Grading the Race to the Top entries like Olympic gymnastics or figure skating would make more sense than using the arbitrary 500-point, 30-index system that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has devised, said Richard Rothstein, a research associate for the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. at a session today.
Rothstein, also a former New York Times columnist and author of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right, called the Obama administration’s approach to education, which among other things, would convert some Title I funding to competitive grants, nothing short of “tragic.”
No human being can make cognitive distinctions on a scale with more than 15 levels, Rothstein said, which is why opinion polls generally use only five and Olympic judges use a seven-point scale. By contrast, RTTT employs a random, non-research-based grading system that Rothstein says “has almost no intellectual credibility.”
The fact that Delaware and Tennessee won the first RTT grants was purely the result of an arbitrary system for weighting the various components of a state’s application, he said in a lunchtime address Monday. For example, Pennsylvania was given a top score (five out a possible five points) for two policies that are central to school reform: hands-on elementary school science, and a strong emphasis on preschool. Other states received 40 points for lifting their cap on charter schools.
“Why does lifting a state’s cap on charter schools get 40 points?” Rothstein asked. “Why not 39, 41?”
With the economy in such turmoil and school districts force to lay off teachers, Duncan should be simply pressing for more funds to keep up with inflation and keep school districts afloat and not shifting funds to competitive grants, Rothstein said.
“There needs to be a groundswell of opposition to this federal competitive approach,” Rothstein said.
And that opposition must come from those closest to the problems school board members and administrators, whom Rothstein strongly urged to contact their representatives in Congress. He said school districts must work diligently on “changing the story” that gets into the media and the public square, a story that says most schools are in crisis and in need of drastic reforms.
Contrary to popular belief, Rothstein said, public schools have been making tremendous progress in the past two decades. For example, the math scores of African American elementary students on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress are higher than the scores of white students 17 years earlier, Rothstein said. But he said few policymakers or even school board members know this fact. That the black/white achievement gap has not closed appreciatively is simply the result of white math scores increasing too.
Rothstein has long argued that social factors–things like decent housing and health care–are among the biggest determinants of educational achievement. He was one of the original signers of a document called “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” that argues this point. He urged board members to stop their superintendents from talking about closing the achievement gap when this discrepancy has more to do with economic and social factors than educational ones.
“Get your superintendents to stop overpromising,” he said.