It seems we can't do anything in this country without making it a contest. So it's appropriate this spring, as we've slogged through March Madness and the Final Four, and suffered through The Biggest Loser, Top Chef and American Idol, that we complete our first round of Race to the Top.
As you undoubtedly know, it's not another TV show about losing weight, cooking great sauces or singing less badly than others. It's about which states have devised the best plans to improve K-12 education, at least as the U.S. Education Department sees it. Delaware and Tennessee are the first winners, entitling them to more than $100 million and a half billion dollars, respectively, in extra federal funding.
They've been chosen from a pool of 41 states and the District of Columbia, all of which entered this competition, so in all, 80 percent of the states have gone for the gold.
But this show has more episodes. Six months from now, another bunch of states-maybe as many as 10 or 15-also will be counted as winners, sharing another $3.4 billion or so in federal largesse.
To be competitive, states had to in effect buy into a reform agenda the federal government designed, including promoting the effectiveness of teachers, allowing more wiggle room for public charter schools, tracking data on student performance, getting the unions to buy into the program and making the case that the state really could implement all these good ideas.
While they may be worthwhile goals, the timing for the first episode of the "Race" is a little bizarre, considering the national context: School districts nationwide are fighting to survive in the wake of collapsing state and local revenues. In Georgia, which finished third in the first round, many metro Atlanta school districts are staring at deficits in the hundreds of millions. In Illinois, almost 10,000 teachers and staff are being given pink slips, and the number may double. The long-troubled Kansas City, Mo., school system plans to close nearly half its schools by the end of 2011. And as states run through their federal stimulus money, teachers are being laid off, and more schools are moving to four-day weeks or shorter academic years.
So Washington, D.C., will have to understand if a celebratory mood over Race to the Top is lacking in the education community. But this may be a pivotal time in the effort, now almost three decades old, to reform education. First, there is new evidence that George W. Bush administration reforms, with support from Democrats, have not worked. In the last eight years, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, as noble as it sounded, has had only a slight effect on reading scores. Math scores did better, but not enough to justify the disruption in schools and distraction from other studies.
Now the Barack Obama administration has offered a new version of NCLB that is less punitive and prescriptive, judging school performance on more than just test scores. It offers more carrots and fewer sticks, with cash bonuses for high-achieving schools and perhaps wholesale staff firings for the bottom feeders. (That's already happening: Teacher unions were stunned when Obama endorsed Rhode Island's Central Falls School District Board of Trustees' decision to fire all 93 teachers and staff in the low-performing Central Falls High School.)
Perhaps as important as shifts in federal education policy is a decision the states seem to be making for themselves to adopt a uniform set of national academic standards, replacing a patchwork system that most analysts agree has been dumbed down to avoid penalties imposed by NCLB. States now must agree individually to the new standards, but since only two of them-Texas and Alaska-refused to cooperate in the negotiations to create them, passage by the vast majority looks promising.
So does the administration's new education plan offer promise of real improvement in coming years? When coupled with more uniform standards, it might. But it also shares one of NCLB's most significant shortcomings: It over-promises, setting the utopian target of all students graduating from high school, being ready for college and beyond-within the next decade. That's in a system where one-third of kids now drop out before getting a diploma, and more are passed through with a wink and a nod.
Meaningful fixes to education will be complicated and incremental. What's missing from the discussion about federal policy is more attention on teachers and teaching-why some are really good at it and others are less so. It's important because we know that good teachers have a more profound effect on kids' performance than anything else. And we are beginning to understand that the best teachers are not just gifts of nature, but products of serious efforts to master both the content of what's being taught and effective ways to teach it.
So perhaps we need a new competition to go along with Race to the Top-maybe something like "Top Teacher USA." But I suppose that would be more like Survivor.