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

Publication Date: 2010-05-24

Yong Zhao's blog.

May 23, 2010

"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 tenureâ€"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 realityâ€"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 UKâ€"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 are a lot more details about the Big Green Challenge you can find by reading the full paper.(pdf file)

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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