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The Art of Teaching Science: Is Georgia’s Race to the Top a Good Idea?

A report was published this week that ought to raise the eyebrows of a lot of Georgians.  The report is an analysis of the progress of the the U.S. Department of Education’s signature program, the $4.5 billion Race to the Top Fund.  Georgia snagged nearly a half-billion dollars of the fund.

The report said that most winning states made “unrealistic and impossible” promises to boost student achievement in exchange for a monetary prize.

On this blog, I have lambasted the Race to the Top concept from its beginnings when in 2009, the Secretary Duncan announced the plan to entice the governments of the states and D.C. into a competition to get a piece of $4.5 billion.   Georgia was a second round winner in this massive government competition.   $400 million, which was the amount of Georgia’s grant, looks like a lot of money.  If you do the math, however, over four years this amounts to $64.00 per student in the state of Georgia.

However, if you are the Governor, Executive of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, Georgia Superintendent of Education, or the RTT Project Director, then getting $400 million from the Federal Government during the Great Recession is a very good idea.  But in my opinion, that is the only good to the idea.

The Race to the Top was ill-conceived from the start.  It was conceived by people at the U.S. Department of Education who favor using charter management companies to come into cities where students are failing state mandated tests that are not valid and unreliable measures of learning.  The Director of the Race to the Top in D.C. is Joanne Weiss, who previously worked as Executive Director of the New Schools Venture Fund, an organization working, especially with charter management groups, to invest in schools where students are simply not doing well .

Georgia claims that its Race to the Top plan involves 41 percent of public school students, 46 percent who are in poverty, 53 percent are African-American, 48 percent are Hispanic, and represent 68 percent of the state’s lowest schools.   This is all well and good.

However, if you were to go to the original documents, and videos of who presented the Georgia Race to the Top proposal in D.C., none of these groups are visible, or seem to be involved.  The only educator that was present was Alvin Wilbanks, Superintendent of Gwinnett County Schools.  The Georgia Superintendent of Education at the time was Brad Bryant, who was not an educator.

Georgia made claims in its proposal no different from most of the other winning RTT states, and according to Elaine Weiss, author of the Race to the Top study, states did what it took to earn the points on their proposals, no matter what.  For example, some states made the claim that they would raise student performance on academic tests in math and reading that would be impossible to achieve.  But, by making outrageous claims, evaluators of the Race to the Top proposals would mark the proposals so.

Problems with Race to the Top

Here are some of the serious problems that Weiss found among the Race to Top winners.

  • With one exception, every grantee state promised to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps to degrees that would be virtually or literally impossible even with much longer timelines and larger funding boosts.
  • Virtually every state has had to delay implementation of its teacher evaluation systems, due to insufficient time to develop rubrics, pilot new systems, and/or train evaluators and others.
  • States have focused heavily on developing teacher evaluation systems based on student test scores, but not nearly as much on using the evaluations to improve instruction, as intended.
  • Because state assessments tend to test students’ math and reading skills, attention has been focused mostly on those subjects, potentially to the detriment of others. States have also struggled to determine how to evaluate teachers of untested subjects and teachers of younger students, a critical issue, given that they constitute the majority of all teachers.
  • While some states have developed smart strategies to recruit talented professionals to teach subjects and/or teach in schools that are underserved, the vast majority of alternative certification money and effort has gone to bringing young, largely non credentialed novices to teach in disadvantaged schools.
  • Many districts increasingly protest state micromanagement, limited resources, and poor communications.

One of the big issues that Weiss uncovered was the States’ promise vs. their capacity to deliver.  In a top down way, how can funding of $400 million, which represents only 0.98% of Georgia’s $10.199 billion budget, carry out the goals that are spelled out in the proposal?

Georgia’s Flawed Plan

Raising student achievement, especially in Georgia’s lowest achieving schools, is one of the four goal areas of the Race to the Top project.  Georgia’s solution to this problem?

  • Create a new office with the Department of Education that will manage turnarounds.
  • Establish a pipeline of teachers by working with Teach For America (TFA) and The New Teacher Project (TNTP) to bring non certified, inexperienced, part-time help to schools that the state said are in need of the most help.
    Figure 1. NAEP reading scores and child poverty rates.  Georgia is circled in red. Source: Weiss, E. Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement
    Figure 1. NAEP reading scores and child poverty rates. Georgia is circled in red.
    Source: Weiss, E. Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement

Why do these officials at the state level think that hiring TFA and TNTP recruits will solve this problem? If they were to look at the relationship between NAEP scores and child poverty rates, they might be motivated to look to very different solutions to the problem of academic achievement.

So, we will use inexperienced and non certified teachers in the state’s lowest achieving schools to raise achievement by spending $64 per student.   Now, that’s a solution.

Georgia’s plan also said that they will create “great teachers and leaders.”  To do this, the state will develop “effectiveness measures” for teachers and administrators and collaborate with Teach For America and The New Teacher Project to stream non certified teachers to schools in need.  But for the majority of teachers in Georgia, the state will rate them by using student achievement scores, and by “leveraging” the power TKES and LKES (teacher and leader evaluation systems).

The Race to the Top in Georgia also mandates that all schools adopt the Common Core State Standards in math and reading/language arts.

So, is Georgia’s participation in the Race to the Top a good idea?  It is a travesty, and the real effects will start to appear next year when all teachers’ and administrators’ evaluations are based on student test scores and the untested TKES and LKES scales.

The authors and proponents of the Georgia Race to the Top open the door to increasing opportunities for teacher preparation groups and charter management companies to privatize Georgia education.

We need to call them out.  We surely don’t want to let them pull the wool over our eyes.  This is all about power and money, and not about improving teaching and learning.  What do you think about Georgia’s Race to the Top?

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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordina...