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Mass Localism: How Might the Race to the Top Money Be Better Spent?

23 May 2010 24,093 9 Comments

“It has turned a relatively modest federal program (the $4.3 billion budget represents less than 1 percent of all federal, state and local education spending) into high-yield leverage that could end up overshadowing health care reform in its impact and that is already upending traditional Democratic Party politics,” writes Steven Brill in a recent New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Teachers Unions’ Last Stand.” He was referring to the Federal Race to the Top program.

Indeed, the first round of the competition for the fund has already resulted in sweeping changes across the United States.  As the June 1st deadline for the second round application nears, we are seeing even more historical changes taking place. While the first round of applications may have contained more innovations and variations, the second round applications, which are reform plans for the state, are more likely to be very similar because after losing in the first round, states learned how serious the Administration is about its agenda: unlimited charter schools, teacher evaluation tied with student test scores, data systems, and common standards and tests. States are also learning from the two winning states of the first round, Delaware and Tennessee, both have shown their strict adherence to what Arne Duncan wants.

The key to winning the next round will be how extreme one can be. The Maryland Board of Education has already proposed making student growth count for 50% of a teacher’s evaluation, a measure similar to Tennessee’s, “but,” as Matthew Joseph rightly suggests in a Washington Post column “every state in serious contention for a Race to the Top grant will make a similar commitment. The board must go much further to move from being in contention to being a probable winner.”

Colorado just went further. In a bill signed into law by Governor Bill Ritter on May 20th. The law is similar to Tennessee’s in that it requires 50% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student growth measured by test scores. But it goes further. It takes on tenure—under the law, even tenured teachers could lose their jobs if they are found to be “ineffective” in two consecutive years.

States unable to push this far may just not bother to apply. Minnesota, Oregon, and West Virginia are the ones I have counted so far because the states are unable to produce the kind of changes, often require passing new legislations.

No doubt that Race to the Top has been a great success. With so little money, the federal government has changed the landscape of education in the United States so much, so profoundly, and so quickly. As a result, we are not very far from a national education system with centralized curriculum, assessment, teacher evaluation policies, and national data systems of students.

But the success is only in terms of politics. Good politics may not result in good policy.

For one, should a secretary of education be given so much authority to effect massive changes in states without explicit Congressional authorization? In a commentary published in Education Week, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, former founding director of US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Science, asks “did Congress authorize Race to the Top?” And his answer is “No.” “Even if it did, once was enough,” writes Whitehurst because “it is a mistake in principal—and a danger in reality—to allow any U.S. secretary of education this much policy discretion when doling out large sums of money.”

Second, will the U.S. really benefit from a nationalized education system with educational decisions made inside the Beltway? I tend to agree with Professor Al Ramirez, who argues that “it’s time to reform federal education policy” in his commentary published in Education Week on April 28. As “state after is handing over its education apparatus to the federal government, in exchange for what amounts to small change,” Ramirez cautions asserts:

Our children won’t read better because Congress serves as the national school board. Nor will they learn more mathematics with the president as the national superintendent of schools. We risk making things worse across the country by giving up more policy control for education to the federal government. By centralizing our system of education, we put the whole nation at risk, should Beltway bureaucrats and policy pundits guess wrong about curriculum, instruction, and the range of policy decisions associated with public education.

With Race to the Top, the U.S. Department of Education’s guess may just be wrong. National curriculum has not proven to be the silver bullet for raising achievement or closing gaps (I have written about this before on this site and in my book); charter schools have not been proven to be THE solution either (they are plenty of good ones and bad ones just as public schools); teacher merit pay or associating teacher evaluation and job security to student test scores has not been proven to raise teacher quality either; and longitudinal data systems are based on a very mechanical view of student growth and development, ignoring individual differences and the human aspect of education. All these measures, mandated by Race to the Top, are very likely to result in more bureaucracy, cheating, and narrowing children’s educational experiences, and stifle creativity and innovation. Not exactly what we need to prepare our children to meet the challenges of a complex, rapidly changing world in the age of globalization.

The Race to the Top may achieve more desirable results if following other approaches. One of such approach is “mass localism,” something I learned last week while in England studying its educational changes, particularly the federation of schools.

In a discussion paper produced by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), a London-based independent body with “a mission to make the UK more innovative,” mass localism is described as an effective approach that combines “local action and national scale” to addressing major social challenges such as climate change and public health. The paper draws on a successful program of NESTA to support communities to reduce carbon emissions in the UK—the Big Green Challenge. It shows how local and central governments “can encourage widespread, high quality local responses to big challenges.”

The Big Green Challenge was a challenge prize program launched in 2007 and completed in 2010. Unlike traditional grant programs that give the winning proposal the funds to implement the proposed activities, the Big Green Challenge began as an open contest that aimed at generating as many solutions as possible. “Application criteria in the ‘call for ideas’ stage were very broad, and NESTA explicitly invited proposals from any non-profit group whether formally constituted or not – 20 per cent of applicants were just informal groups at this stage. In addition, a significant proportion of the groups applying didn’t previously have an environmental focus.”

