THE BLOG

What Will Duncan Do?

11/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Arne Duncan, our new Secretary of Education, knows how to shake things up. Back in May he barnstormed the country, telling state officials that unless they got on board with his new Race to the Top (RTT) reform plan, they weren't going to see any of the $4.3 billion he's handing out. Since then, states have gone to extremes, including changing their laws, to prove they're on his team.

This is all very exciting. RTT has the potential to expand opportunities for kids from low-income communities. It's chock full of great ideas: charters, better teachers, change in low-performing schools.

But if you check out the details of RTT, you'll notice that much of the new plan comes down to one thing: data. Specifically, getting more and better data about student performance, and tying it back to individual teachers and schools.

As someone who spent several years teaching under No Child Left Behind, this is scary. The central flaw of NCLB was that it promised to hold all students to high standards - a good thing - but provided virtually no resources to build the capacity needed to meet those standards. While Obama's rhetoric indicates that he understands the absurdity of this, on the face of things RTT looks like, well, more of the same.

So is RTT good or bad for kids? One thing I learned as a teacher is that the more you try to see things from the kids' perspective, the closer you'll come to hitting the mark. So I tried a thought experiment. Let's take a child from a low-income community who's about to start the fifth grade - we'll call him Mark - and think about how RTT might change his educational career over the next five years. Here's what I came up with:

More options

Because it encourages states to build more charters, especially in low-performing areas, RTT could give Mark a better shot at attending a high-performing charter school. For Mark, this is good. Not all charters are high-performing, of course, and RTT may not change things in places with high charter penetration. But on the whole, charters give students like Mark more, and sometimes superior, options.

Better data

Right now, Mark's teachers probably don't see the results from his standardized tests until the following school year - when he's no longer their student. RTT could change that. The rule pushes states to track data more thoroughly, and to make that data available to teachers and schools quickly, within 72 hours of testing. While standardized tests have their drawbacks, this could help his teachers and counselors serve him better, another plus for Mark.

Better teachers?

By the time he's in middle school, Mark's teachers may be judged on his test scores. This, too, could be good for Mark and for his teachers. Tracking teacher performance is a no-brainer, especially if we want to be treated like the professionals we are.

But once we've judged Mark's teachers, what next? Practically speaking, it'll be easy to identify the bottom 10% of teachers and fire them, if RTT has its intended effect. But it will be harder - though possible - to use that data to give the remaining 90% of teachers the support, living wages, and professional development they need to be great teachers to all of their students. This kind of meaningful capacity-building will involve intense work by a variety of stakeholders, not just schools.

Whether or not this new way of judging teachers helps Mark will depend on whether his state builds the capacity to develop and retain good teachers. If data is used primarily to identify and punish "bad" teachers and schools, a la NCLB, it won't help him - instead, it will create an atmosphere of fear that outweighs the benefits of axing lousy teachers. If it's used to build capacity, it will.

Better schools?

Because Mark lives in a low-income community, statistics tell us he's probably on track to attend a low-performing high school. But aside from encouraging more charters, RTT doesn't offer much to kids at struggling schools. It lays out some guidelines, but they all add up to the same approach as NCLB: tear failing schools apart.

That approach - sudden, total overhaul of bad schools - can sometimes help kids like Mark. With the right people in the right time and place (e.g. Green Dot in LA), it's produced excellent results.

But what you tear down, you also have to build back up, and we're not always so good at that. I think the more important question is: how can we learn more about what makes the highest performing urban schools successful (e.g. KIPP, HCZ's Promise Academy), and scale those successes more broadly? That approach leads us towards building capacity in a meaningful, evidence-based fashion.

The balance we strike between those two approaches - and the need to pursue both, not just the first- is key to whether Race to the Top helps Mark. If Secretary Duncan makes RTT about building capacity, not just punishment, Mark will be better off. If not, another $4.3 billion will have been spent in the 40-year cycle of ineffective reform. It could go either way; it's up to us to hold the government's feet to the fire and make sure this money serves the kids who need it most.