“Obama’s ‘Race To The Top’ Reform” by Donald Russell

Posted: January 6, 2014 in Vol. 4: Fall Essays 2013

schoolIn 2009, as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Barack Obama introduced his signature educational reform called Race to the Top (RTT). Like its predecessor, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind act (NCLB), RTT aims to improve education in America’s schools. Bush’s NCLB introduced standardized testing nationwide in order to assess the effectiveness of schools. Obama’s RTT builds upon Bush’s NCLB standardization of America’s education system by instituting a common set of standards and benchmarks along with teacher and school assessments.  These educational reforms will help to determine, as Obama puts it, “whether [states] are ready to do what works” (Obama).

As a student currently working towards my Bachelor’s in Education with the goal to someday be a teacher, I am concerned with whether or not RTT will actually “work.” I question whether a set of Common Core standards and increased testing along with teacher and school penalizations if students don’t pass their tests will effectively improve teaching and learning in America. Through my studies and time spent assisting teachers in the classroom at both Waianae Elementary and Ewa Makai Middle School, I’ve learnt that no two students are alike. Not every child learns in the same way; utilizing a variety of approaches in teaching allows all students to grasp the concepts. In many ways, this reform act limits differentiation and innovation in the classroom as well as solidifies and limits what students will study – ultimately affecting their understanding of the content; instead of focusing on providing a quality education, the current and RTT proposed system aims at teaching students to pass a standardized test. I am convinced that in implementing a highly regulated and conformed system, rather than aiming for an engaging and supportive learning environment, RTT will only damage education in America rather than improve it as Obama claims. In this essay, I will examine the ways in which Obama’s Race To The Top fails to address and solve America’s diminished education by disregarding state’s educational rights, implementing Common Core standards and teaching systems that fail to encourage student thinking and development, continuing with incompetent standardized testing, failing to properly assess teachers and schools, and employing under-qualified teachers.

The Race To The Top reform was introduced in 2009 as a competition among states in which the federal government awarded the winners with financial grants. “Rather than divvying it up and handing [the grants] out [evenly],” Obama said in a July 2009 speech introducing RTT, the grants will be competed for in an effort to “incentivize excellence and spur reform” (Obama). The contest itself was based on states’ efforts to meet the national standard benchmarks that were introduced. The benchmarks that states were to assimilate, as listed in the RTT Program Executive Summary, are adopting Common Core standards that have been “proven to work” (Obama), developing and collecting teacher assessment data in order to determine and improve the effectiveness of teachers, and intervening in schools that don’t perform and produce.

In conducting a contest with the promise of grants to those who best adopt and adhere to the set benchmarks, RTT can be seen as nothing other than a bribe by the federal government to take control over a state’s right to govern its own educational system. The total grants offered by RTT were $4.35 billion. In the end, all of the grants were won by only 11 different states and Washington D.C. (“Nine states”). Federal funding is something many states rely on to support their education systems. By withdrawing funds and instead offering it on a conditional basis and in the form of a highly competitive contest, many states are forced to conform and adopt the misguided standards and systems imposed by RTT.

RTT impedes upon a state’s right to govern its own educational system and instead forces a singular system for all of America. As Linda Darling-Hammond points out in a video discussing international education, “America is a highly diversified place” (“International Competition”). Darling-Hammond mentions how, when measuring student performance, there are states that currently match up with the top countries in the world, yet there are also states that do no better than the lowest performing countries in the world. I am concerned that Obama’s RTT oversimplifies and generalizes the problem with our educational system. By introducing a singular system with rewards for states that conform, RTT may bring all states to only a middle ground of average performance as compared with the exceeding performance in some states before reform. Rather, a more effective system would allow states already at the top to continue with their systems and federal funding and instead focus on reform in only the lower-performing states. But even in those states needing reform the most, RTT will offer little for improvement.

The Common Core set of standards that are supposedly “proven to work” are highly criticized for the government’s lack of evidence and authority in making such claims. For example, some of the Common Core standards developed were not created with the consultation of experienced educators. According to Edward Miller and Nancy Carlson-Paige, in a Washington Post article on Common Core standards, the early childhood (grades K-3) Common Core standards were developed without input from any early childhood educators, those who would have the most experience and credibility in creating such standards. Miller and Paige write, “There is no convincing research, for example, showing that certain skills or bits of knowledge (such as counting to 100 or being able to read a certain number of words) if mastered in kindergarten will lead to later success in school” (Miller). These standards, which measure children’s success in their ability to count to 100 and learn a set number of words, are straightforward tasks and can be easily achieved with straightforward and directed instruction. Miller and Paige go on to say, “direct instruction can actually limit young children’s learning,” referencing two studies involving preschoolers and their interactions with a toy (Miller). The studies found that children who were not directly instructed in how a toy works but rather were left to their own curiosity to figure things out on their own were better able to master the toys (Gopnik).

In order to obtain actual improvements in student performance, Common Core standards should challenge students to think critically through a system that encourages discovery and discourages direct instruction. Darling-Hammond points out, “In the top performing countries such as Sweden, Finland, and Singapore, it’s not just the standards, but the entire system that is very different to the approach we have here in America” (“Internationally Competitive”). Darling-Hammond goes on to identify how the top countries are performing best in the PISA, an international standardized test that “actually addresses higher order thinking and performance skills” (“Internationally Competitive”). These “higher order thinking and performance skills” are taught in Finland and Singapore primarily through project-based learning that builds scientific inquiry and research skills. Whereas here in the states our education relies heavily on lectures and memorization, overseas students are putting the scientific method to use. Darling-Hammond continues, addressing how our science curriculum has disappeared and transformed throughout our schools: “What was once a process of inquiry and investigation has turned into a task of memorization” (“Internationally Competitive”). RTT has given precedence to developing mathematic and language art skills over scientific processes as shown by a lack of common core science standards in Hawaii’s own standards toolkit (“Hawaii Content”). There is presently a lack of understanding of many concepts and an inability to properly evaluate given situations among students in the United States as evidenced by the PISA test scores. Surely proficiency in these skills should be valued highly among students, but instead RTT focuses on improving test scores in state tests that measure memorization and reading and math skills alone, rather than one’s ability to think critically.

Not only do curriculum and standards that actually promote student learning of critical thinking skills need to be implemented, but also the use of state assessments that actually test these skills. In the 2012 PISA tests, otherwise known as the Program for International Student Assessment, the United States placed 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math out of 34 total countries (Goldstein). As previously mentioned, Darling-Hammond identifies how the PISA tests for “higher order thinking and performance skills.” Darling-Hammond also mentions in a talk given on performance-based assessments that the PISA uses “little to no multiple-choice questions,” instead relying on free-response questions which allow students creativity in addressing a question thoroughly with supportive reasoning (“Performance-based”). In comparison, our own state assessments consist almost entirely of multiple-choice questions. Our state assessments, heavily laden with multiple-choice questions, fail to measure critical thinking skills and instead test students on their ability to regurgitate knowledge. For example, in Darling-Hammond’s talk she provides a sample question from the NAEP, a national state assessment, which asks the multiple-choice question of “What two gases make up most of the Earth’s atmosphere?” (“Performance-based”). This question is heavily dependent upon a student’s ability to memorize textbook facts. While a correct answer may indicate a student’s proficiency in the American classroom where lecture teaching is highly used, it does not measure a student’s scientific inquiry abilities in any way. If our nation’s own state tests do little to assess students’ critical thinking, then the standardized tests which are so heavily implemented under NCLB and RTT reform fail to achieve their purpose of identifying our low-performance schools.

Poor performance of schools and students within the current form of standardized testing is not only seldom indicative of student performance but can also cost teachers their jobs. Recall that one of the benchmarks measured by RTT is a state’s ability to provide assessments of teachers in order to improve their effectiveness. The RTT Executive Summary outlines that states should “differentiate effectiveness [of teachers] using multiple rating categories that take into account data on student growth (as defined in this notice) as a significant factor” (US Department of Education). The “data on student growth” which is so important to teacher assessments is most easily collected from standardized tests (tests which are already mandatory under NCLB to determine low-performance schools). While it is understandable that only teachers who can produce positive results among their students should be employed, the form of these assessments offers little correlation between teacher effectiveness and student performance. There are many factors to consider besides a teacher’s ability when assessing standardized test scores such as a student’s focus and motivation to perform. These variables can account for significant drops and rises in students’ scores. Additionally, as shown previously, these standardized tests mostly measure students’ memorization skills, an ability where proficiency is usually inherent rather than taught among individuals. Teacher assessments should serve to encourage teachers to inspire students with innovative and engaging lessons. Instead, out of fear of losing their jobs, teachers and schools may begin to implement lessons aimed at accruing the highest scores in tests that, again, fail to measure critical thinking and performance skills.