The Program provided support along the way. At the initial stage, the support was in the form of advice rather than financial investment. “The application process asked challenging questions and encouraged teams to do things differently, but in the spirit of critical friends rather than examiners.” At a later stage, finalists were provided a modest amount of funds to implement their ambitious projects along with “a range of partners and expert knowledge sources, including 20 days of support from business development experts UnLtd.” The finalists who proved their approaches most successful won the 1 million pounds prize.

Apparently, the program was a huge success. “The finalists achieved an average reduction in CO2 emissions of 15 per cent during the final year (with the winning projects achieving between 10 and 32 per cent reductions). This means that in the space of just one year these community-led interventions have met almost half (44 per cent) of the UK’s target for reducing CO2 by 2020.”

More importantly, the project demonstrated “mass localism” as an effective approach to address social issues. In summarizing the lessons learned, the report suggests:

Instead of assuming that the best solutions need to be determined, prescribed, driven or ‘authorised’ from the centre, policymakers should create more opportunities for communities to develop and deliver their own solutions and to learn from each other.

Mass localism reflects a broader trend that is increasingly apparent across the economy, culture and society, that of finding distributed answers to problems and delivering solutions with citizens. It represents a shift from mass production to distributed production. Just as forward-thinking businesses are opening up their R&D processes to their suppliers and customers, so policymakers should look for solutions beyond established organisations and experts. They should look also to citizens and communities.

There is a lot more details about the Big Green Challenge you can find by reading the full paper.

What would it be like if the U.S. Department of Education took the “mass localism” approach to distributing the 4.3 billion dollars?

For sure, we will get a lot more innovative, locally produced and owned, and effective solutions than what has been prescribed.

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  • Ana Luisa Cardona said:

    Because Michigan remains a largely “local control state,” meaning most policies are locally determined by district school boards, I believe it is possible to mesh the federal Race to the Top initiative with locally determined options. Awakening local awareness of the power that still resides within their hands, will be key to this combined solution.

  • Mass Localism: How Might the Race to the Top Money Be Better Spent? by Yong Zhao #RTTT « Transparent Christina: A Personal Blog by a member of the Christina School Board said:

    […] Mass Localism: How Might the Race to the Top Money Be Better Spent? by Yong Zhao #RTTT May 25, 2010 John Young Leave a comment Go to comments FULL POST: HERE. […]

  • David Fiits said:

    There was a great interview with Arne Duncan on NPR last week. In it, the interviewer nailed him on several points that exposed his personal agenda. He commented that without major reforms we could lose art and music programs. The interviewer pointed out that since the 80’s art and music have been under the gun and we have already lost many of those programs. His response? Side step.

    Secondly he commented that the public schools should be emulating Charter Schools. Again the interviewer pointed out that a recent study, by I believe it was Stanford, revealed that less that twenty percent of Charter schools are matching or beating public schools on test scores, and then it is only in the worst public school districts, he quickly retreated to: emulating the “best” Charter Schools.

    As I see it, the major problem continues to be the political agenda of one party. A party that for years in Michigan has wanted to see the public schools destroyed. That wants to see vouchers advance their personal preferences for where they can educate their child.

    Personally I do not have a problem with making teachers accountable for what they teach. The problem I have is that a national agenda which attempts to create a one size fits all solution. And that is impossible. I am sorry Secretary Duncan, but Detroit, LA or New York have different issues that impede student learning. While yes there will always be some aspects that are the same NO TWO schools and communities are identical. And that part of the equation must be considered.

    Race to the Top???? Is this really something that MUST be expressed in athletic terms? Must we in America continue to be exposed to the Phalacy that educating children is a contest. Economic failure in this country has been because of greed not a failed education system. We need to focus on what is best for OUR kids in the US. What makes them good, intelligent, productive citizens not treat them as part of a race to some mythical finish line. We are not the most successful country in the world for nothing and certainly not because our system has “failed”. Does it need improving? Sure, we can always improve and should always strive to improve. I am not sure a “race to the top” is very productive in spite of it’s pitiful reality.

  • R.D. Nordgren said:

    I also heard the Arne Duncan interview. Yes, he side-stepped the “gotcha’s” like a seasoned politician. Emulate the best charter schools? This is the American Enterprise Institute’s message now that it is becoming apparent so many charters are failures. I heard AEI’s Frederick Hess speak a couple of weeks ago in Cleveland and that was precisely his message: open up more charters and standardize their practice. When you listen to folks like Hess (and I put Duncan in the same category despite his working for a Democratic administration), they always talk about structure not instruction. Let’s change school structure but ignore what’s going on inside the classroom. My guess is that these folks don’t understand the complexities of learning; they’re stuck in the “banking model” of knowledge transference that Freire warned about. I wish we truly would get an “education president,” one who understands how people learn and is willing to foster progressive change (the only presidential candidate I’ve heard in the past 2 decades who “gets” teaching and learning is Ralph Nader).

