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The semantics of Race to the Top

By Molly Thacker on Aug 17, 2010 12:37 PM

I have been thinking a lot about Race to the Top lately, as I’m sure many of us have. I’ve been thinking so much about the complexities and implications of the program that I almost don’t know where to start. 

I could start by discussing Arne Duncan’s recent interview on NPR, in which he praised the “amazing results” of the program; or by reviewing the formal criticism recently put forth by leading civil rights organizations, including the NAACP; or compare my own ideas to those of Diane Ravitch, posited in a recent article. For me, though, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the entire policy is a very fundamental one: language.

You see, I am an English teacher, and I believe very powerfully that words matter. A lot of my day is spent working with students to make sense of language through analysis, discussion, and writing. Just like I challenge my students to do with texts, I have attempted to consider the context in which this particular text was written and identify the author’s purpose. In doing so, the political dimensions of this policy certainly cannot be ignored, but even on a gut level, Race to the Top as an education reform just doesn’t sound right, does it?

Although Duncan resists referring to the initiative as a contest among states, the fact of the matter is that our administration has attached meaning to the program by calling it a race. Personally, when I hear the word race, I picture a track meet: a single bullet designating the start, elbows pushing against competitors to get ahead, and one solitary winner leaving the other losers in their dust. How does this demonstrate the kind of “courage” and “commitment” Duncan asks of educators? Why does education reform have to become a race at all, one with only one winner and many, many losers?

Race to the Top is problematic for many reasons, but chief among them is that it distances and dehumanizes the most important stakeholders in education reform: students. It seems to me that school district administrators, governors, and grant writers are the ones who will be doing the racing, while children will face the consequences of their victory or loss. 

And students have already lost so much. 

They’ve lost learning time and meaningful classroom experiences because their teachers and principals are wrapped up in the pressure of winning this race. They’ve lost opportunities to better themselves and achieve the kind of educational access that is guaranteed to all human beings. And some of them have, over the course of the race, lost hope altogether and have dropped out (or been pushed out) of school, dramatically hindering their chances of winning any type of race at all.

In an effort to improve America’s schools, the Race to the Top policy has created a false dichotomy of “success” and “failure” as well as a set-up for under-resourced school districts. Although I cannot ignore the fact that I - as an educator working within a system - am now implicated by this policy, I hope that I have demonstrated to my students that I can practice what I preach and try to use language constructively to make my voice heard. 

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Comments (25)

Submitted by MS. MATTIE DAVIS (not verified) on August 17, 2010 2:35 pm

Thank you for such a lovely piece. We must always remind policy wonks and others that the voice of the teacher gives balance this grand conversation.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on August 17, 2010 4:23 pm

Well said. You do practice what you preach and should be very proud of that fact. We must make our politicians realize what is truly at stake.
Thank you for voicing it so well.

Submitted by Philly HS Teacher (not verified) on August 17, 2010 4:44 pm

While the word "race" in "race to the top" is a verb, "race" is a very "loaded" word in the U.S. when used as a noun referring to people. Now, when I imagine the term "top," I envision limited space (e.g. top of a bottle, top of a hill). The "top" implies a "first" which means there is a second, third, etc. The "prize" will be limited to those who conform to the dictates of federal mandates.

The "big winners" in current federal grants include KIPP, Teach for American (TFA) and Success for All ( TFA plans on providing 20% of all new teachers to "low income" school districts. What autonomy will school districts like Philadelphia have if the federal government is propping up TFA, KIPP, etc.?

Submitted by Molly Thacker on August 19, 2010 9:11 am

 Thanks for the link to the NY Times article.  I knew that TFA and KIPP had received huge grants, but I didn't know the numbers.  Even more interesting language choices there: the grant competition was called "Investing in Innovation."  

Submitted by Philly HS Teacher (not verified) on August 19, 2010 10:22 am

Yes, the definition of "innovation" is very limited by the grantee organizations. The "innovation" is tied to student "achievement" based on test scores, anti-union bias (TFA, KIPP) and a top down approach (Success for All, KIPP). I wonder how much the lobbiest for TFA, KIPP, Success for All, etc. spent to get the grants...

Submitted by Len (not verified) on August 19, 2010 8:25 am

Well articulated point. Interesting. I originally took the race metaphor to be referring to the US education system, not pitting school against school or state against state, but watching states scratch and bite and crawl over one another for the funding leads me to agree with your assessment. Fundamentally, I think that the application of competition can promote better performance, but I agree with your thoughts on the language choice.

Submitted by T.J. (not verified) on August 26, 2010 9:48 am

I agree that the language choice for RTTT makes for some interesting analysis, but I think the much, much more relevant question is: will this work?

I don't have a huge opinion (I think it'll neither be a success nor a complete failure, ultimately), but I do somewhat tire of the parsing of this stuff and wish more educators would talk about the analysis of how these things can potentially work.

It's hard to have productive conversations about things when everyone seems more interested in sniping about semantics (that's not a swipe at the post's headline).

Submitted by Molly (not verified) on August 26, 2010 11:17 am

My concerns and doubts about the policy are very much rooted in the question of its effectiveness. I happen to believe that continued trends toward "business model" and external reward incentives in education policy will never work long term. (Diane Ravitch has written extensively about this in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, among many others.)

Dangling incentives in front of my students to elicit a desired outcome has short-term benefits, but building a long-term relationship of trust and communication is much harder work. Similarly, I believe that creating a "race to the top" will, perhaps, yield some benefits for some schools in the short term, but is in no way going to be a salve for urban education and, in the meantime, may do further damage.

I raise the issue of semantics to draw attention to the fact that these free-market tactics, when applied to public education (what I believe to be a bastion of democracy) are fundamentally flawed, yet carry with them seductive titles and tempting rewards.

Submitted by Terry (not verified) on August 30, 2010 11:08 am

But even in business, management of well run firms does not rely only on quantitative measurements of success - they are too easy to game. Good management of an organization requires inspiring and hard working leaders to help their employees get the resources they need in order to do their job, trust those employees that are successful and help those who are less successful grow.

My previous boss taught me everything I needed to know to do my job, gave the resources that I needed and inspired me to work hard. These are not easy things to do anywhere. When the message from the top of the organization is that employees are the problem (be it coming from a CEO of GE or a CEO of PSD) the organization is not going to succeed.

Clever slogans are easy to produce but running a successful organization as large as PSD takes a lot of people working hard together.

Submitted by T.J. (not verified) on August 30, 2010 12:44 pm

Here's what I think: there's a fine line between criticism and pessimism, and I think much of what people tend to THINK they're offering in terms of 'criticism' is more often much more carping without solutions.

Sticking to the topic of RTTT (I mean a whole series of articles could be done about effective management and employee development), I just think it's important that people look beyond just the shortcomings of the initiative and consider the wider lens, is all. Duncan was on a political talking heads show yesterday morning--This Week with Christiane Arampour (I think, sp?)-and repeatedly stressed that the idea of assessment would happen IN CONJUNCTION WITH other several ways of analyzing classroom effectiveness.

It's really important to note that because, unlike many of the discussions that happen on this site, it helps that we take a nuanced look, and not just zero in on one thing/agenda-ize the discussion around one bullet point you don't agree with.

I understand, respect and appreciate the applied concern to a changing model, but like I've said to friends and colleagues alike, the current model has and continues to fail students in droves; introducing new ideas--and using data to guage effectiveness of implementation to new and old ideas alike--seems fair to me.

I suppose I'm more curious to hear some actual counter suggestions if the 'business model' and such are so problematic.

Submitted by Terry (not verified) on August 30, 2010 2:01 pm

Thanks TJ, I didn't know my one post would be labeled as "carping without solutions."

You know what the problem with our school system is? Taxpayers don't want to pay for a good education. We have local taxes paying for schools in Pennsylvania so that rich people who could afford to leave, have done so and fund their own schools in the suburbs. We pay teachers less than car salesmen and we make teachers work longer hours than them. We have schools in Philadelphia without functioning plumbing systems.

Wealthy while people would prefer to buy a new car than to spend money educating poor black people. We are one of the lowest taxed western nations and everyone still complains about the taxes we pay.

What is a one time "Race To The Top" grant going to do? These grants will be repealed the next time the white house or congress changes hands and our schools will be no better off.

Finally, since when has innovation come from a talking-head on a Sunday show? Innovation comes from people in the trenches finding new ways to do their job better.

Formal education has been occurring for 4,000 years. How have we not figured out how to teach a child in 12 years how to write a sentence? If we started paying teachers a tenth of what we pay a partner of a law firm I doubt that question would ever come up.

Submitted by T.J. (not verified) on August 30, 2010 2:36 pm

My apologies if that wasn't clear--the carping comment was a general comment about ed reform discussions, not one aimed at your commentary. Sorry if you mistook it for that.

I don't think that anyone would disagree, or at least not many would disagree, with the notion that teachers should be paid more not just because of the hours they commit but also to be reflective of the importance, rigor and application required in such a profession. However, as many people are starting to cotton to, we can't just pay people more just because. I guess that's why I question your thinking that if we just paid the profession more we'd get better results.

Seems to me that the answer lies in the training and evaluation as much as the compensation. The idea of "we just need to pay the job more" isn't going to fix things, and isn't a terribly great vote of confidence for the current teaching force that you perhaps also view as being problematic if you think increased pay is the solution.

