I don't think we will win the Race to the Top

First we must look at what President Barack Obama said back in July of 2009.

 “America will not succeed in the 21st century unless we do a far better job of educating our sons and daughters… And the race starts today. I am issuing a challenge to our nation’s governors and school boards, principals and teachers, businesses and non-profits, parents and students: if you set and enforce rigorous and challenging standards and assessments; if you put outstanding teachers at the front of the classroom; if you turn around failing schools – your state can win a Race to the Top grant that will not only help students out compete workers around the world, but let them fulfill their God-given potential.”

So, what is the goal here?  It looks as if the main goal is to get our American students in a better position academically so they can compete equally with workers around the world.  Typically, we see reference to closing the achievement gap between American students and Asian students.

The Race to the Top initiative has fascinated me from the beginning.  The premise of it sounds great.  Actually, if you look at what Obama states above, it looks like we are including the whole 'village' in order to raise the child.  But if you look closely, the 'parents and students' part simply diminishes after that.

As taken from White House. Gov, the actual reform areas are as listed below:

The Race to the Top emphasizes the following reform areas:
  • Designing and implementing rigorous standards and high-quality assessments, by encouraging states to work jointly toward a system of common academic standards that builds toward college and career readiness, and that includes improved assessments designed to measure critical knowledge and higher-order thinking skills.   
  • Attracting and keeping great teachers and leaders in America’s classrooms, by expanding effective support to teachers and principals; reforming and improving teacher preparation; revising teacher evaluation, compensation, and retention policies to encourage and reward effectiveness; and working to ensure that our most talented teachers are placed in the schools and subjects where they are needed the most.
  • Supporting data systems that inform decisions and improve instruction, by fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system, assessing and using data to drive instruction, and making data more accessible to key stakeholders.
  • Using innovation and effective approaches to turn-around struggling schools, by asking states to prioritize and transform persistently low-performing schools.
  • Demonstrating and sustaining education reform, by promoting collaborations between business leaders, educators, and other stakeholders to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps, and by expanding support for high-performing public charter schools, reinvigorating math and science education, and promoting other conditions favorable to innovation and reform.
Am I missing something here?  Do you see the words 'parents' or 'students' anywhere in the reform areas?

And that's the problem.  Until we look at what happens in the lives of students between the hours of 4:00 PM to 8:00 AM and stop focusing so much on what happens between the hours of 8:00 AM - 4:00 PM, we will continue to take two steps forward and one step back in closing the achievement gap that we so frequently read about.

I speak from experience.  I have 17 years in the elementary classroom.  I have worked in socio-economic areas that range from one extreme to the next ( from over 75% on free and reduced lunch to less than 10% being on free and reduced lunch).  I have worked in a school that was majority African American to a school  that has a large Hispanic population to a school  that has a large Asian population.

In all of those 17 years, I have come to a conclusion.  The achievement gap is a combination of academics, attitude, and goals.  It is more about what happens when a child leaves school than what happens when a child is in school. It's not the academic system that needs to be modified, it's attitudes and goals of many parents that need to be changed.

I say to stop focusing so much on the schools, because we already focus so much on that element.   Most schools are rigorous.  Most schools are teaching content for 8 hours.  Most schools provide an environment conducive to learning.  Most schools are doing what they are supposed to be doing if you look at the 'reforms' listed above as part of the Race to the Top.

I guess the main question I have in all of this is, "Are the parents being held accountable?"  Are the parents doing what they are supposed to be doing?  There is this huge accountability for teachers and schools, and despite the fact that Obama mentions parents in his address above, there is no accountability for parents.

Parents are not held accountable for assisting with homework.  Parents are not held accountable for providing adequate supplies.  Parents are not held accountable for reviewing grades.  Parents are not held accountable for getting their child to school on time (sure it is documented, but nothing happens if you are tardy). Parents are invited to conferences, but they are not held accountable if they are not there.  Parents are not held accountable for getting their child extra tutoring if needed.  Parents are not held accountable for making sure they are doing everything possible to make sure they are playing a role in closing the achievement gap.

Let me help make this point a little more clear.  I had a conversation about this exact topic with friends of mine.  In our conversation, I learned of two statements coming from two different parents in the same classroom.  One is an American parent and one is an Asian parent.  Do you notice the education attitude difference?  Just as this teacher has noticed the attitude,  I have seen this time and time again over my 17 years.  I will follow up with more comments after you read them.

"I can not believe my child's grades have slipped to this level.  He should have high As.  I want to know what we can do to help his grades get back to high 90's.  He is fully capable.  We will do whatever it takes.  Do you have suggestions of what we can do at home?  Should we get a tutor?  Where can I learn more about what it expected so I can start previewing the curriculum with him?"

