Thursday, April 3, 2014

Five Ways the USDOE Is Full of Baloney

The US Dept of Education blog, Homeroom, recently published a piece by Sara Gast (Director of Strategic Communications at USDOE) entitled "Five Ways Race to the Top Supports Teachers and Students." I keep checking posts like this to see how the administration's level of connection to Planet Earth is doing these days. Let's just see.

Ms. Gast is pretty excited. In the four years since RttT launched, it has "helped spark a wave of reform across the country." Furthermore, "the innovations unleashed by Race to the Top are touching nearly half the nation’s students and 1.5 million teachers in schools across the country." Unfortunately this just reminds me that there is a distinction between good touch and bad touch.

But the intro is always puffery; that's fair. Let's see what those five benefits from RttR could be.

1. Race to the Top Has Provided More Students with Access to Challenging Classes

As an example, Gast notes that Massachusetts has added AP classes, and students have taken them. I know for a first hand, see-it-on-the-ground fact that PA is adding AP courses all over the place. I don't know about MA, but in PA we're being "encouraged" to add AP courses by the new evaluation system.

In this system, every school gets a score, and every person who works in the building gets part of their personal evaluation score from the building score. And one of the ways to raise your building score is by adding AP courses. Whether that improves education at a school or not is arguable, but it's certainly worth noting that the AP courses and tests are not provided as a public service, but are a product sold by the College Board folks. So PA's evaluation system does in fact penalize schools and employees for not buying enough of this particular service.

It's a genius deal for the College Board folks, on a par with having a state say, "This school and its employees will be scored higher if their school buses are all built by GM." The head of the now-more-profitable College Board company? That would be David Coleman, one of the architects of the Common Core Standards.

However, I cannot fault Ms. Gast's first statement. I rule this one

Firmly anchored to the ground

2. Race to the Top Has Supported Hard-working Educators in New Ways

Well, that's sufficiently vague. Ms. Gast offers elaborations here

* In Rhode Island, 440 young teachers took part in a new teacher induction program.

* In Delaware, a new program offers retention awards-- two years of performance bonuses given to highly effective (DOE-speak for high-test-score-producing) teachers who agree to stay put.

Teacher induction programs and merit pay are not new ideas

Floating above the earth, kind of like that house in Up, only there's no dog hiding under the porch because he loves you

3. Race to the Top Has Provided More STEM Opportunities to Students

Maryland and Florida used their grant money to translate STEM units into other languages and to recruit rural students for STEM programs.

I'll give it to you, because "more" is a sufficiently weaselly word

4. Race to the Top is Helping Educators Transition to New Standards

"With the help of Race to the Top, Ohio expanded alternative certification pathways for teachers and principals; developed 800 curriculum resources aligned to higher standards; and trained 24,000 teachers to use those resources. And in an ambitious and comprehensive effort, Tennessee provided 30,000 teachers with intensive summer training as part of its transition to the Common Core State Standards—more rigorous academic standards in English language arts and mathematics. "

Seriously? First, "alternative certification pathways for teachers and principals" is the opposite of support for teachers. I look forward to "supporting" the CCSS by ignoring them and using other standards entirely. Likewise, state-developed curriculum -- aren't we supposed to be pretending that RttR does NOT undercut local control. When the state is writing my curriculum materials, that is the opposite of my having control.

Tennessee has been leading in the teacher-peer training in a voluntary (aka unpaid) week of summer coreness. So that's fine, I guess, except for one thing--

This is RttT giving itself credit for helping to train some teachers a little for the new standards that it imposed in the first place! Praising RttT for this is like Belle falling in love with the Beast because he let her eat and get out of her cell! This is like the government saying, "Everybody must go to work in a building on the other side of the state, and everybody must get there on their own-- except we'll drive 5% of you over. Aren't we great guys for giving rides to the 5%??"

No, no you're not. The administration is proud of itself for replacing the unfunded mandates of NCLB with the barely-funded mandates of RttT.

Orbitting the moon

5. Race to the Top is Supporting States in Turning Around Lowest-Performing Schools

No, mostly RttT is supporting the gutting of schools and turning them over to charter operators. We used to call this approach untried and risky. Now we've been doing it long enough to call it an oft-attempted failure. New Orleans even provided the opportunity to test it on a grand scale, thanks to Katrina (aka "the best thing that happened").

From the reconstructed charter system of New Orleans to the state-commandeered schools of Philly and Newark, charter fans have yet to produce anything that looks much like success. All we know about turning around the lowest-performing schools is that the state and federal government, along with their bosom buddies in the charter business, don't have a clue about how to turn those schools around.

Somewhere out beyond Andromeda

When I read pieces like this (and it seems like I read many of them), it makes me think that it must just be exhausting to work at the DOE. Just spinning and spinning all day, like one of those clown acts with all the balancing spinning plates, only these plates are cracked and chipped and laden with baloney. Ms. Gast's photo shows her as fresh and scrubbed and like she just graduated from Strategic Communications School; I hope this job doesn't take too much out of her.

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