New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has lauded Race to the Top as one of President Obama’s two most innovative domestic initiatives. As superintendent of California’s 12th largest public school district, I must respectfully disagree. I would argue that Race to the Top is hardly innovative – government using “carrot and stick” incentives to spur change is a centuries-old concept. In fact, I would go a step further: Race to the Top’s heavy-handed, top-down mandates create division and derision within the public education community at precisely a time all sides should be coming together.
No one would argue with Mr. Friedman’s assertion that “the only high-wage jobs, whether in manufacturing or services, will be high-skilled ones, requiring more and better education.” The need to prepare our children for college and 21st century careers should be our country’s top priority. Local school districts, states and the federal government should be working together to meet this goal. Instead, Race to the Top is dividing what should be a united front into “winners” and “losers.”
On a local level, Race to the Top, while well intentioned, throws education stakeholders into enemy camps by prescribing the kind of evaluative system for teachers that must be put in place for a state to receive badly needed federal dollars. I am in favor of creating robust accountability models for teachers. I also back using accountability systems that create a culture of development and improvement…
For Secretary Duncan or the President to claim that Race to the Top has been a success because we have seen as much reform from those “who did not get a nickel as those got $100 million” ignores the needs of districts that cannot or will not run this race. Major urban school districts in California, a state where one out of eight American public school children live, have been utterly abandoned by this system of “winners” and “losers.” “Winners,” by the way, like Chicago. Would Mr. Duncan count the chaos in Chicago last month as a success? True, teacher evaluations there will change. But at what cost? How long will it take the wounds to heal? How can provoking a bitter battle among people who have to work together be looked at as anything other than negative?
Race to the Top’s zealous and prescriptive focus on accountability, human capital and technology at the expense of capacity building, collaboration, teaching practice and social capital is like the game we sometimes see children play on a school yard. They stand in a circle and place their hands on top of each other, with the hand on the top eventually getting pushed down to the bottom. It’s a futile exercise. Being married to a former public school teacher, Mr. Friedman should know better.
Sacramento City Unified School District