Matt Miller - The Archives
Race to the Top: A sprint when we need a marathon
The Washington Post, June 3, 2010

Test your understanding of school reform. The Obama administration's Race to the Top competition, which received dozens of fresh state applications by its deadline Tuesday night, is:

(A) The most innovative federal education initiative we've seen in decades, a measure that has dramatically accelerated the school improvement agenda in many states even before it has doled out a dollar.

(B) A measure that is utterly unequal to the educational challenge America now faces.

(C) Both of the above.

The correct answer is (C). You can't understand the promise and peril of this moment in school reform without wrapping your mind around this paradox.

Start with Race to the Top's many pluses. The Education Department's idea of handing out more than $4 billion to states that present plausible plans to promote better teaching, relax caps on charter schools, and link teacher pay and tenure to student achievement has sparked a flurry of promising state reforms. These changes would never have happened, or happened as quickly, without the lure of federal cash.

To be sure, the significance of these steps is being hyped by officials eager to win a federal grant. But some are serious wins. In Colorado, for example, Democratic State Sen. Michael Johnston got a measure passed that will (1) require half of a teacher's performance evaluation to turn on gains in student achievement; (2) withhold tenure until new teachers have taught "effectively" for three years; and (3) allow tenured teachers who don't measure up two years in a row to be fired. It's impressive that Johnson managed to win the support of the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers even as the National Education Association tried to kill his bill.

Rhode Island's new plan, meanwhile, basically decrees that students cannot have ineffective teachers for two years in row—a radical, if common-sense notion that if faithfully applied could transform schooling. Make no mistake: These and other ideas peppered throughout state grant applications represent progress. So does the exciting reform energy unleashed across the country by Education Secretary Arne Duncan's creative competition.

But any honest assessment of the bigger picture is more depressing. That's because the real race we're in is not a "race to the top" within the United States but a race to maintain middle-class living standards in a world where rising, hungry powers such as China and India now threaten them. It's a race against other advanced nations whose school systems routinely outperform ours.

Seen in this light, the outer limits of the Obama administration's ambitions are demonstrably unequal to the challenges we face. A one-time $4.5 billion incentive fund in a system that spends $600 billion a year simply can't produce fundamental change. As a result, for all the useful progress these efforts will bring, it is virtually certain that even if we get eight years of enlightened federal leadership from President Obama and Arne Duncan, America in 2016 will:

—Still systematically assign the least-qualified teachers in America to the poor students who need great teachers the most—and recruit teachers for poor neighborhoods from the bottom third of college graduates.

—Still tolerate dramatic differences in per pupil funding between wealthy and poor districts in ways that no other advanced nation would accept.

—Still have the federal government contributing a dramatically smaller percentage of K-12 funding than any other wealthy nation.

—Still be spending more on K-12 than other advanced nations, with mediocre results.

—Still be losing ground to other nations in college graduation rates and attainment.

—Still expect American students to incur levels of debt to get a college degree that no other advanced nation allows. And Pell grants, despite increases, will still cover a smaller percentage of college costs than they did 30 years ago.

I'd be thrilled to be proved wrong on these predictions. But suppose, on the trajectory that's been set on education policy, that I'm right? What should we make of this paradox? The most innovative national education leadership we've had in decades—yet leadership unequal to the magnitude of the challenge.

That's our lesson for today, class. It will take a bolder brand of leadership to get past this conundrum, and to promote an agenda that can deliver what the country needs.

Your homework at the dawn of the 21st century is to figure out how our leaders can ever get there if their followers—that means you and me—aren't demanding much, much more.