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As the presidential election approaches, Participatory Democracy and Public Education will be using this platform to analyze the educational policy of the two leading candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. This blog will focus on the core of President Obama’s education policy known as Race to the Top. Our intention is to analyze the effects that the policy is and will have on the educational environment. If you’re not familiar with the Race to the Top policy, be sure to view the details at the official White House website.

Race to the Top is a policy centered on what is known as high-stakes standardized testing. High-stakes testing refers to the use of students’ performance on these tests as a means of evaluating academic growth and teacher performance. If a school’s students consistently perform lower than the standard, the respective school is labeled as a Persistently Low-Achieving school (PLA). PLAs are placed on probation leading to either transformation or closure of the school. Typically teachers and principals are fired reducing staff to 50% and the school is reopen as a new school. This is happening in major cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. These new schools are referred to as turnarounds.

Preventing Low Performance

To combat the chance of becoming a PLA, moving toward possible closure, and/or loss of jobs, teachers and administration focus curriculum on the skills students will be required to demonstrate on a standardized test. This often results in eliminating other educational programming to dedicate more time to test preparation. Many school districts have cut electives that would have been considered essential to a student’s education and individual growth just two decades ago. Essentially schools are becoming centers for standardized test preparation.

The result of this focus on test prep is a school environment that is less enjoyable to students and teachers. Thus this culture stimulates low performing stressed teachers. Consequently, students become uncomfortable and stressed which results in low performing students. Much research has been done on the effect of stress and the ability to learn. Here are few articles on the subject:

•    Stressful Students Need Extra Curriculum
•    Toxic Stress: The Facts
•    The Powerful Impact of Stress

When regarding stress, a community’s effect on a student cannot be excluded as a factor. In fact, schools and communities are directly linked in a way that they share a culture. More specifically, the culture of the community spills into the schools. Thus a part of the solution to performance issues in schools is directly connected to reducing stress in the community. This can be done by creating more enrichment opportunities for students outside of schools that are related to academics skills. There are very little extracurricular opportunities in and out of schools due to funding changes which are connected to standardized test performances.

The End Results

There are typically two results of tremendous pressure to increase standardized test scores:

1.    Schools may succumb to the pressure to cheat on standardized tests. There are examples and allegations of this occurring in approximately 36 states according to a local news station in Nevada (KRNV Reno) and FairTest.org

2.    Teachers may move to schools with better performance on standardized test resulting in certain schools having a concentration of skilled teachers; simultaneously perpetuating underachievement in low-performance schools.

It would seem that the Race to the Top policy is perpetuating the very issue it was design to solve. To that end, policy must always be carefully analyzed before being implemented.

-Bryant

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