Race to Where?

Late last month there was apparently a bit of a ruckus over whether or not California should adopt new national education standards as part of a competition among the states dubbed “Race to the Top.

Although Race to the Top (the brain child of education secretary Arne Duncan) hasn’t received much media attention, it was one of the many byproducts of last year’s economic stimulus act.  Recently, though, it’s been the subject of more discussion - a relatively detailed article on the program was published over the weekend, for example.

For Californians (and residents of other states, I’m sure), participation in Race to the Top has been met with some controversy.  The latest debate, as I mentioned above, has been about education standards.  Race to the Top comes with its own set of national education standards, and adopting those standards helps a state’s odds of winning some federal education funding.  Ergo, the California State Board of Education had to vote on whether or not to adopt the new national standards.

On the one hand, advocates for adopting the national standards point to the roughly $700 million in funding that California could potentially receive from the program.  On the other hand, most people seem to be in agreement that California’s standards are (or I guess I should say were, since the national standards have since been adopted) actually stronger than the proposed national ones.  This opinion piece articulates the opposition perspective very well - essentially they cite a number of statistics showing that California students’ math performance is improving, and that imposing stricter guidelines (such as having all 8th graders take Algebra I) is a contributing factor in these improvements.

I’m no expert on these issues, so I’m not quite sure where I stand.  On principle I’d like to support anything that gets more money into schools, but it seems kind of ridiculous that the way for California to increase its chances of receiving funding is by weakening its education standards.  Regarding the question of which is the lesser of two evils (weakening standards or snubbing a potential influx of cash), I guess that depends on how likely California is to receive funding.  The Economic Policy Institute found that the winners of the first round of Race to the Top were essentially selected arbitrarily; if that’s the case, how much trust should be placed in this competition in the first place?  Moreover, doesn’t the adoption of national standards to some extent stifle innovation?  In an area so in need of innovation as mathematical education, this doesn’t seem like a good thing.

Remember: robots would not exist without math.

Then again, California badly needs the cash (maybe Arnold should have stuck to making movies about aliens and robots and being pregnant). Additionally, isn’t it an open question as to how much standards really matter? As pointed out in an op-ed from July 30th in the San Francisco Chronicle,

[W]hat seems to matter when it comes to student performance isn’t the standards themselves but how they’re implemented. For example, Maryland has easier standards than California, according to a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. But Education Week ranks Maryland first in the country for overall quality, including academic achievement as well as student success in the workplace.

I would hope that no one would argue that strict education standards are more important than having inspiring and well-educated teachers.  So, if California can acquire funds to help recruit and retain the best teachers, I guess the sacrifice is worth it.  A final verdict is beyond my pay scale, though.

(Hat tip to dad for many of the links above.)

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