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Call it 'Race to the Middle'

The celebration has begun! Maryland is a finalist to receive $250 million from the federal program known as "Race to the Top." The money is needed, but has anyone stopped to ask whether these changes will actually improve public schools? Is it a race to the top, or to somewhere in the middle?

The famous qualifying criteria are 1) increasing the number of charter schools; 2) prolonging the provisional period before teacher tenure is earned from two to three years; 3) conforming to a common core of curriculum standards; and 4) linking student achievement data to teacher and principal performance evaluations. Let's look at the benefits of each:

Charter schools. Charter schools allow for educational innovation in a system that mandates strict conformity to a test-driven curriculum. Many parents and teachers are desperate to find schools that do more than teach what is on the test, and others are just happy to escape their neighborhood school assignments.

More charters will meet those needs, but charter schools are mere laboratories, not solutions. Some do a better job than others, under widely varied circumstances. Some focus on basic skills for inner-city youth, while others may emphasize an arts-based curriculum in the suburbs. Maybe we can learn from these small-scale experiments, but don't expect an increase in test scores just because there are more charter schools.

Tenure. Commentators are excited about a three-year tenure process, after which time it is harder to dismiss a teacher. Yet, there is no evidence that a third year would reduce the number of weak teachers. Principals don't need three years to assess teacher quality. A teacher who has earned tenure after two years is not likely to regress. Besides, the problem facing the profession is not dismissing weak teachers; it's keeping the good ones.

Common core standards. Some critics call for common standards so that state results can be compared, but the exercise is pointless. With rare exceptions, every teacher in every school is trying to achieve the maximum level of success, regardless of where the bar is set.

Teachers must begin at the student's level. If the child cannot master addition, it doesn't matter whether the standard calls for multiplication. Addition has to come first. For students who excel, teachers go beyond whatever the standard says. Just like these other reforms, core standards won't make a difference.

Using student achievement data. Standardized test scores would be excellent indicators of performance if they measured what was taught — but they don't. Maryland's curriculum has thousands of objectives beyond literacy and mathematics. If students improve in social studies, the arts, and technology, the figures don't reveal it. Even within the realm of literacy, paper-and-pencil tests ignore crucial skills in oral expression, listening, debate and self-expression. A high score in one skill should not translate as overall success.

Besides, Maryland's tests do not measure the most important goals. Schools that promote interest in learning and a love for reading, along with skills in cooperation, conflict resolution, tolerance and self-discipline, should get credit too. But we don't have tests on those goals because they are hard to measure. As the saying goes, "What is most measurable may not be important. What is most important may not be measurable."

The public will soon regard Race to the Top as a failure — a race to the middle that didn't make a real difference. Somehow, educators will be blamed for policies developed not by scholars who have studied educational reform, but by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a well-meaning but ill-informed leader. If Maryland wins the competition, perhaps we can spend the money on real change, not these inconsequential "reforms" that are so highly touted.

Jeff Passe is professor and chairman of the Department of Secondary Education at Towson University. His e-mail is jpasse@towson.edu.

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