Tag Archives: Race to the Top


David is a teacher-organizer on the south side of Chicago.  He is a member of the Caucus of Rank-and File Educators (CORE) and I met him in 2009 fighting against school actions that destabilize students’ teaching and learning conditions and ultimately lead … Continue reading


The Turnaround Timeline Simplified

In Chicago, and nationally, if schools don’t “work” we close them down or turn them around.  If we take a look at why they do not “work” however, we see a pattern of strategic decision-making:

1) Chronically under-resource a school.
2) Declare it a “failure” after when you have a couple years of test-score results.
3) Throw it away and tell the students and educators to go elsewhere.
4) Re-open the building as a charter school with a $1 lease the following year.

Chicago attorney and edu-journalist Matt Farmer recently reported on the timeline to close Walter Dyett HS in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

All the rest is connecting the dots, and following the money.Image

Also, check out WBEZ’s map and chart for turnarounds and closures since 2001.  They also list the reasons given for each school action.

Teaching and Learning will still Suffer Despite Proposed “Flexibility” in NCLB

Since I have started teaching, I always welcome the first day of the year.  I never sleep the night before, but it is not an anxious time, it is an exciting time. I am even a little jealous of Track E teachers that get to start a month earlier than I.

The anxiety doesn’t come in September, but it usually begins in January, and that doesn’t have to do with the end of winter break, but rather a beginning of the “Testing Season.”  Testing Season, formerly known as “spring,” is the time of the year when all the really valuable learning that had been going on through December is then set aside for preparing students to take  high stakes exams.  These tests tests do not inform instruction – we do not see results until the following autumn- they only serve to incorrectly label what students in a certain zip-code cannot do.

It is a time-wasting disjuncture of the school year calendar that tells us nothing about what our students really know and really can do.  Teachers know this; students and parents know this.  However, it seems that the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan still doesn’t get it.

When Duncan announced that he will allow states to “waive” their No Child Left Behind requirements, I held my breath for the ball to drop.  Could it be?  The end of high-stakes testing?  The end of labeling our children and public schools as “failures?”

I don’t have much lung capacity, and actually, I didn’t have to hold my breath too long because a couple of paragraphs into the New York Times report I read that the only states that will get the waiver will be those states that have in put in place Race to the Top “accountability initiatives.”  Ah, Secretary Duncan, you never cease to disappoint my disappointment in you.  States are being let “off the hook” of a bad policy, just to be traded for a different bad policy that has negative effects on teaching and learning.”

For the better part of 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been decrying that Congress must re-authorize an “improved” version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) currently known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) before the school year starts in August/September.   This past spring the National School Board Association prepared an excellent summary outlining the finer points of the Re-authorization of ESEA.

But Congress never got to meet about NCLB since so much time was sucked up by the “Financial Crisis of 2011,” leaving Secretary Duncan to make an unprecedented and unilateral decision to allow states to “opt-out” of NCLB requirements, the major one being that “100% of schools need to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) by 2014,” if they implement education reforms to be announced in detail next month.

Everyone in the education world, Duncan included, is in agreement that achieving the goal set in motion in 2000 by President Bush is ridiculous at this point, and has been in many ways more damaging for students, schools and communities than it has been helpful.  Excellent schools across the nation are routinely labeled, “failing,” or put on “probation,” for not making improvements on high-stakes tests.  The Center on Education Policy reported in May that Adequate Yearly Progress made by schools was the lowest ever, with nearly 39% of all United States schools “failing,” and they report that the number is probably higher considering many states have changed their testing requirement since 2005.

Where the general public once did not have language to describe what was wrong with education in the United States, we now have labeled and categorized our children, and punished our public schools into education reform that resembles a scene from The Office.  We now use words like to “Accountability” and “Performance” to describe teaching and learning rather than words like “teaching” and “learning.”

In waiving out of NCLB, states will not waive out of accountability, according to Duncan.  The high-stakes testing craze created in response to the NCLB Act provided Americans with the evidence (“data”) for why reform needs to happen, but Duncan’s Race to the Top (RttT) federal incentive program, modeled after Chicago’s own Renaissance 2010 gave us the “how to” guide for  reforming education: give states money for implementing certain kinds of reforms- tying teacher evaluations to test scores, turning around low-performing schools, lifting restrictions on charter school proliferation, and adopting the Common Core State Standards, approved by (most of the United States’ governors).  Duncan is leaving these requirements for states intact, and in fact in the 2009 and 2010, forty states and Washington D.C. legislated versions of these changes in an effort to win some of the $4 billion plus Edu-money.  Hence the term, Race.

Though Illinois did not win one of the RttT grants in 2010 the General Assembly has lifted some restrictions on charter school proliferation, and is in the process of re-vamping teacher evaluations in the as-yet created Performance Evaluation Reform Act of 201o.  Illinois Senate Bill 7, made infamous across the nation by Stand for Children‘s Jonah Edelman’s anti-teacher union rant, enacted sweeping reforms in Chicago allowing the Mayor of Chicago to have even further control over lengthening the school day length and increasing class size.  Illinois might as well apply for the waiver, what have we to lose that we haven’t already?

