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Race to the Top Initiative Getting Mixed Reviews on the Road


One critic of the initiative asked U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan if he “got out of the office much.”One critic of the initiative asked U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan if he “got out of the office much.”

SAN FRANCISCO — Although the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top initiative to reform public schools continues to weather criticism, there are no plans to suspend or slow down the signature program, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.

Duncan addressed participants of the annual American Educational Research Association conference. At times, his remarks drew boisterous applause from a standing room-only crowd; at other times, boos and groans.

An educator who described himself as a former teacher, principal and superintendent told Duncan he has spoken to colleagues and peers throughout New York, one of the states that secured Race to the Top funding.

“Do you get out of the office much?” he asked Duncan. “Do you know what Race to the Top is? Despite the rhetoric from your office, [the program] is marginalizing and suffocating educators.”

The man said Race to the Top has dissolved “the joy of education,” as several rows of seated audience members rose and clapped loud enough to drown his voice.

Eventually, the man suggested Duncan relieve the stressed-out educators by issuing a moratorium on Race to the Top. He identified himself only as sharing the same first name as Duncan, adding that Race to the Top “is ‘No Child Left Behind’ on steroids,” referring to the 2001 law that supports standards-based education reform.

Under Race to the Top, the District of Columbia and 11 states, including New York, are in the third year of four-year federal grants to improve K-12 student achievement. Reforms efforts are focused on standards and assessments, data systems, turnaround of the lowest-achieving schools and recruiting and retaining top-performing teachers and principals. To win the grants, states had to satisfy specific educational policies, such as performance-based standards for teachers and principals, comply with nationwide standards and promote charter schools and computerization.

During their exchange at the AERA conference, Duncan acknowledged that he and the man disagreed about the results thus far from Race to the Top, as some conference-goers booed.

“I recognize some of the criticism,” Duncan said, noting that five states have outright banned the use of student test scores for conducting teacher evaluation. However, Race to the Top has yielded enough improvements “so that 700,000 fewer children now attend dropout factories,” he said, rhetorically adding, “If we have a moratorium, then what? And for what?”

Meanwhile, in another twist to Race to the Top, the Obama administration has proposed a new $1 billion contest for federal investment in higher education to promote college completion. Duncan has already told U.S. lawmakers the seed money might help reverse state cuts to higher education.

Among other complaints at the K-12 level, some critics of Race to the Top say grant implementation has caused more work than the money is worth. Others claim that charter schools weaken public education and that the federal government shouldn’t influence local schools so heavily. Some educators and policy analysts insist that test scores aren’t fair nor accurate ways to measure teachers.

On Tuesday, about two dozen protesters marched in front of the hotel where the AERA conference took place to show their dissatisfaction with Race to the Top. Less than an hour before Duncan’s address to AERA members, the protesters waved signs with slogans such as, “It’s a right, not a race,” “Dump Duncan” and “Charter schools cherry-pick students.”

The protesters, some of whom wore badges identifying them as AERA conference-goers, did not disrupt traffic on the busy street in front of the hotel, where a stream of taxis continued to drop off and pick up hotel guests without interruption. The group shouted chants such as, “Students are more, ban test scores” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Arne Duncan has got to go.”

“I generally expect Republicans to try to privatize public education, but not the Democrats,” said Daniel Halford, an English as a second language instructor at San Francisco City College and one of the protesters.

Inside the hotel, AERA conference participants continued with their 2,000-plus workshops springing from the theme of “Education and Poverty: Theory, Research, Policy and Praxis.” During the workshops, scholars and national thought leaders have examined, contemplated and debated the latest research on, and emerging trends in topics ranging from immigrant education, school safety and bullying, early education and the role of social media in reducing poverty.

Duncan’s appearance was limited to an hour, leaving time for questions from only four people after he gave a speech about K-12 student assessment titled, “Choosing the Right Battles.” Only AERA members, not news reporters, were allowed to pose questions. Many audience members began spilling out of the packed auditorium after Duncan fielded the question and suggestion about a moratorium to Race to the Top.

During his speech, he praised the work of AERA, which is devoted to the scientific study of education. “You are the experts and independent truth-tellers.”

Duncan challenged scholars to “remain open-minded to findings that contradict conventional wisdom” and to ask more comparative questions in their research. He emphasized that he has repeatedly conveyed that teacher evaluation “should not be evaluated on test scores alone.”

“I’m not giving lip service to that,” he said. “There ought to be multiple methods on accountability, such as student growth, student matriculation, graduation, school safety and college enrollment. Those are just some areas that should factor into school performance.”

Following the speech, Dr. Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew professor of education at New York University, said that because the conference theme revolved around poverty, he wanted to know more about Duncan’s position on educational equity for low-income children.

“I’ve never thought of poverty as destiny,” replied Duncan, who was chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools for seven years prior to Obama’s presidency. “If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, we need to close the opportunity gap. Only talent, time and resources will close that. I did things no superintendent should have to do. We buried a child every two weeks. We created a fund to help bury those kids.”

Amid audience applause, he added, “Poverty should never be destiny. Don’t tell me poor children or Black or brown children can’t learn.”

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