En route to the ‘Top’
The carrot is tantalizing: a share of $4.3 bil lion set aside in federal stimulus money to help a handful of states revamp failing schools.
But some in Michigan’s educational estab lishment are balking at the stick: more charter schools, expanded alternative teacher certifi cation, and teacher reviews tied to student performance.
If Michigan is going to win, or even compete for, the federal Race to the Top dollars that are being dangled in front of states, it will need to embrace reforms that have confounded the state in the past.
It’s well worth doing, no matter whose hide gets a little tanned in the process.
In a way, Race to the Top is a shrewd fol low- up to the No Child Left Behind reforms rolled out by former President George W.
Bush. He believed his landmark education act would incentivize states to embrace reforms through the enforcement of tough standards.
He learned pretty quickly that the education establishment could be bullheaded in its recal citrance.
Enter President Barack Obama and his administration, which puts the proposition more bluntly: Enact reforms, or be left out of key federal funding.
Race to the Top requires states who even apply for funds to align their schools with fed eral guidelines. It’s an attempt to change pol icy in a lot of states in a short time.
In Michigan, as in most states, the primary opposition is expected to come from teachers’ unions, which have opposed most such re forms in the past.
But Michigan Education Association presi dent Iris Salters says her organization hasn’t decided whether, or how, it might oppose changes to help the state qualify for the federal money. Her union, Michigan’s biggest for teachers, is working with the governor and the Department of Education to figure out what the state needs to change to compete.
Some of Salters’ concerns are reasonable and ought to help shape the state’s efforts. But if MEA leaders are primarily interested in preserving the status quo, state policymakers will have to move forward without them.
Salters, for example, points out that open ing up broader alternative certification might make it even harder for the 9,000 teachers the state graduates each year to land jobs here.
That may be so for teachers in some fields, but many districts have trouble recruiting good math and science teachers, and alternative certification might help there. Salters cautions that those who’ve mastered specialized con tent areas can’t be presumed to have mastered teaching them, as well. But no one proposes putting wholly untrained instructors in class rooms; reformers simply want to rethink the requirement that every teacher have an educa tion degree.
Salters also says the Race to the Top re quirement to tie teacher performance to stu dent performance is limited to a single test (in Michigan, probably the MEAP), and she ques tions whether that would serve educational purposes. But nothing in Race to the Top pre vents the state from going further. Michigan could create more sophisticated ways to mea sure student achievement. The MEA would do better to help shape those measures than it would to oppose the idea.
The MEA has historically opposed the ex pansion of charter schools. One of its objec tions has been lax oversight. Race to the Top could be seen as an opportunity to tighten that oversight, a long overdue reform, so the expan sion does not come with a downside.
If the MEA is savvy, it could use Race to the Top as a way to help put its own mark on re form.
If it doesn’t, state officials should stiffen their spines to oppose union obstruction. The federal money, and the reforms that are tied to it, are too important to Michigan’s future.