The problem is that these kinds of reforms do not work to make schools better places to teach or learn.  We have seen across the nation that merit-pay for teachers based on their student performance on tests does not improve teacher morale and often leads to cheating on high-stakes tests.  Schools that get  “turned-around,” or  “charterized,” most often do no better and in some cases do worse than their public school counterparts in the same communities.

Educators and public schooling advocates, including Jonathon Kozol, Matt Damon, Diane Ravitch and Gloria Ladson-Billings among others gathered last week under the banner of Save Our Schools March with demands to end No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies, not to reform it.  “NCLB operates from a deficit learning model,” says Paul Gorski, founder of EdChange, “we can no more achieve justice by reforming NCLB.”  It’s time we invest in education reform that benefits teaching and learning.

Teachers need professional development that helps us develop curricula responsive to our students’ diverse needs.  We need principals who are instructional leaders, not just building managers.  We need full and equitable, no-strings-attached funding for all public schools.

The only real reform will come about when all schools are great places to teach and learn, and not test-factories.  Teachers know this; parents and students know this.   I just don’t think Duncan gets it.


Test Anxiety and the Zen of Motorcycle Riding

Since 2009 I have spent my summers riding an orange and cream colored scooter round Chicago.  She purred and zipped and zoomed and so was dubbed “Sneaky Cheetah.”

Alas, she didn’t make it to her third July 4th and so I took it upon myself to trade the Sneaky Cheetah for a cool looking motorcycle, which I got from a buddy of mine.   The motorcycle, however, is an animal of a different nature, as scooters don’t have a clutch, or a shifter, and for the Sneaky Cheetah, I didn’t even need the special “M” Class license in Illinois to ride it.   I decided I needed to take a motorcycle riding course.

I took the course this past week. We were six students and one instructor over two days: In the morning we were in a classroom learning bike basics and road safety, and both afternoons were spent “in the field” learning how to operate a motorcycle.  On the third morning there was the “M class” licensing test, to be administered, my instructor announced, by an official of the State of Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles.

Taking the test was not mandatory to successfully complete the course, which on its own can secure a lower insurance rate for your motorcycle, but to legally ride on streets in Illinois, a rider needs the license, and to get the license, one must pass this exam.  My motorcycle riding  instructor, who is a high school English teacher nine months out of the year, noted that we shouldn’t worry about the test, “While we cannot guarantee you will pass the test,” he said, “everything we do in the class will teach you how to be a good, safe motorcycle rider, and so the test should be no problem.”

Easy for him to say, he didn’t have to take it the next morning.

I cannot remember the last time I had so much anxiety about an exam.  Racing through my head were the looming “what-if’s” of failure: what if I fixate on a cone too long and hit it, or brake during my swerve, or god-forbid stall the engine which I hadn’t done in the entire training?!  Any of which would mean a combination of accumulated points, and if I racked up eleven of them, so long, “M” class license.

“Relax, relax, you’ll do fine. Don’t worry,” my classmates all said, but their encouragement didn’t allay my fears.  In the hands of a thin older man with an official DMV badge, whom I had never seen before that morning, was a clipboard and a piece of paper, and he was going to determine whether or not my summer was going to be awesome.

The whole experience was very humbling in the realization that this is how my students must feel so very often.  I had forgotten what it was like to be a student, and to feel stressed over such a high-stakes exam.  How hard is it for students to concentrate on the really important things in learning when they are so worried about upcoming exams?

There’s were a couple things going on in the dynamics of this motorcycle test that I think apply to my teaching craft.  I asked myself:

1)  Is the person assessing me is an expert or authority in what I want to know?

2) Can the assessment accurately show what I can or cannot do today and what I know?

I can give a student a test on any given day, but it is only a snap-shot of their knowledge.  If that student comes up to me and says, “Mr. H., I am going to do bad on this test today because of X, or Y,” I need to make the professional judgment in deciding whether or not this student should get another chance to show me what they know.  Depending on the situation, and sometimes the student, she or he may get another shot.  These are decisions I make as a teacher because I know how the assessment matches the curriculum I teach, and because I know how my students learn it.

However, an institution such as the motorcycle school isn’t responsible for my success on the riding test, just like they are not responsible if I crash my motorcycle. Their school cannot be punished and their curriculum isn’t in jeopardy if I do not pass the exam. Yet high schools and teachers are held responsible by our districts, and federal and state laws if our students do not do well on standardized tests. Curricular decisions and school policies are being made irresponsibly by non-educators who claim they know what students do not know, because there is money at stake.

Since the year I got the Sneaky Cheetah, states’ legislators have been scrambling in competition, and promising the moon in sweeping education reforms in response to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan dangling the Race to the Top carrot of federal edu-dollars.
They look at tests and call it “data.” Data can inform decisions, but should not drive it. By tying test scores to school funding, we are devaluing the learning that takes place.

If the motorcycle riding school were to change their priorities so that more students passed the test students would be less prepared for life-long riding, and we could expect more accidents on the roadway.

But I did pass the IL Motorcycle Riding Exam. Woo-hoo!

That test didn’t teach me to ride.  It was an experienced instructor with a small group of students and a scaffolded, high-quality curriculum.  If schools can provide those three things than none of use should worry about the tests, and everyone can have an awesome summer.