The billions for "Race to the Top" were allocated from $91 billion of 2009 stimulus funds set aside for education spending. Total federal spending on education on the 2008-09 school year was $667 billion.
Test Model for Obama Reforms to "No Child Left Behind"
Although "Race to the Top" funds are a small portion of the 2009-2010 education budget, this program is important because it's a test model for reforms the Obama administration would like to implement to the No Child Left Behind Act, which is mandatory for "public K-12 public schools.
"Race to the Top" was described in the Washington Post as "the crown jewel of the Obama administration's education reform agenda and the largest-ever discretionary federal grant program for public schools."Despite major changes mandated by "Race to the Top," cash-strapped states and schools, both radically underfunded by the Bush administration, feel compelled to apply.
Funds will be awarded by the Education Department based on two rounds of grant applications. The first round was due on January 19, 2010, with awards announced in April 2010. Second round is due June 1, 2010, with awards announced in September 2010.
In his 2011 budget proposal, President Obama asked for $1.35 billion more for "Race to the Top" for the 2010-2011 school year.
"Race to the Top" has a a bevy of both liberal and conservative critics. Lisa Schiff, education activist, complains in School Beat: The Race To Nowhere "RTTT is doing advance work for a tired, ineffective, punitive approach to education that has moved the country backwards, not forwards."
Five Reform Criteria for Awarding Funds
Per the White House, five education reform criteria will be utilized to award "Race for the Top" funds. The following are the five criteria along, briefly, with what detractors find objectionable.
- "Designing and implementing rigorous standards and high-quality assessments" - The Obama administration is encouraging "states to work jointly toward a system of common academic standards that builds toward college and career readiness" that measure students' "critical knowledge and higher-order thinking skills."
This means a national standardized test, which, per USA Today, will be achieved by "adopting internationally benchmarked academic standards." Such standards would likely be similar to the International Baccalaureate program, now available for the very highest academic performers in a small percentage of public and private schools .
Republican Gov. Rick Perry rejected "Race for the Top" funds for Texas, decrying "Washington's vision for public education" which he says would cost Texas $3 billion and be based on "national standards that haven't even been written yet." Perry noted "I imagine whatever federal standards are eventually agreed upon will be weaker than the ones we have now."
- "Attracting and keeping great teachers and leaders in America’s classrooms" - The gist of this Obama reform is based on "revising teacher evaluation, compensation, and retention policies to encourage and reward effectiveness."
This lingo means that the Obama administration is pushing public schools to link, in large part, teacher compensation to students' test scores, a mandate adhorred by teachers' unions.
Teachers across the country make the case that student proficiency, both on tests and in the classroom, rests not only on teacher competency, but on family support, innate intelligence, pervasive poverty, work ethic, English language abilities, and many other factors beyond teacher control.
- "Supporting data systems that inform decisions and improve instruction" - The White House goals are in "assessing and using data to drive instruction" and "making data more accessible to key stakeholders."
This means that requisite curriculum, including textbooks and specific subject matter, will be set based on statistical data presumably derived based on which materials and approaches produce the best test scores on national standardized tests.
A data-driven approach to evaluating curriculum necessarily minimizes, or eliminates, school district and teacher discretion as well as state and local preferences and differences.
Critics, both conservative and liberal, bitterly lament loss of local and state control over curriculum, as well as extreme over-reliance on data and near elimination of human judgment.
- "Using innovation and effective approaches to turn-around struggling schools" - No Child Left Behind Act has a notoriously poor track record in turning around schools classified as "failing."
"Race to the Top" aims to use a get-tough approach by denying substantial funds to "failing" schools which don't promptly implement initiative mandates, and then show test score improvements.
Critics observe that most "failing" schools are located in low-income neighborhoods and in financially-strapped strapped states without resources to make required "Race to the Top" reforms.
- "Demonstrating and sustaining education reform" - The White House aims at "promoting collaborations between business leaders, educators, and other stakeholders to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps."
The Obama administration is prodding states to approve and establish more charter schools, which are publicly-funded K-12 schools that are "freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results," per Wikipedia.
Charter schools are usually run by for-profit organizations, and less often by universities, educational non-profits, and coalitions of teachers and/or parents.
Supporters of charter schools cite innovative, up-to-date teaching techniques and materials, and a remarkably successful track record of academic achievement.
Critics of charter schools decry the for-profit privatization of public education, and minimization or elimination of teacher and parent influence in charter schools.