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New York education, played to the tune of Race to the Top

January 23, 2012 | 12:57 pm

Arne DuncanAn interesting article in Monday's New York Times chronicles the struggles of a school district in that state to evaluate its band teacher. No joke. New York was among the winners of a Race to the Top grant in part because it agreed to use tests to evaluate (and reward and potentially fire) teachers. But the state only administers tests for a limited number of grades and subjects. It can devise tests, or have schools do that, for many subjects, but what about music, art and a stack of other courses that don't easily lend themselves to fill-in-the-bubble exams?

At first, the school in question considered having the teacher assign each student to play a piece at the beginning of the school year, and then again at the end, assigning a score to each performance. The bigger the difference between those two scores (assuming the score at the end of the year was higher), the better for the teacher's evaluation. But preparing the students for their initial "exam" would be enormously time-consuming, and of course the teachers would be doing the scoring themselves. Hiring outsiders to do this would be prohibitively expensive.

For all the knots the state is tying itself into over its federal grant, the amount totals just $700 million over four years -- about the same that California would have received if it had won a grant. During that time, N.Y. Times writer Michael Winerip reports, the state will have spent some $230 billion of its own money on schools. Let's grab the calculator for this one: that means the state is receiving an increase of less than one-third of 1 percentage point.

I've never been a fan of Race to the Top, though I have to admire, as Winerip does, the genius of a plan that gets states to drive themselves into a frenzy to do what the federal government wants, and for so little money in return. Nor have most of the key elements of Race to the Top involved reforms that have shown themselves successful at helping kids learn more and better.

California was no exception. It's not that all the reforms it rushed to pass in its unsuccessful bid for money were bad ideas -- though in the original legislation, before saner heads prevailed, the bill was a mess of problematic ideas. But the Legislature needed to think less about what would make U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan happy and more about what would actually work for the schools.

Not that California, which has been the nation's Anti-Race to the Top state for the last year or so, has made remarkable strides in improving education. Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal for cutting back on tests isn't going to accomplish that, and we're still waiting to see the bulk of his plan for the schools. But New York, with its full-on embrace of Race to the Top, doesn't seem to have figured out many answers either.

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--Karin Klein  

Photo: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is seen on March 22, 2011 holding a town hall meeting in Los Angeles. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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