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NCLB Outrages

The Race to the Top and the Monkey Trap

Ohanian Comment: Since this was written, the Gates Foundation turned down Vermont's request for a grant to hire a pricey consultant firm to write the RTTT grant, so Vermont has withdrawn participation in Round 1. I figure we must be doing something right when we're told by Gates that we don't measure up.

by William Mathis

The South American spider monkey is easily captured. Simply drill a hole in an anchored coconut large enough for the monkey to get his hand in but too small for him to get it out, when he makes a fist around the bait. The monkey, refusing to let go of his precious find, is now captured. All the hunter has to do is, sweep up the monkeys, and start making monkey stew.

Grasping for short term gain often leads to long term disaster.

The states are in deep financial troubles and many are desperately clawing for small federal money from Race to the Top education grants. While federal officials brag about the "massive" federal funds, the $4 billion is well less than one percent of the nation's annual education spending. To get a piece of this money, Vermont must promise to adopt federal prescriptions for education. This means a new set of mandates which will likely cost us more money than we receive.

More troublesome is that many of the mandates have no record of success or are demonstrably failed strategies. Turning around low achieving schools is certainly a necessity except that the methods the feds require (such as firing the principal and teaching staff) have just not worked. The independent and highly respected Center on Educational Policy has bluntly said "Don't do it." Highly touted charter schools sometimes make small gains but, more frequently, they have negative effects. "Scaling up" reform efforts makes for a nice sound bite except no one knows how to do this after almost fifty years of effort.

Another darling of the federal administration is evaluating teachers by test scores. This was in vogue in the 1980s and 1990s but, almost without exception, these programs faded away. Basically, states and districts did not fund their new systems. The biggest problem is that the teachers with the most demanding students (economically deprived, special education, etc.) could not post the gains shown by teachers with Advanced Placement students. This made for perverse incentives.

Developing a statewide data base and uniform high standards are laudable goals. However, when asked how this will improve learning, the answers are vague.

Yet, the Vermont Department of Education is sticking its hand in this coconut filled with faint and failed formulas. Is it worth it? Let's look at the numbers.

The amount of money Vermont would get would be somewhere between less than one-half of one percent and 1.4% of educational spending for four years. Then, these new mandates would have to be funded by Vermont tax dollars.

This assumes that the federal domestic budget would not be cut along the way. In light of two wars, the national debt, the economic situation and health care, this requires considerable faith.

Sadly, in order to fund the Race to the Top initiative, the Obama administration proposed that funds targeted for our economically deprived children be cut.

Proposals are not final allocations but Vermont taxpayers may have to pick-up these costs or cut teachers for our neediest.

Looking strictly at the odds, the most likely outcome is that Vermont would twist its educational policies and not receive any money at all. Only 12 to 15 states will be given grants in the first round. All else being equal, that gives us a 25-30% chance of succeeding. Since we don't have a charter law, our probability of success is even less. If we did win, the amount of money given to each supervisory union would support about one teacher with benefits and supplies. The state would pocket half the money for a data system. Even these funding gains could be erased by the cuts in federal grants for the needy.

As the state department of education sticks its hand through the coconut, its pretty small bait and the taste is sour. But even this may be ephemeral; there may be no bait at all. We teach our children to make wise decisions and beware of immediate gratification that will cost us more in the long run. Else, we may end up being monkey stew.

William J. Mathis is the Managing Director of the Education and the Public Interest Center, University of Colorado, Boulder. Previously, he was Superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, Brandon, VT. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist in 2003 and was the Vermont Superintendent of the Year for 2002.

— William Mathis



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