  • R.D. Nordgren said:

    Re: Mass Localism. This was pretty much how the Swedes implemented their 1994 national school reforms: develop a values-based national curriculum (tolerance, democracy, respect, etc.) and allow individual kommuns to figure out how to teach these at the local level. They instituted one mandatory test (Swedish, English, and math) prior to entering high school (upper secondary which is not mandatory but 98% attend)and a voluntary test for 11 year olds. Everything was going along quite well until the 2006 national elections when the new regime decided to emulate NCLB. Disastrous. Hoping the September elections will bring back some sanity to Stockholm so I once more look to Sweden as a model for 21st century schooling.

  • A. L. Tirrell said:

    I think Race to the Top, like NCLB are measuring the wrong things. Creativity, and innovation are the qualities that have allowed our country to prosper. These qualities have been nurtured in our schools and should not be forced out of the school day. I have seen over the last few years at my high school more English and math classes added so that many students now have 2 of each of these courses to ensure better scores on the accountability test. We have lost the autoshop and it looks as if the engineering tech shop will be next. Many of the other electives are losing students. My school has also purchased testing software to measure all math and English students periodically. I have watched the classes march into the computer lab day after day for this testing. It is puzzling to me what this will show beyond what the teachers grades already reveal about the students’ progress. Plus I’m puzzled why high achieving students would need to be tested. I think perhaps some engaging skill building software to help the struggling students might be a better way to use the technology. Student scores may in fact go up because of this but the down side is many students won’t have had the opportunity to make the connection as to why they need to read and know math. More students are dropping out and if they stay in school just fade out seeing little relevance to learning and little joy.

  • Jesse Turner said:

    I am only catching up to the blogs Dr. Zhao, I am busy with my walk to DC project, bit here is my take on the 4.3 billion.
    In my supervision course for Reading consultants I like to break down curriculums down to four major components, 1. Curriculum, (the road map), 2, Instruction, (the bus drivers (teachers) who take you there), 3. Assessment, (gas gauge), and 4. Students, (the road)

    1. Now a map is nice, and it makes a good guide, but even our trusty GPS’s sometimes leave us on a dead end road. When this happens we depend on our bus drivers to turn us in the right direction. One major problem with NCLB/RTTT is our bus drivers are ignored.
    2. Instruction, I love to remind people that the capital for building academic achievement is instruction. This is where the big bang for the buck is. Quality curriculum programs put their major efforts here.
    3. Assessment, everyone needs a gas gauge, but you really only need to keep an occasional eye on it. An obsession with the gas gauge might cause you to take your eyes off the road, and well you know what talking your eyes off the road can lead to.
    4. Students, only a fool does not pay full attention to the road. A major concern I have with NCLB/RTTT is where is the data that represents how children feel about the high stakes assessment? That means collecting qualitative data, and quantifying it. My feeling is policy makers know exactly how children are feeling in American schools, but fear the potential this data has to turn parents against them. This would place a focus on motivation. Imagine paying attention to what motivates learners?

    “A relatively modest federal program (the $4.3 billion budget represents less than 1 percent of all federal, state and local education spending) into high-yield leverage that could…
    I like to focus on the potential of the “cus4.3 billion could” above.
    What if we focused directly on instruction? To borrow from military terminology lets call it “boots on the ground” the very thing NCLB/RTTT does not focus on.
    Well, we could pay could hire teachers to reduce class size, but I rather hired tutors. This focus could put a million tutors in classrooms right next to students in need.
    Thinking outside the box we could exchange college tuition in exchange for 20 hours per week tutoring children in need. For 200,000 university students, a quick estimate is this will cost between a half of billion and one billion… Wow, this still leaves at 3.3 billion.

    Well lets hired 200, 000 retirees to help out as well. This still leaves 2.3 billion left.

    Well, this leaves 2.3 billion to keep the teachers we have in the classroom during these very tough budget times. I think schools boards all across America would love this one.

    Now 400,000 tutors is not something to sneeze at in my humble opinion.
    Just imagine the potential of what we could do if we place the focus on direct services to children in the classroom. “RTI”, (Reading to intervention) the United States Department of Education Gold Cadillac literacy intervention policy for helping children at risk spend little money on direct services to children. In essence NCLB/RTT policy spends the less amount of money on instruction.
    RTTT like NCLB is no more than foolish policy driving us into a wall.
    Thank you Dr. Zhao for always keeping the focus on the truth, and for providing alternative voices a place to be heard.
    Jesse Turner

  • Radio Joe said:

    I know it’s not the whole Race to the Top kind of money, but I ran across your article and know that Motorola gives radios away on a monthly basis to non-profits and aother education programs. If you are interested in getting the walkie talkie for no charge, visit thewalkie talkiie grant program from Motorola.

  • The Weekly Update: Charter schools: Public or private? Brian Jones in Portland, teachers rally in Illinois and a petition to Obama: Stop privatizing our schools! | Seattle Education said:

    […] “mass localism,” with educators, parents and community engaging in place-based education, rooted in […]

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