Published: January 22, 2012 on the New York Times
Even if you think the Obama administration’s signature education program, Race to the Top, will not help a single child in America learn more, you have to admire its bureaucratic magnificence.
First, it has had a major effect — reaching into most public schools in America — while costing the Obama administration next to nothing.
The Education Department will spend about $5 billion on the program, and even if you’re thinking, hey, I could use $5 billion, consider this: New York won the largest federal grant, $700 million over the next four years. In that time, roughly $230 billion will be spent on public education in the state. By adding just one-third of one percent to state coffers, the feds get to implement their version of education reform.
That includes rating teachers and principals by their students’ scores on state tests; using those ratings to dismiss teachers with low scores and to pay bonuses to high scorers; and reducing local control of education.
Second, the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, and his education scientists do not have to do the dirty work. For teachers in subject areas and grades that do not have state tests (music, art, technology, kindergarten through third grade) or do not have enough state tests to measure growth (every high school subject), it is the state’s responsibility to create a system of alternative ratings.
In New York, that will have to cover 79 percent of all teachers, a total of 175,000 people. The only state tests for assessing teachers are for English and math, from fourth grade to eighth.
Third, federal officials don’t wind up looking like dictators telling states how to do their jobs. They’re happy to let state officials work out the details.
In New York, state officials have also decided not to be dictatorial. They’re happy to let the state’s 700 school districts figure out, individually, how to assess those 175,000 teachers.
Fourth, while President Harry S. Truman said the buck stops here, costing himself a lot of extra time and effort, President Obama can say the buck stops way down there, cutting his workload.
Of course, a buck whizzing downward has to land somewhere, and in this case it sits on the desk of Paul R. Infante, the director of fine and applied arts for the Commack School District on Long Island.
Mr. Infante is trying to figure out how to develop a test or an assessment system to rate band teachers.
Several weeks ago the state sent out a guide. The band teacher could listen to every child play at the start of the year and assign a score from 1 to 4.
“At the end of the year,” the state guide says, “the teacher re-evaluates their students.” (Someone needs to evaluate the state’s grammar.)
The teacher again grades students from 1 to 4, and the sum of the progress they have made during the year determines the teacher’s rating.
Mr. Infante sees many problems. There is such a variety of ability, he said, that setting a fair baseline at the start of the year would mean assigning children a wide range of music pieces to perform. Just to find the appropriate pieces, he said, the band teacher would have to listen to each child play. A child could be terrible at sight reading but have a nice sound. So in fairness, the teacher would have to spend a few weeks helping 100 children prepare pieces just so they could be tested for their initial rating.
“It would take so much time away from instruction to focus on the assessment,” Mr. Infante said.
A lot could be riding on this: tenure, a bonus, the band teacher’s job. Or, if a teacher challenges the assessment, a lawsuit. So Mr. Infante would want to assess the accuracy of the ratings a teacher gave, to make sure they were not artificially low at the start of the year or artificially high at the end.
To do that in an objective way, he would want to use an outside evaluator. On Long Island, retired superintendents who are running seminars on the new evaluation system are being paid $945 a day. “We can’t afford that,” Mr. Infante said.
Joel Ratner is a past president of the New York State Council of Administrators of Music Education and the music coordinator for the Brentwood district on Long Island, which has 16,000 students and 46 music teachers. He’s been traveling to Albany monthly to take part in a state task force that is supposed to be shaping the evaluation process. He says state officials have little interest in getting feedback from the teachers, principals and superintendents on the panel.
He also says he can’t tell whether the state will be rigorous in its oversight, or do just enough to satisfy federal regulations. He feels certain about one thing: “A considerable amount of time will be spent creating a significant amount of mandated paperwork.”
In an e-mail responding to questions, state officials predicted that many music educators would welcome the new system.
“In these very challenging fiscal times, districts are under intense pressure to cut funding for subjects not usually considered to be ‘core academic subjects,’ ” wrote a spokesman for the state education commissioner, John B. King Jr. “Measuring student learning in these disciplines is something many educators want to be able to do to demonstrate more transparently the contributions they make to their students’ learning.”
Mr. Ratner says putting on a first-rate band concert would be a better way to demonstrate a program’s effectiveness.
I found it impossible to tell from an interview with Dr. King how aggressively the state would oversee the district’s alternative assessments, which go into effect in 2012-13.
He said state officials would take disciplinary action if they found that a district was giving teachers high ratings but students were performing poorly by other state measures.
But he also said the State Education Department’s budget had been reduced 40 percent in the past few years, staffing was thin and the ultimate responsibility for monitoring would be left to principals, superintendents and school boards. The main state role, he said, will be to “provide guidance and models.”
Throughout the Race to the Top process, state officials have behaved erratically.
In May 2010, the teachers’ union and department officials, including Dr. King, agreed that student scores on state tests would account for 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.
In August 2010, Mr. Duncan visited the state union’s headquarters in his Race to the Top bus (he really has one) and told union and department officials that New York had won a grant “because of your collective leadership, your act of courage.”
In May 2011, with no warning, Dr. King and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo rammed a measure through the Board of Regents making state tests worth up to 40 percent of teacher evaluations.
In August, a state judge ruled that they couldn’t do that.
For the last month now, as federal officials have pressed for a resolution, the governor and the commissioner have been berating the union. Like children who change the rules in the middle of the game, they appear to be counting on a lot of screaming to distract the crowd.
“It’s not about the adults, it’s about the children,” Mr. Cuomo keeps saying. “The children come first.”
POSTSCRIPT New Jersey has rejected an application to open Tikun Olam Hebrew Charter High School in the Highland Park area. In a column this month I described how federal officials had awarded the sponsors a $600,000 grant — with the condition of state approval — despite several misrepresentations on federal and state applications. A list of charter schools whose applications were approved can be found at the New Jersey Department of Education Web site.