest an alternative teaching license?  Would anyone take their child to a pediatrician that received an “alternative license?”

Similarly, we need to avoid the slash-and-burn approach to fixing schools labeled “struggling” or “failing.”  The Race to the Top program and the related School Improvement Grant program require mindless labeling of “persistently low achieving schools” and the implementation of quick fixes that have no proven track record.  The required changes do little more than blame school staff, promote privatization, and remove those closest to the challenges from the decision-making.  Each school that falls into this category must carry out one of four changes: 1) replace the school administration and restructure instructional time and professional development, 2) same as the first option, but also replace at least 50 percent of the staff, 3) close and convert the school to a charter, or 4) close the school and send the students elsewhere.

The research related to such drastic actions shows no real evidence of improvement as a result, and a close look at just the Minneapolis schools on the chopping block, currently being labeled as “failing,” should cause everyone to question the Obama/Duncan attack on public schools.

Of the six schools currently required to implement one of the four changes, two of them, Edison H.S. and Lucy Laney, have already experienced what Minneapolis calls a “fresh start.”  More than half the staff and the administration at both schools were already replaced within the past three years, and now they may have to go through this again?  Four of the six schools, again including Lucy Laney, are also part of the District’s North Side Initiative, a multi-year effort to raise student achievement.  The federal requirements apparently do not take these current efforts into account.

The programs promoted by Secretary Duncan also ignore the demographic realities of schools.  Broadway High School, one of the six Minneapolis schools labeled as failing, is an alternative school specifically for pregnant and parenting students.  Wellstone High School, also on the list, “is a “Newcomer Center” designed to serve students up to age 21 with limited to no English language skills or literacy skills in their first language.”  More than 85% of Wellstone students have been in the United States for 3 years or less, and as much as 15% have never been formally educated before entering the United States.

Will it help any of these students to dramatically shake up their school?  Are their struggles really the result of the teachers or administrators in their schools?  Given the challenges our students face on a daily basis, we should be talking about the small miracles that are being worked in our schools everyday, and finding ways the whole community can help to achieve more. 

While Obama’s commitment to the “urgency of now” is laudable, he and Secretary Duncan’s reckless approach to education will necessitate a continued use of this phrase for decades to come.  We must break the cycle of reforms de jour, and start honestly supporting our public schools and public school teachers.  The true “Minnesota Miracle” was accomplished by building and supporting the educational community, not blaming and dismantling it.