Race to the Top benefits, flaws debated

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Capital News Service
LANSING–Schools have submitted their application for federal aid, and the race to the bank has officially begun.
In Michigan, 756 districts hope to receive part of the $526 million the state want from the federal Race to the Top proposal.
According to Louise Somalski, a lobbyist for the Michigan branch of the American Federation of Teachers, Michigan probably won’t know if it will receive the money until April.  She said that the state would like to begin implementing the new initiatives in the 2010-2011 school year.
Sen. Wayne Kuipers, chair of the Senate Education Committee said  “I’m not sure that we can quantify the impact this is going to have on the state of education in the future, but I think it’s going to be very positive.”
“I think it’s going to move education in a direction very different from the direction it’s headed in today,” he said.
Kuipers said the program is one of the most significant changes that the state has seen in education in a long time.
With Race to the Top funds, Michigan plans to focus on turning around the lowest-achieving schools, closing the performance gap between minorities and whites and using standardized tests and evaluations to assess student and teacher performance.
Somalski said it’s hard to tell what the long term impact of the plan would be, but that some benefits would come from legislation in place since last fall.
The legislation is intended to make Michigan more competitive for the federal money.  It includes a requirement that students stay in school until they are 18, plans to turn around the lowest-performing schools and enhancement of cyber schools for high school drop outs.
Although Race to the Top emphasizes schools with low achievement levels, many districts want the money for other purposes.
For example, Blissfield Community Schools applied for grant money to help its schools stay competitive Superintendent Scott Moellenberndt said.
“Obviously we’re trying to stay abreast of these changes as they occur, and trying to, based on the information we have, make the most informed and accurate decisions for the long term well- being of the students in our community,” Moellenberndt said.
The superintendant said that although district officials felt there were some details missing from the states Race to the Top plan, the plan contained enough flexibility to deal with any problems that might arise.
“In theory, we support the concepts.  When actually we begin the implementation, many of those things will have to be negotiated,” Moellenberndt said.
Moellenberndt said that of the  756 schools that applied for grant money, only 42 districts that applied made that decision with support from their local unions.
The Michigan Education Association (MEA) advised schools against applying for the money.
Doug Pratt, director of communications for the MEA, said important details were missing and that benefits to students are unclear.
“It’s way too early to figure out how this is going to play out in the long run, but the research points us to say there’s really not a whole lot there that’s really going to help student achievement,” Pratt said
Pratt also questioned the benefits of the alternative teacher certification allowed by the legislation, saying that Michigan already has a surplus of qualified teachers, who are either unemployed or graduating from college.
The MEA also had concerns over the emphasis Race to the Top competition puts on standardized testing, according to Pratt.  He said there are unintended consequences from reliance on standardized tests, such as “teaching to the test”.  He also said there is little evidence they actually improved student performance.
The state Department of Education says the Race to the Top plan is essential to reforming education in Michigan, according to Jan Ellis, of the department’s communications office.
“Students learn in a variety of different ways,” Ellis said.  “Teachers are finding it more and more important to be able to change the way they’re instructing to meet the needs of their students.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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