Goldberg: "Race to the Top" a short run to failure

This month the Department of Education released applications for President Barack Obama's "Race to the Top" competition. While this new method of education reform replaces the abysmal No Child Left Behind Act, it is still far from ideal, to say the least.

Basically, the 50 states will compete with one another for $4.35 billion in competitive grants, proving their worth by demonstrating statewide commitment to the reform goals outlined by the administration.

This includes adopting internationally benchmarked standards and implementing standardized tests to measure student achievement and teacher effectiveness, as well as prepare students for college and the workforce. Also, states are encouraged to administer incentives for the teaching profession by revising teacher evaluation, compensation and retention policies in order to encourage and reward excellence.

States will also be encouraged to implement statewide longitudinal data systems, thereby making data more accessible to parties invested in students' education and more prominent in driving instruction and to prioritize and transform consistently low performing schools.

As was the case with No Child Left Behind, the stated goals of Race to the Top sound like no-brainers, but it is in the implementation that this plan fails to fundamentally improve the education system.

Specifically, the continued emphasis on standardized tests is alarming, the large focus on charter schools is unfortunate and the proposals for dealing with failing schools are unnecessarily and ineffectively harsh and disturbingly oversimplified.

Unfortunately, we can't escape our unwarranted fixation on standardized tests as a method of evaluating students and teachers. I've written extensively about this in a previous column, so let me summarize:

"To expect a teacher to teach to a test is unreasonable because it expects the teacher to narrow his or her curriculum, rather than expand it, in the sense of depth rather than breadth of course. This ultimately does a disservice to students … To expect that students from all ranges of the spectrum of human experience can be measured by the same standards is highly ambitious and fairly absurd."

My second criticism is aimed at charter schools. While they do offer a place for students in failing districts to go, they only treat a symptom and ignore or misinterpret causes. Instead of fixing the failing schools so that students don't have to look to move in the first place, charter schools assume the problem is a lack of good schools and therefore we should just set up more. I am an advocate of fixing what you have in this case rather than circumventing problems by creating something different.

My third criticism concerns the administration's recommendations for dealing with failing schools. If a school is evaluated as being consistently underperforming - based on test scores - then in order to induce massive change, states could overturn the entire staff of the school or even shut down the entire institution. Talk about giving up. Talk about oversimplification and artifice.

If the school is consistently failing, changing all of the people that staff the school may look like a commitment to taking drastic measures to help, but in fact it doesn't take into account so many factors which contribute to the continued "failure" of many of America's most consistently underperforming schools.

All three of these criticisms are underlined by my main problem with Race to the Top. It is fundamentally flawed in its guiding principles and approach, in its idealization and use of competition.

Yes, competition is the basis for our economic principle of capitalism and the profit motive which drives the people in our country to be ambitious and therefore to succeed. But the education system is not an economic system; it is a people system. You cannot apply the principle of competition in the same way.

When there is competition, there are winners and there are losers, by definition. In education there should never be any losers. People in this country, through no fault of their own, are born into vastly different sets of opportunities, and the education system is the one factor which looks to neutralize this and create a level playing field so that some children are born with more tools than others to succeed.

Competition is 100 percent antithetical to this American ideal of equal opportunity, and Race to the Top is another failure of government to understand the nature of education.