Besides failing to achieve higher student thinking and development as well as continuing the use of poor assessments, RTT will lower the overall quality of teachers in America’s classrooms. Elaine Weiss sums up the problem in her evaluation of RTT:

“[RTT] encourages states to make it easier for those who want to teach to do so. While some RTT states have used this component to develop innovative ways to bring credentialed and experienced professionals to hard-to-staff subjects and schools, the majority have not. Instead, alternative teacher certification programs, such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project, which offer only minimal training and preparation for new teachers, have become major suppliers of teachers for high-needs schools.”

RTT has introduced new ways that make it easier to become certified to teach. Individuals with degrees in areas of science, math, and English etc. can now get a teaching license with only 5-6 weeks of training. While allowing those who desire to teach to do so easily and readily will help to combat America’s decline in teachers, it is fair to say that those certified this way will lack the experience and education in comparison to those who have been studying education and teaching in classrooms the majority of their college years. A focus on increasing the professionalism of teaching should be implemented in America rather than just a focus on increasing the number of teachers. If the field of teaching is held to higher standards of education and adopts higher salaries for its professionals, then it’s very likely that the short supply of qualified teachers – whose positions are now filled by under-qualified, 6-week certified college graduates – will surely be filled due to an increased appeal and desire of studying and working in the education profession.

As a student teacher, from what I’ve learned through both my studies and teaching experience at Waianae Elementary and Ewa Makai, I strongly oppose many aspects of Obama’s reform plan. With the intentions of improving education, RTT will only accomplish higher standardized testing scores. The singular, nationwide system imposed by RTT comes with the cost of diminishing many aspects of an effective classroom and hindering differentiated learning. By adopting standards that are untested and created without the consultation of experienced teachers as well as the further implementation of faulty standardized testing to assess not only student’s proficiency but teacher’s performance as well places unnecessary burdens that make it difficult to innovate in the classroom. By forcing teachers to “teach to the test” in fear of losing their jobs, students will lose out on classroom time that could be spent engaging in non-tested subjects and a curriculum that challenges and promotes critical thinking along with higher level performance. As a future teacher, I feel that RTT will impose upon many of the freedoms that I would otherwise have in forming a curriculum that will truly develop my students to take on the many opportunities and challenges of life after graduation.

Works Cited

Darling-Hammond, Linda. “Linda Darling-Hammond on Becoming Internationally Competitive.” YouTube. YouTube, 09 Feb. 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

—. “Linda Darling-Hammond on Performance-Based Assessment.” YouTube. YouTube, 07 May 2009. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Goldstein, Dana. “American Kids Whiffed the PISA Exam. What Should That Mean for School

Reform?” Slate Magazine. Slate Magazine, 3 Dec. 2013. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Gopnik, Alison. “Preschool Lessons: New Research Shows That Teaching Kids More and More, at Ever-younger Ages, May Backfire.” Slate Magazine. Slate Magazine, 16 Mar. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Hawaii Content & Performance Standards: Standards Toolkit. Hawaii State Department of Education, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Miller, Edward, and Nancy Carlsson-Paige. “A Tough Critique of Common Core on Early Childhood Education.” Washington Post. n.p. 29 Jan. 2013. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

“Nine States and the District of Columbia Win Second Round Race to the Top Grants.” U.S. Department of Education. n.p., 24 Aug. 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Obama, Barack. “President Obama on Race to the Top.” YouTube. YouTube, 24 July 2009. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.

U.S. Department of Education. Race to the Top Program: Executive Summary. n.p., Available at: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/executive-summary.pdf. Nov. 2009. Accessed: 12/9/2013

Weiss, Elaine. “Mismatches in Race to the Top Limit Educational Improvement.” Economic Policy Institute. Economic Policy Institute, 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.


Written for Cara Chang’s ENG 200: Composition II

  1. Susan Matoba Adler says:

    I applaud Mr. Russell’s critique of NCLB and RTTT. The UHWO ECE faculty brought Professor Pasi Sahlberg, the expert on Finnish Education, to UHWO last semester and he discussed the PISA as well as the problems of standardized testing. I recommend you also read Kevin Kumashiro (Dean of the University of San Francisco’s School of Education, as well as a Hawaii local) extensive scholarly work. See: http://www.usfca.edu/stream/bad-teacher/ for an excellent lecture.

    Dr. Susan Matoba Adler

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