Teachers Take Aim at Race to the Top Program

October 5, 2012; Source: Education Week (blog)

Remember the back and forth between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on the Race to the Top (RTTT) program during the recent presidential debate? It was a rare moment of convergence. Both candidates lauded the program, although Romney credited Education Secretary Arne Duncan rather than the president who appointed him.

Many public school teachers are less in love with the program. Former Oakland schoolteacher and education blogger Anthony Cody (who we have covered in the NPQ Newswire here) reports that teachers in Fresno, Calif. have given RTTT a thumbs down. School districts applying for the Race have to get the teachers’ formal approval. Approximately 500 Fresno teachers attended a special presentation urging them to support the school district’s RTTT plan, and then the teachers voted against it by more than a three to one margin. Previously, Sacramento teachers also rejected RTTT participation.

A key part of the Fresno teachers’ reasoning is the RTTT’s strong use of student test scores as the basis for teacher evaluations. A Fresno teacher told Cody:

“We rejected it because they wanted us to sign a blank document that held no information on what the District was going to do; there was no way that we were going to agree to give carte blanche power to them to create whatever kind of application they wanted, especially when it came to tying teacher evaluations to test scores. We’ve been hammered with test scores, bad press, and vilification for ten years. Our students are tired of high stakes testing, our parents are tired of hearing it, every induce shows it has not helped graduation rates or learning for the most poor of students… It’s time for it to end.”

Cody and others challenge the notion held by the president (and his Republican challenger) that the Race to the Top (unlike No Child Left Behind) is a top-down federal initiative. One of the significant elements of the RTTT is quite simply mandating an increase in the number of privately managed schools in the school systems. The privatization plus the high stakes testing regime make RTTT as unacceptable as NCLB, some advocates say.

As a result, Cody is reportedly going to be the national coordinator of the Campaign for Our Public Schools, a letter-writing campaign asking teachers, administrators, parents, and concerned citizens to tell President Obama what he needs to change in his education policies. Cody’s job will be to gather all e-mails sent to him or the remarkable Diane Ravitch on October 17th and send them to the president. In Ravitch’s words, “Let’s raise our voices NOW against privatization, against high-stakes testing, against teacher bashing, against profiteering.”

Someone retweeted Cody’s report on the Fresno teachers with the message, “Love Obama but not RTTT.” Therein lies the problem. The president has consistently supported Arne Duncan’s school privatization and high-stakes testing agenda, notwithstanding grumbling from teachers, unionized or not. But the teachers find themselves unable to switch to Romney, who would support the privatization no less than the president but who, they believe, would also cut more out of the Education Department budget than Obama probably would. It is a tough situation. We will see what happens on October 17th and we’ll watch how the president and Duncan respond on the 18th. –Rick Cohen