It's like saying if we paid police more, we'd obviously get lower crime rates.

As for what RTTT can accomplish?

Well, several things:

1. better data systems, like what they use in Houston, TX to better track the longitudinal achievement, performance of teachers and students alike

2. greater incentives/pathways to bring in highly-effective teachers through alternative routes instead of only through schools of education

3. the introduction of more tangible ways to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and principals

4. greater support and participation around the core common standards being implemented across the country

We can argue about the sustainability/durability of these ideas, though my thinking is that we'd have a hard time convincing each other. I'd really encourage you to look up/at some of those initiatives though; they may not all change your mind about RTTT, but you'll perhaps have a wider scope too about what RTTT is looking to accomplish.

Submitted by Terry (not verified) on August 30, 2010 3:41 pm

Thank you for the clarification. I don't just thing that teachers need to be paid more, I think we need to spend more on education in general. Schools in Lower Merion spend twice as much as schools in Philadelphia and has one of the best school districts in the Commonwealth. Suburban school districts are expanding their infrastructure, while Philadelphia cannot maintain its buildings.

There are fundamental problems here that are not being address by anyone. I appreciate that Race to the Top is an attempt to make schools better, but the problem with our schools is a symptom of the inequity of the government resources across income groups. Maybe being in Philadelphia does make me a pessimist, but I don't see how tracking teacher effectiveness is going to change that.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 1, 2010 11:09 am

I have read all the posts, and I am a bit confused: WHO do you want spending more on education in general? The federal government, state government, or local government? It seems you want a revamping of the funding of schools, but the fed cannot pass a law telling every state how to spend its money on schools; it can create a program attempting to influence policy (i.e. Race to the Top), but it cannot tell a state outright how to either raise or spend money. Furthermore, in Philadelphia the issue is complicated even more with the dual funding model.

In terms of spending money equating to success, I do not believe-- though someone please cite the applicable study if possible-- that anyone has ever proven a causation, or even a decent correlation, between per pupil spending and school success. Also, when you say "spend more on education," I am assuming you mean per pupil spending based on your comment about LMSD spending double SDP. In New Jersey in 2006, Newark spent about $4,000 more per student than Lower Merion did, yet the schools did not perform nearly as well overall. Camden spent about $1,000 more. I know that now, though, Lower Merion is in the $21+ range; Newark, NJ, is in the $23-24 range. Furthermore, as of 2008, PSD spent more than Upper Bucks SD per pupil, yet it did not perform nearly as well ( How much money the school or system of schools gets does not automatically translate into success; what the school or system does with that money, how it is used, and who uses it, matter much more.

For example, I can guarantee that we could ask any teacher on this board to list 3 things over the last year that were wasteful expenditures (scripted curricula, perhaps), and then ask that same teacher to list 3 things that needed to (and probably still need to) be fixed at their school. This isn't an issue of how much money, but it is an issue of how it is used and where it goes.

Submitted by Terry (not verified) on September 1, 2010 12:15 pm

Why wouldn't children from poor, one parent households need more support than children from wealthy stable families? Council Rock has a 5 person "reading response team" that helps any kids who are struggling with reading. Why can't we have the same thing at Gratz and Olney?

Moreover, rather than just sniping anonymously at my arguments, at least come up with some suggested action.

Submitted by KJt (not verified) on September 1, 2010 7:38 am

T.J. With all due {mostly} respect, the comment by Terry did not ask for more money for better results as you state. Read it again, with less predjudice. Please.

Submitted by T.J. (not verified) on September 1, 2010 11:25 am

Comments and discussion has been all over the place, KJt--I thought that I was, in part, addressing some of Terry's concerns/criticques.

Also, the discussion has proceeded in a rather civil manner thus far; there's no need to derail that by tossing in passive-aggressive comments. Productively contribute if you've got something (mostly) intelligent to say.


Thanks for giving a wider perspective of what I tried to narrowly offer as a critique to the idea spending more $$$ not automatically meaning better results. Accountability--whether we mean performance/effectiveness or tracking how funds are used--is a crucial element to keep in mind. That was my only point!

Submitted by Terry (not verified) on September 1, 2010 12:28 pm


But there is no accountability at the top of the school district. We have 5 unelected commissioners (among them 3 lawyers and a banker) none of which have taught in a public school. We have a district CEO who has secret performance goals that she promises she met. $5 million a year of school district funds goes to pay for no-show patronage jobs at the BRT. How can this organization preach accountability when it doesn't practice it? These are the problems that no federal program is going to overcome.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 1, 2010 1:28 pm

This is the same "anonymous" as before.

Above, you asked me to come up with "some suggested action." For what? I am confused. Also, I am "sniping anonymously" at your argument because I believe it is flawed, and I stated that 1) I want to know WHO you want spending more money (munis, states, fed) and then explained that 2) I am unfamiliar with any studies linking, either through correlation or causation, per pupil spending and school success, which seems to be a premise of your suggestion.

