Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Race to the Trough

I wish I could claim this title but I got it from a friend, David Berliner. I use it because it so perfectly describes what is happening with education policy. President Obama and his education team were met with great anticipation a year ago. Most educators felt their long nightmare of NCLB would be over--that we would have a more enlightened approach to education. And to give credit where credit is due, they have changed the tone and been better listeners to the pain that folks in the field feel, but the thrust of their reforms look suspiciously like the ones of the last administration--more accountability, an emphasis on assessment, more charter schools and they have raised the ante by pushing measuring and rewarding teacher quality through test results.

The main push for education improvement lies in the "Race to the Top" efforts. This will award over 4 billion dollars to states that meet the criteria for the money to create innovation. The implication of the requirements is that states must have laws and policies that reflect the expecations of the administration. They have traded the "stick" of the Bush administration (which threatened the removal of federal money if states did not comply) with the "carrot" of improved resources. Given the current status of education funding in most states with draconian cuts being passed by money strapped legislatures, it is little wonder that forty states went after the competitive money.

Now 4 billion seems like a lot, but when divided across a number of states it starts to diminish in impact. And when one considers that it represents less than one percent of current education funding, the administration has been able to wring a lot of change out of people for a little investment. It reminds me of the old joke where a guy approaches a young lady and offers her a $100 to sleep with him. She is very insulted and says, "what do you mean? How could you think I would sleep with you for a lousy $100. What do you think I am?" The man replies, "I know what you are, we are just negotiating the price." Well, it would appear that the price for buying the compliance of states on continuing the policy of pushing education towards controlling and mechanistic solutions to educations's woes is four billion dollars. They know what we are, they have just established the price.

Meanwhile, is this likely to work? There is little arguement that better assessment and data systems are needed in education. But there is also scant evidence that charter schools are more effective than regular public schools. Some are, some aren't. And when it comes to pay for teacher performance, there is really a lot of evidence that it is counterproductive. Daniel Pink has just released a wonderful new book called "Drive" which deals with what motivates people. It would seem financial rewards are really not useful if workers are not making a resonsable salary and most teachers are not. Further, he cites a great deal of research that shows that if work is repetitive and simple, financial rewards can be effective. However, if the work is complex and requires creativity, they can actually undermine improved performance.

Now I happen to believe that teaching is a complex, creative act, so I question the assumptions that underlie performance pay. But now that I think of it, if policy makers are successful in driving education towards a stimulus-response model of learning as the increased emphasis on test results are doing, then education may well become a repetitive and simplistic act and the race to the top will succeed. However, it will succeed as a race to the top of a very low hill.