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March 15, 2010

In the "Race to the Top," President Obama Takes a Wrong Turn

The Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion dollar competitive grant fund, exposes the major deficit in President Obama's plan for reforming this country's persistently lowest-achieving schools: a reluctance to directly address the relationship between struggling schools and concentrated poverty. Although Massachusetts and Rhode Island are both finalists in this competition, neither state is likely to emerge victorious, even if they are declared winners in this race.

The goal of the Race to the Top is to turn around 5,000 struggling schools in the next five years. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan referred to these schools last summer as our "bottom schools," "dropout factories," and places "where it's just simply not working."

But the Race to the Top's framework for reforming these struggling schools is narrow: individual states are encouraged to intervene primarily by clearing the path for charter schools, replacing teachers and principals, or closing down schools.

Forty states and the District of Columbia submitted applications in the competition's first phase: only 16 finalists were announced and very few winners are expected when a final decision is made next month.

All entrants were instructed by the U.S. Department of Education to identify their persistently lowest-achieveing schools. A number of factors were to be taken into account: the school's Title I status (for schools with a large percentage of low income students or that are located in high poverty neighborhoods), its No Child Left Behind assessments, and for high schools, persistently low graduation rates.

In both Massachusetts and Rhode Island, there were few surprises when their lowest-achieving schools were identified. The sole high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island's poorest, smallest, and most crowded city, was identified and targeted for intervention. Five more schools were identified in Providence.

Two weeks ago, Massachusetts officials identified the Commonwealth's 35 persistently lowest-achieving schools. Most are in Boston, and the others are located in some of the state's poorest cities: Fall River, Holyoke, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, and Worcester.

The Massachusetts' Department of Education reported that in these lowest-performing schools "nearly 9 out of 10 [students] are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch based on family income, 21 percent are students with disabilities and 26 percent are limited English proficient." The Central Falls demographics are similar: 96% of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, while 22% are English Language Learners and 24% receive special education services.

What has bewildered and angered many is the manner in which the federal government has chosen to "help" schools in cities like Central Falls. Instead of seeking to support the school, the students, and the community, the implementation of the president's reform proposals has instead resulted in all of the Central Falls High School teachers and administrators being fired. (full story) With a state unemployment rate of 12.7%, that's assistance Rhode Island can do without.

Any attempt to highlight the tremendous needs faced by the residents of Central Falls (or equally impoverished cities in Massachusetts) is viewed by the "reformers" as an attempt to create excuses for failing schools. The reality is that "failing schools" serve as a convenient excuse for a federal government either incapable or uninterested in helping citizens at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

In both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, many of the cities and towns that contain the lowest-achieving schools also face an array of additional and interrelated problems: a steady and dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs, declining wages, and fewer worker protections in the form of health care benefits or pension plans.

Rather than stepping in to provide workers with what they have lost from the private sector, the federal government has instead chosen to attack the public sector. Placing the spotlight on schools and teachers eliminates the sense of urgency necessary to address issues such as the lack of affordable housing and health care, high unemployment rates, and the loss of worker protections.

On these matters, the federal government is largely absent or ineffective: states and their poorest residents have been largely abandoned and told to fend for themselves. Instead of assisting these hardest-hit communities, the Race to the Top may destroy what's left of them.

-Monica Teixeira de Sousa

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