Education Reform’s Moon Shot Moonshine

In today’s Washington Post, education secretary Arne Duncan describes the administration’s $4.5 billion “Race to the Top” fund as “education reform’s moon shot” — a watershed undertaking that will transform the way children learn and dramatically improve outcomes. No doubt he believes that. But since he also seems to believe that he brought about dramatic academic gains in Chicago — something that I and others have shown is not the case — the secretary’s beliefs should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Race to the Top” funds will be used to reward states that pursue education policies favored by Duncan and President Obama, and, by extension, to punish states that don’t. It is obedience training writ large. States that Duncan felt were going in the wrong direction in recent weeks, like Rhode Island, were rapped on the nose: keep it up, and we’ll withhold millions in education funding kibbles, they were told. States like Colorado have already been brought to heel. “We all know Colorado needs this money,” Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien told the Washington Post, and she and other state officials have poured over Duncan’s every word to ensure that they follow his commands to the letter.

And what commands Duncan and Obama are giving! High on their agenda is bringing the nation’s schools into lock step when it comes to standards and testing. They promise, with little evidence, that this will drive educational excellence. Meanwhile, just this month, British schools secretary Ed Balls terminated that nation’s decade-long national math and reading strategies, saying that: “I think the right thing for us to do now is to move away from what has historically been a rather central view of school improvement through national strategies.” If central planning were a panacea for education, why are the Brits — who have years of experience with it — turning away from it?

And if the president and his education secretary really cared about evidence-driven education reform, they would not have decided to kill the D.C. opportunity scholarships program that gives low income families in the nation’s capital access to private schools. Children in that program for three years read two grade levels ahead of their peers who remained in public schools. And that’s according to Duncan’s own Department of Education.

Obama and Duncan may well train state education leaders to follow their commands, but there’s no reason to believe those commands will improve American schools.