Susan O'hanian, FAIR - Race to the Top, announced by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on July 24, 2009, is a $4.4 billion grant program generating more conversation than its relatively small money amount might suggest. What has people talking is its competitive structure that forces cash-strapped states to make radical changes in education in order to stay in the running—changes a National Research Council report warned were not backed by research. Instead of dispersing grant money on the basis of greatest need, RTTT chooses a few winners based on the degree to which the states deliver what the feds want: more charter schools, so-called merit pay for teachers and new curriculum standards known as the Common Core.
Another key requirement is “using data to improve instruction.” This means basing classroom lessons on data collected from highly criticized standardized tests. So if you’re a third grade teacher and lots of kids in your class missed questions on apostrophes, that’s what you have to teach, whether it’s appropriate to children’s individual needs or not. Teachers with a high immigrant population, for example, might well feel the children need to learn English before they are drilled on apostrophes.
The director of this RTTT competition was Joanne Weiss. Now Duncan’s new chief of staff, Weiss is the former COO of New Schools Venture Fund—which received millions of dollars from the Eli and Edythe Broad and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundations to assist charter management organizations. The Gates Foundation, which has given $650 million to projects that advance educational priorities like charter schools, testing and “teacher effectiveness” in the last two-and-a-half years, awarded grants to some states to hire specialists to aid in the application process for RTTT round one, which Weiss estimated would take state personnel 681 hours.
“The Gates program and the Arne Duncan program are pretty much the same program,” Nancy C. Detert, chair of the Education Committee in the Florida Senate, told the New York Times. Mike Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, agrees, telling the Puget Sound Business Journal, “It is not unfair to say that the Gates Foundation’s agenda has become the country’s agenda in education.” The Business Journal noted that as of that date, the Fordham Institute itself had received nearly $3 million in Gates Foundation grants.
Across the country, progressive educators complained that despite all the conversation about RTTT, there was little serious questioning of this radical federal deformation of what should be local school policy; the “other guys” got all the press. I decided to take a look, which meant reading some 700 articles on the subject of RTTT and the Common Core standards published between mid-May 2009 and mid-July 2010. Wanting to see which “independent experts” reporters called upon to explain these programs, I eliminated cites from state ed officials, union officials and politicos. This left me with 152 outside experts in 414 articles. Of the 23 experts quoted five times or more, 15 have connections with institutions receiving Gates funding and 13 with strong charter advocacy institutions.
Of the 152 experts cited in the 414 articles under review, 24 were associated with universities, but you won’t find many professors elucidating pedagogy or teaching strategies here. Instead, we get mostly economists and statisticians. Who knows if it’s deviousness or just sloppiness when the Washington Post and New York Times Magazine refer to Eric Hanushek as a “Stanford economist”? Hanushek is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank on Stanford’s campus.
Reporters usually don’t even identify the Cato Institute as libertarian, never mind reveal the ties of the charter-advocate New Schools Venture Fund to both the Broad and Gates Foundations and the administration. How many education reporters, citing Fred M. Hess (14 times in my study), director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, could even name a scholar who represents a view from the left, never mind phone one and ask for a soundbite?
When poor children go to public schools that serve the poor, and wealthy children go to public schools that serve the wealthy, then the huge gaps in achievement that we see bring us closer to establishing an apartheid public school system. We create through our housing, school attendance and school districting policies a system designed to encourage castes—a system promoting a greater likelihood of a privileged class and an underclass. These are, of course, harbingers of demise for our fragile democracy.
Susan Ohanian, a longtime teacher, is a freelance writer. She is author of Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?.