Education

The Dismal Failure of Arne Duncan's 'Race to the Top' Program

Test scores have been an embarrassment to the Obama and Bush administrations.

pencil on test
Photo Credit: Eric Von Seggern

Sometimes events happen that seem to be disconnected, but after a few days or weeks, the pattern emerges. Consider this: On October 2, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that he was resigning and planned to return to Chicago. Former New York Commissioner of Education John King, who is a clone of Duncan in terms of his belief in testing and charter schools, was designated to take Duncan’s place. On October 23, the Obama administration held a surprise news conference to declare that testing was out of control and should be reduced to not more than 2 percent of classroom time. Actually, that wasn’t a true reduction, because 2 percent translates into between 18-24 hours of testing, which is a staggering amount of annual testing for children in grades 3-8 and not different from the status quo in most states.

Disconnected events?

Not at all. Here comes the pattern-maker: the federal tests called the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its every-other-year report card in reading and math, and the results were dismal. There would be many excuses offered, many rationales, but the bottom line: the NAEP scores are an embarrassment to the Obama administration (and the George W. Bush administration that preceded it).

For nearly 15 years, Presidents Bush and Obama and the Congress have bet billions of dollars—both federal and state– on a strategy of testing, accountability, and choice. They believed that if every student was tested in reading and mathematics every year from grades 3 to 8, test scores would go up and up. In those schools where test scores did not go up, the principals and teachers would be fired and replaced. Where scores didn’t go up for five years in a row, the schools would be closed. Thousands of educators were fired, and thousands of public schools were closed, based on the theory that sticks and carrots, rewards and punishments, would improve education.

But the 2015 NAEP scores released today by the National Assessment Governing Board (a federal agency) showed that Arne Duncan’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top program had flopped. It also showed that George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind was as phony as the “Texas education miracle” of 2000, which Bush touted as proof of his education credentials.

NAEP is an audit test. It is given every other year to samples of students in every state and in about 20 urban districts. No one can prepare for it, and no one gets a grade. NAEP measures the rise or fall of average scores for states in fourth grade and eighth grade in reading and math and reports them by race, gender, disability status, English language ability, economic status, and a variety of other measures.

The 2015 NAEP scores showed no gains nationally in either grade in either subject. In mathematics, scores declined in both grades, compared to 2013. In reading, scores were flat in grade 4 and lower in grade 8. Usually the Secretary of Education presides at a press conference where he points with pride to increases in certain grades or in certain states. Two years ago, Arne Duncan boasted about the gains made in Tennessee, which had won $500 million in Duncan’s Race to the Top competition. This year, Duncan had nothing to boast about.

In his Race to the Top program, Duncan made testing the primary purpose of education. Scores had to go up every year, because the entire nation was “racing to the top.” Only 12 states won a share of the $4.35 billion that Duncan was given by Congress: Tennessee and Delaware were first to win, in 2010. The next round, the following states won multi-millions of federal dollars to double down on testing: Maryland, Massachusetts, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

Tennessee, Duncan’s showcase state in 2013, made no gains in reading or mathematics, neither in fourth grade or eighth grade. The black-white test score gap was as large in 2015 as it had been in 1998, before either NCLB or the Race to the Top.

The results in mathematics were bleak across the nation, in both grades 4 and 8. The declines nationally were only 1 or 2 points, but they were significant in a national assessment on the scale of NAEP.

In fourth-grade mathematics, the only jurisdictions to report gains were the District of Columbia, Mississippi, and the Department of Defense schools. Sixteen states had significant declines in their math scores, and thirty-three were flat in relation to 2013 scores. The scores in Tennessee (the $500 million winner) were flat.

In eighth grade, the lack of progress in mathematics was universal. Twenty-two states had significantly lower scores than in 2013, while 30 states or jurisdictions had flat scores. Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Florida (a Race to the Top winner), were the biggest losers, by dropping six points. Among the states that declined by four points were Race to the Top winners Ohio, North Carolina, and Massachusetts. Maryland, Hawaii, New York, and the District of Columbia lost two points. The scores in Tennessee were flat.

The District of Columbia made gains in fourth grade reading and mathematics, but not in eighth grade. It continues to have the largest score gap—56 points–between white and black students of any urban district in the nation. That is more than double the average of the other 20 urban districts. The state with the biggest achievement gap between black and white students is Wisconsin; it is also the state where black students have the lowest scores, lower even than their peers in states like Mississippi and South Carolina. Wisconsin has invested heavily in vouchers and charter schools, which Governor Scott Walker intends to increase.

The best single word to describe NAEP 2015 is stagnation. Contrary to President George W. Bush’s law, many children have been left behind by the strategy of test-and-punish. Contrary to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, the mindless reliance on standardized testing has not brought us closer to some mythical “Top.”

No wonder Arne Duncan is leaving Washington. There is nothing to boast about, and the next set of NAEP results won’t be published until 2017. The program that he claimed would transform American education has not raised test scores, but has demoralized educators and created teacher shortages. Disgusted with the testing regime, experienced teachers leave and enrollments in teacher education programs fall. One can only dream about what the Obama administration might have accomplished had it spent that $5 billion in discretionary dollars to encourage states and districts to develop and implement realistic plans for desegregation their schools, or had they invested the same amount of money in the arts.

The past dozen or so years have been a time when “reformers” like Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, and Bill Gates proudly claimed that they were disrupting school systems and destroying the status quo. Now the “reformers” have become the status quo, and we have learned that disruption is not good for children or education.

Time is running out for this administration, and it is not likely that there will be any meaningful change of course in education policy. One can only hope that the next administration learns important lessons from the squandered resources and failure of NCLB and Race to the Top.

 

 

Diane Ravitch is a co-founder of the Network for Public Education. She is a historian of education and Research Professor of Education at New York University. She is a graduate of the Houston public schools, Wellesley College (BA), Columbia University (Ph.D. in history of American education), and holds ten honorary doctorates. In 2011, she received the Daniel Patrick Moynihan award from the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences for her careful use of data and research to advance the common good. She blogs at dianeravitch.net.


 

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World