Change and Race to the Top

Robert Godfrey:

Which brings us to this next item, one with twist and turns not completely understandable at this point, but certainly not held up by people like myself as a model of how to “get the job properly done” — to use Herbert’s words.
Diane Ravitch, an intellectual on education policy, difficult to pigeonhole politically (appointed to public office by both G.H.W. Bush and Clinton), but best described as an independent, co-writes a blog with Deborah Meier that some of our readers may be familiar with called “Bridging Differences.” This past week she highlighted a possibly disturbing development in the Race to the Top competition program of the Department of Education, that dangles $4.3 billion to the states with a possible $1.3 billion to follow. Ravitch’s critique suggests that this competition is not run by pragmatists, but rather by ideologues who are led by the Bill Gates Foundation.

If this election had been held five years ago, the department would be insisting on small schools, but because Gates has already tried and discarded that approach, the department is promoting the new Gates remedies: charter schools, privatization, and evaluating teachers by student test scores.

Two of the top lieutenants of the Gates Foundation were placed in charge of the competition by Secretary Arne Duncan. Both have backgrounds as leaders in organisations dedicated to creating privately managed schools that operate with public money.

None of this is terribly surprising (See the Sunlight Foundation’s excellent work on the Obama Administration’s insider dealings with PhRMA). Jeff Henriques did a lot of work looking at the Madison School District’s foray into Small Learning Communities.
Is it possible to change the current K-12 bureacracy from within? Ripon Superintendent Richard Zimman spoke about the “adult employment” focus of the K-12 world:

“Beware of legacy practices (most of what we do every day is the maintenance of the status quo), @12:40 minutes into the talk – the very public institutions intended for student learning has become focused instead on adult employment. I say that as an employee. Adult practices and attitudes have become embedded in organizational culture governed by strict regulations and union contracts that dictate most of what occurs inside schools today. Any impetus to change direction or structure is met with swift and stiff resistance. It’s as if we are stuck in a time warp keeping a 19th century school model on life support in an attempt to meet 21st century demands.” Zimman went on to discuss the Wisconsin DPI’s vigorous enforcement of teacher licensing practices and provided some unfortunate math & science teacher examples (including the “impossibility” of meeting the demand for such teachers (about 14 minutes)). He further cited exploding teacher salary, benefit and retiree costs eating instructional dollars (“Similar to GM”; “worry” about the children given this situation).

I suspect that Duncan and many others are trying to significantly change the adult to student process, rather than simply pumping more money into the current K-12 monopoly structures.
They are to be commended for this.
Will there be waste, fraud and abuse? Certainly. Will there be waste fraud and abuse if the funds are spent on traditional K-12 District organizations? Of course. John Stossel notes that when one puts together the numbers, Washington, DC’s schools spend $26,000 per student, while they provide $7,500 to the voucher schools…..
We’re better off with diffused governance across the board. Milwaukee despite its many travails, is developing a rich K-12 environment.
The Verona school board narrowly approved a new Mandarin immersion charter school on a 4-3 vote recently These citizen initiatives offer some hope for new opportunities for our children. I hope we see more of this.
Finally, all of this presents an interesting contrast to what appears to be the Madison School District Administration’s ongoing “same service” governance approach.