Still a long way to go in Race to the Top

Reporters from around the country look at how federal funding has affected classrooms

February 17, 2011|By Michele McNeil, Hechinger/EWA

In the two years since Congress made the federal government's largest one-time investment in public schools, change has rippled through classrooms from coast to coast. Tennessee and Delaware have revamped their laws to promote the growth of charter schools. Massachusetts and Maryland have launched efforts to tie teacher evaluations to student performance. Reflecting similar moves elsewhere, a persistently failing high school in Oregon is investing a record amount in additional training for teachers.

Nationwide, the economic-stimulus package has prevented massive teacher layoffs, spurred states to devise sweeping reform plans and jumpstarted a national conversation about overhauling the worst schools.

But over the long term, will the nearly $100 billion investment bolster academic achievement, particularly for the most at-risk students? Will what U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has described as the country's education "moon shot" hit its target?

"We have a long way to go. We have not done it," Duncan said in a December interview, adding that his goal is for the U.S. to lead the world in academic achievement. "We're not even close," he said.

Education was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, designed to correct the worst economic nose-dive since the Great Depression and signed into law by President Barack Obama on Feb. 17, 2009.

With the stimulus money devoted to education, an estimated 368,000 school-related jobs were either saved or created during the 2009-2010 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In collaboration with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news outlet, and the Education Writers Association, reporters from 36 news outlets in 27 states spent nearly three months examining the impact thus far of this historic influx of cash. Interviewing scores of students, teachers, researchers and education officials at all levels of government, participating reporters set out to determine how the nation's schools are actually spending the money and whether the changes it sparks are likely to last.

They found that the stimulus package's long-term impact on public education is far from certain. Indeed, many of the resulting policy changes are already endangered by political squabbles and the massive budget shortfalls still facing recession-battered state and local governments.

The Obama administration's hallmark Race to the Top (RttT) program, which at $4.3 billion is the largest grant competition ever undertaken by the federal education department and was part of the stimulus package, underscores just how tough it has been to overhaul the education bureaucracy, even with such massive federal rewards up for grabs.

Fragile coalition

A case in point is Massachusetts, a state that uneasily melds an industrial Northeast-style union economy with the modern biotech start-up world. A national leader in student achievement, Massachusetts won $250 million in the RttT competition.

In patching together the fragile coalition of interests needed to successfully pursue its bid, the state approached negotiations like Middle East peace talks, seeking agreement first on broader issues and putting off fights and controversies over specifics. But, as Middle East negotiations have shown, there are plenty of opportunities for everything to unravel as things move forward, given the deeply held philosophical differences.

Although an important element of the state's application was buy-in from local teachers' unions, their support for the proposed reforms remains tenuous. At issue is whether standardized tests should be used to judge teachers, which the state promised to move toward in exchange for the federal money.

The document signed by teachers' unions supporting the state's application has several escape clauses. It requires only a "good faith effort" from all parties to implement the promises made in the application, and it pledges that nothing in the application will override collective bargaining agreements. That means any changes will have to be negotiated district by district, in a state with historically strong unions. The agreement also terminates when the grant money runs out in four years, meaning there is no guarantee of enduring change.

In December, the Massachusetts Teachers Association did become one of the first unions nationwide to release its own plan for using student test scores to help evaluate teachers. Even so, some of its local affiliates still have deep reservations. "We're a cash-strapped city that doesn't support public schools," said Timothy Collins, the head of the Springfield Education Association. "We need the resources."

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