"I can not believe kids in the 4th grade are expected to learn this material.  This is way too much for a 4th grader to learn.  I mean, I could not learn this amount of material in this amount of time.  And, the tests you give.  I need a study guide that tells me exactly what you will be testing. I don't want to have to search through her notes.  And, do you know that I am tired when I get home from work?  I feel like I am in school myself.  The workload is over the top."

Remember, the two parents had students in the same classroom.  They were studying the same material.

Now,  I know I am probably offending a few people at this point, but to be offensive is not what I am trying to do.  What I am trying to do is prove a point that it is not always about what happens at school.

Also, it is important to keep in mind that not all American parents have the attitude of the second quote above.  After all, I am American, and I would like to think that I do not have that attitude. :-) But, I will say that I have never come across an Asian parent that did not have the attitude of quote number 1.  I am sure some  are out there, but I have never met one.  I have worked in three different systems and taught in 5 different elementary schools and I have never met an Asian parent that did not want to do everything they could to make sure their child was achieving at a high level.  They never make excuses.  They never complain.  They always are supportive.  In talking with coworkers and teacher friends, they all seem to agree. If you have seen anything other than this, please feel free to leave comments below.

So, what is my point in this article?

I often reflect on where our efforts are taking us in education reform.  Are we looking to find the real problem and fix it?  Sometimes I wonder if there is really a problem at all.......

Am I really saying that?  You mean there might not really be a problem?

Well, maybe there isn't.  I mean, we have moved every American student on track to be a doctor or a scientist.  We have made them feel less than superior if they want to be a custodian or a mechanic.  We tell them they have homework, but we also know they need to play and be a kid.  We know they have sports in the evenings, but we tell them to do the homework in the car if they need to.  Just get it done.  Some might say that American kids get to enjoy being a kid a little more because they are not held to the rigor of most Asian students.  And yes, I know this to be true from experience.  Lots of Asian parents give their students more work at night than even the teacher gives.  They take fine arts classes.  They buy their own set of text books so they can learn at home and at school.  School comes before play.  Maybe it's an okay thing if we just let our kids be kids and play.  It has been the American way for many years.... school is school, home is home, play is play.  I turned out okay, and my brother is even a doctor.  Makes you think, doesn't it.

Now, back to closing the achievement gap, which is the main goal of the US Education System.  Who is at the top of that gap?  Asian countries.  Asian countries where the culture views education differently from the typical American household.

I titled this post "I don't think we will win the Race to the Top", and that actually is my view.  I have been a devoted teacher for many years and I love teaching.  Any teacher that knows me would tell you I go way over and beyond in the classroom.  BUT, with that said, I do feel we won't win the race until the whole village takes on the attitude that education is the number one priority in the lives of our children.  It overrides sports.  It overrides play.  It is the main objective of the household from birth up.  It can't just be one parent in a classroom with this  attitude in order to close the gap.  It can't even be 50-75% of the parents with that attitude. It has to be a cultural change.  Teachers can't have the parents telling them that they are challenging their kids too much.  They can't have parents asking for less homework.  They can't have parents not supporting them as teachers when they are striving to close that gap themselves..

So, how do we fix this little component that seems to be missing from The Race to the Top initiative?  Well, I definitely have some views on parental accountability.  I probably need to save that for a future blog post.

A few things to point out... I chose the Asian versus American because these are the two nationalities/cultures most frequently referred to when the White House and Race to the Top make reference to closing the gap.

Now, in closing....  there are many parents out there from all cultures and nationalities that work hard to help their children achieve.  I know I do that for my kids.  This post is simply my thoughts on looking at the whole issue of closing the gap and what needs to happen in order to make it happen.  Just because you do what is best for your child doesn't mean other people are doing the same thing. There are a lot of teachers out there that would agree with me that parent accountability is an issue that would need to be addressed if Racing to the Top is going to be achieved.

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  2. It's funny tat you should post this now as I was having the exact same conversation last week. In the UK our Education Secretary as it in for teachers and as practically told the country that all the teachers are bad. He's blaming us for our children failing and is trying to give parents more f a say in their child's education. More choice but no more accountability. Parents can choose the schools then step back and do no work with their kids. It makes me sick. Parents should be led accountable when their child falls behind and the school have done everything they can but there is no support from home. My least able children are also the ones with no parental support, where is the parental responsibility?
    As for the Asian parents versus the American parents, we also see that here in the UK. It seems there is not much of a difference in attitudes between our two countries. I'd rather have Obama in charge f our education system than the two we have here though.


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