Politics Post: The Flaw in “Competitive School Reform” Logic

CONTENT ADVISORY: It saddens me greatly that I feel the need to put a content advisory on a post about education policy, but the fact is, education policy is killing people. This post discusses some of those mechanisms.

I originally posted most of this on my Facebook back in 2011. I am updating it now in the aftermath of the Vergara v. California decision, because I believe that the recent push to take away the last vestige of teacher rights is an extension of the same problems seen in the administration then – though it was early enough in the Obama administration that many of us were only beginning to realize the depth of the problem. Now that more of the effect has become visible, the Race to the Top initiative has also become an even clearer example of why pitting schools against each other in competition isn’t the right recipe for “reforming” the system.
First, some background on the initiative, since it’s been a while. Race to the Top was part of the education funding package which itself was part of the federal stimulus program. Some of the stimulus funding for education went toward prevention of massive layoffs in the public schools across the country, some of it went to renovations of school buildings to keep them structurally safe and make many old buildings asbestos-free for the first time. The rest went toward a program conceived by the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, called Race to the Top.
By the rules of the Race to the Top program, schools – including private and charter schools – would institute new reforms and practices to improve themselves, and submit the results for what amounts to a federal contest, with massive amounts of school funding as the prize. Schools across the country put resources toward self-improvement and reform, hoping to recoup the money later by winning extra funding.
The theory behind Race to the Top is roughly this: if schools are encouraged to self-improve by having a direct financial incentive, then more schools will discover new practices and products that work, which can then be replicated in programs across the country, thus improving all of the schools. Also, by putting the schools in competition against each other, it will further encourage the risk-taking that always accompanies any kind of reform.
It’s a good theory. It works. But what people don’t always realize is that it works because those schools were willing to put tremendous resources into their reforms. Everything comes at a cost, in any industry, and education is no exception. The money for everything has to come from somewhere. And the schools that instituted those reforms and improvements recorded very impressive results.
Then it comes time for the next step: replicating those innovations, and hopefully those results, across the country. That’s the point where our education system finds itself right now. Schools are attempting to implement those same reforms, because that’s the federal mandate: now we know some things that work, so do it. Immediately. Because it’s what our students need. As far as that goes, it’s correct. But the schools that are receiving these mandates don’t necessarily have the resources to put toward those innovations, and the result is that the employees just have to come up with it, somehow. Somewhere.
Schools in my area have been implementing some of the new practices and such that came out of Race to the Top. Some of them even work. I’ve seen huge improvements in our school. It’s great. Scores are getting higher, gaps are closing. It’s awesome. Others are not helping in the slightest, and it’s just making us all – students, teachers, administrators, and support staff – busier for no good reason. Reality check: just because something works beautifully at one school, does not mean it will work at all schools.
But since there’s no money being put into it, the cost has to come from somewhere else. And where it’s currently coming from is other things that make schools work. We’ve bought ourselves curricular reform by sacrificing the idea that teachers and students both have other things in their lives. We’ve bought school reform by sacrificing actual physical supplies (actual example: a few years ago, my school got all sorts of shiny new science equipment, but in mid-February completely ran out of copy paper for the rest of the year, and teachers had to purchase their own paper to make class materials for the remainder of the year). We’ve bought school reform by sacrificing class size (the average class size in my department was 36 for years after this initiative). We’ve bought school reform by requiring students and teachers both to spend hours of after school time picking up the slack left in the supports that used to exist. The improvements based on the Race to the Top program, while very real and significant, are being implemented as if they exist in a vacuum. Our schools are less safe, both physically and otherwise, for every person in them, employees and students alike.
Parents are angrier at the system than ever before, because they perceive – quite correctly – that their children are not being treated as human beings by the current administration. They’re being treated as test scores that happen to be walking around in an incarnation that resembles a teenage human. Students are turning to their teachers for help, but that’s not working either – because teachers are explicitly being told that we are not allowed to make accommodations for the stresses students are experiencing. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do. I wish I could help,” is becoming a refrain in our schools. Since 2011, there has been an epidemic of student suicides in my area, due to stress. And teachers can’t give any more time to work than we already do – because, under the pressure of these expectations, many of us have now given up almost everything else in our lives beyond basic obligations, and still don’t have enough time in the day.
This isn’t about teacher pay, which is the argument most people seem to be using against it. It’s about the ways in which Race to the Top has failed the very people we are supposed to be serving with our schools: the students.
Teacher pay is an issue, of course, for a number of reasons. Teacher benefits are an issue. And there is a basic issue of equity for school employees that is coming to a head in states like Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York, and now California. Teachers have already compromised, giving up potential salary increases to maintain benefits, things of that nature. If those bargaining rights are stripped away, those teachers will lose the things they have already sacrificed to keep. They will have more work, under worse conditions. The average length of time someone stays in the teaching profession is five years. That number is way too low, but it can still go down. There will be fewer and fewer experienced teachers in this country.
But the most important thing that so many people are failing to realize, is that unless the teachers are put in conditions where they can work productively, the people who bear the final cost of that are our citizens of the next generation. The way educational reform is being implemented in our country is taking away the adult support these kids need. When teachers are abused by the system, the results are passed on to the students.
Those results, ranging from student test scores dropping to students committing suicide, are absolutely unacceptable.
And with the recent decision in California, teachers’ ability to help students, and to ask schools for the help they need, and to advocate for their children – for our students really are like our children, if you haven’t seen the movie Goodbye, Mr. Chips, go out and watch it right now – because we could be fired without due process for causing administrators inconvenience. Again, this isn’t about teacher pay or teacher tenure. This is about our students and our ability to help them in the ways that they need in order to be successful learners.
Much of the so-called “school reform” movement is based on a single, deeply flawed premise: the reason the schools aren’t better is that they don’t actually want to be better. This isn’t the surface rhetoric, but it is the assumption that underlies the entire basis of the competition-based funding and evaluations and high-stakes testing that have come to dominate the educational environment under the current administration.
Work with my logic a minute. “School reform” policy starts with the idea that all the resources really are there in the schools, it’s just a matter of how they are used, and if we put schools in competition with each other, they’ll all get better because they’ll be motivated. This implies that the schools aren’t motivated already, and that pay and funding are the only things that will motivate schools to improve – in other words, that schools aren’t actually motivated by positive results in their students. The same is true of the idea of merit pay: if one assumes that teachers will naturally improve if they are in competition with each other to improve, this assumes that they aren’t sufficiently motivated already by a desire to serve their students and to do well as professionals. This is insulting in the extreme, as well as untrue for the vast majority of us. So much for the campaign promises to “respect teachers.”
Spring is always a rough time for teachers, and this isn’t going to change even if some of these problems are fixed. But I am disturbed by the number of great teachers I know who are either leaving the profession or strongly considering it, because the environment has become so hostile not just to them but to their students. I know the same thought has crossed my mind numerous times this year.

This post is made in honor of all those educators in all positions, and all those students, who have been so relentlessly overloaded by the current environment in education that they have destroyed themselves, deliberately or otherwise, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

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