The View From Here

Where Did Race to the Top Come From?

by Jim Butterworth

I’m a former Social Studies teacher. There were a number of consequences which followed from this career decision. I drove my children crazy giving extended answers to their simple questions. I made detours in towns I was visiting to check the vintage of the local school buildings. And, I developed very early an interest in trying to determine why particular social changes occur.

So the question I have been considering these past few weeks is obviously, “Where did Race To The Top, which will have such profound effect on New York schools, come from?” Sitting here in my ivory tower overlooking the Capitol and not at a superintendent’s desk trying to get my RTTT Scope of Work papers in by November 8, I have the luxury of thinking about such things. So, for those who are too busy doing (some would say “reacting”) to reflect on this question, I offer a few thoughts.

Nothing in the world of education just happens. State and federal policies and the local programs to carry these out are designed to meet the expectations of the larger society at any specific point in time. One might express this formula as Purposes~Principles~Policies~Programs.

Purposes

Traditionally, Americans expected their schools to educate some students to high levels (to fill professional and managerial positions) while providing others with a basic curriculum to prepare them to be effective workers and good citizens. Quite recently, given massive changes in globalization, technology and the economic system, schools have been asked to educate all students to high levels for the first time.

Principles

Equality is a bedrock American value but how it has been defined in our schools has changed a number of times in the past century. Until the 1950’s, equality meant opportunity; that is, everyone had the right to go to school. Some schools might have been dilapidated, under resourced with poorly prepared teachers but the test of equality of opportunity had been met. As a result of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, educational equality was redefined to mean equality of treatment. This led to integration in the 1960’s, magnet schools in the 70’s and 80’s and charter schools in the 90’s. Today, given the nation’s new educational purpose, equality of results is the principle underlying our current efforts.

Policies

The New York State Education Department building is one hundred years old. In the early years, the staff there worked hard to expand the system of common schools so that all youngsters would have equality of opportunity. After 1954, the Department enforced equality of treatment through desegregation orders in the 1960’s and the implementation of the Regents Action Plan in the 1980’s. As the nation gradually evolved its purpose toward educating all students to high levels and its principle toward equality of results, NYSED policies changed in response during the 1990’s.

In the first half of that decade, the NYS Learning Standards were established, defining what a young New Yorker should know, be able to do and be like. In the middle of the decade, state assessments were created to determine whether students had met these standards. In the later 90’s, a state, and later a federal, system of accountability was developed to determine whether schools had the will and ability to help all students reach state standards.

Programs

Local school programs change as a result of many forces but federal and state statute and regulation figure prominently. The state policies of the 90’s discussed earlier changed everything in our schools—curriculum, instruction, assessment, strategies used with special needs students, professional development, use of time and allocation of resources.

Which brings us back to the Race To The Top. RTTT was not created in a vacuum. It is a response to the nation’s current understanding of educational purposes and modern principles of equality. RTTT requirements will bring equally great, if not greater, changes to our school programs than those we have experienced in the last decade.

So schools need to get ready. (Incidentally, one of the best ways to do this is to attend CASDA programs this year.) The answer to the question “Where did Race To The Top come from?” seems simple at first but it is really complex. At least that’s the way it appears to an old Social Studies teacher.

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