Obama’s Race to the Top competition won’t fix public schools

Competition may bring out the best in business and sports, but that logic doesn’t necessarily apply to public schools. The practical way to mend the educational system is by implementing economic and social reforms that focus on the children.

For taxpayers who are frustrated and angry over the glacial pace of school improvement, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. Patience, after all, has its limits. But distribution of $4.5 billion in discretionary funding to schools that qualify will not improve educational quality for all children.

This assessment is based largely on the emphasis given to competition as the centerpiece in creating successful schools.

A slew of recent commentary articles have argued that, because competition brings out the best performance in athletics and business, it should raise the quality of public education, too. Only by being patient with charter schools and by offering performance pay for teachers as the embodiment of competition can reform ever become a reality.

But since US education is at a crossroads, it’s imperative to take a close look at the assertion that competition would boost performance.

The trouble is enthusiasm for both charter schools and performance pay runs far ahead of any compelling data that indicates their merit.

The most recent data came in September, when economist Margaret Raymond of Stanford University released the results of her study of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia. She found that 37 percent of charter schools posted worse standardized test scores than comparable traditional schools, 46 percent did about the same, and only 17 percent were superior.

Ms. Raymond concluded that “this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their traditional public school counterparts.” In fact, according to the data, regular public school students have almost always out performed charter schools. In 2007, for example, charter students scored the same as their peers in regular public schools in eighth-grade reading. This led Education Week to report that “The latest data do not bolster the early hopes of charter advocates that the sector as a whole would significantly outperform regular public schools.”

Because the Raymond study is the largest study of charter schools so far, it offers hard data to help taxpayers judge the merits of expanding the movement. For states that have caps on the number of charter schools allowed, the Raymond study could be a decisive factor, since charter schools are publicly funded but free of many state regulations.

To be sure, there are aberrations. One such anomaly was the result of a study by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University that came on the heels of the Raymond investigation. Ms. Hoxby found that disadvantaged students who attended charter schools in New York City for nine years closed the socioeconomic gap between the affluent suburb of Scarsdale and the impoverished section of New York City – what she termed the “Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap.” But Hoxby did not say how many students completed the nine years in a charter school. This omission raised eyebrows because New York City had only about a dozen small charter schools in 2000 when the study began.

Performance pay for teachers has not fared any better. In the 2005-06 school year, Texas introduced a merit pay plan for teachers. It offered $100 million in bonuses at 1,150 schools if teachers raised their students’ test scores. But in May 2009, the Texas Educator Excellence Grant was quietly retired after getting lackluster results, even though payments to teachers were based overwhelmingly on the test scores of their students.

These examples reinforce the overall finding of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University. It reported no conclusive data on the power of financial awards to promote more effective teaching and elevate student performance, nor on the long-term effect of performance awards on the supply of effective teachers.

Teachers are not motivated by the same factors that shape the behavior of those in business. In Texas, for example, more than three-fourths of teachers eligible for performance pay said the bonuses had no effect on the way they taught.

Moreover, nearly half of new teachers who leave the profession within the first five years consistently have reported that salaries were not the No. 1 factor in their departure. They quit because of frustration over not being able to teach the way they were trained.

Sign-up incentives and so-called combat pay have not proved effective in inducing a critical mass of teachers to teach and remain in the inner cities and rural areas where they are needed the most. Despite the headlines of a bump in teachers due to the job market, those who have sought shelter from the current recession by teaching are likely to leave the profession once the economy recovers.

The best empirical evidence raises sharp questions about relying on charter schools and merit pay as the principal means of remedying the country’s educational ills. Yet the Obama administration seems to ignore it. If Obama were the pragmatic president he claims to be, he would realize that schools by themselves cannot possibly heal the education system.

The goal of a healthier education system can be achieved only by the implementation of economic and social reforms aimed at narrowing the differences in the backgrounds of children whom schools serve. Whether we have the will to take the unprecedented steps necessary, however, is entirely another matter.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.


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