In reference to this comment, Race to the Top doesn't purport itself to "overcome" the salaries or governance of a district. It never did, and the criteria have never commented on it. Nobody is arguing against you here-- most people agree that the SRC is a ridiculous organization and that Ackerman is an underperforming overpaid superintendent, but these issues you bring up are STATE issues in Pennsylvania's case, and no federal program will "overcome" them not because they are unwilling to but just because it is impossible for them to do so. Your issues of accountability for salaries is not a Race to the Top issue-- it's an issue of Federalism.

Submitted by T.J. (not verified) on September 1, 2010 1:30 pm

I'd point out too, Terry, that your question of "why not Gratz and Olney?", gets right at the heart of what you're talking about--Gratz and Olney COULD have these programs, but if SDP is determining resources in a top-down fashion with one-size-fits-all packages like Corrective Reading, which is wildly derided by teachers in the schools, well it comes back to the idea that the money/budget isn't being utilized correctly--and you don't want to just give MORE money to a behemoth that makes questionable decisions regarding funds.

I think that's part of why RTTT is providing funding but with some strings attached to it--the idea being that you can't just give some broken systems more money/funding unless you can help steer that money towards policies/initiatives/etc that spur innovation instead of supporting the status quo.

Submitted by Terry (not verified) on September 1, 2010 2:02 pm

Sure. I think that the Commonwealth has a responsibility to provide education to all of its citizens. The best people to ensure that the Commonwealth does so are citizens of Pennsylvania and their representatives. While Sec. Duncan may feel that Race to the Top will be a great benefit to school districts, I believe that it merely distracts from the larger issues of equity in our state. At best it will be a band-aid to cover up the problems we have.

I don't have any studies linking funding to quality of schools. Do you really need a study to convince you that the fact that some of our high schools have no working water fountains is detrimental to student achievement?

Submitted by T.J. (not verified) on September 1, 2010 2:57 pm

"I don't have any studies linking funding to quality of schools. Do you really
need a study to convince you that the fact that some of our high schools have
no working water fountains is detrimental to student achievement?"

I think you're missing the point about what Anonymous (and myself for that matter) are saying: the district isn't neglecting water fountains because the district is cash-strapped, they're neglecting water fountains because they don't manage their system well. THAT'S the problem.

Does that make sense? (I'm not being sarcastic, by the way, I'm just seeing if you understand where I'm coming from)

Submitted by Terry (not verified) on September 1, 2010 2:47 pm

I hear what you are saying (I still think that schools in poor neighborhoods will need to spend more money for similar results to those in wealth neighborhoods). Philly SD needs to be better run and the Commonwealth needs to determine a better way to educate its students.

All I am arguing is that RTTT is not going to help solve the real problem that we have here. Instead of discussing why the school system is poorly run and why our teachers can't get what they need to run their classroom, we are discussing the federal-program du jour.

The discussion we are having on this message board will never be heard by a wider audience than the people that read this blog. But New Jersey staff filling out numbers wrong has been filling the news for two weeks.

Submitted by T.J. (not verified) on August 26, 2010 11:16 am

I think that's fair if that were the ONLY thing that RTTT was aiming to achieve. On the other hand, I also see RTTT to be an opportunity to make some investment and headway in some areas that I think do need greater support/attention.

Areas such as improving teacher and principal effectiveness, providing effective support for teachers/instruction and improving the effectiveness of teacher/principal effectiveness programs seem like worthwhile initiatives to support.

In addition, the prioritization of greater use of data assessment systems and the support of high-quality innovation schools (charter or otherwise) seem like worthwhile things to me---and all told, those priorities represent nearly 1/2 of the points to be awarded to applicants through RTTT.

Does that mean that it's not without its flaws and shortcomings? Surely not; it'd be naive to suggest or think otherwise. I share your concerns about testing in the classroom and how some ideas seem to undermine the idea of teacher-student relationships.

Yet I also look at the landscape--in Philly, in the U.S.--and see that the current dynamics quite frankly aren't getting the job done. I hear your concern about not benefitting many--here in our city alone we have a system of disparate choices within our district, which is home to a series of magnet and specialty HS's that serve a select few.

Maybe RTTT can be a chance to leverage resources to provide many more a quality education?

Submitted by T.J. (not verified) on August 26, 2010 12:06 pm

p.s. I personally don't know if Ravitch, someone who politically and professionally trumpeted all things NCLB not that long ago and has now taken a decidedly different stance, represents the idea of a balanced look at education that I want from an ed policy leader. But like I said; that's just a personal stance. She seems to strike me as opportunistic.

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