By Dennis Van Roekel - 02/01/11 03:49 PM ET
Many Americans, including President Obama, weren’t even born when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into outer space in October 1957. Yet everyone knew exactly what the President meant when he said during his State of the Union address, “This is our Sputnik moment.” Today the U.S. faces economic and innovative competition around the world. If we want to win the future in the same way that we won the Space Race, we must do what we did then – invest in education.
The President shined a spotlight on the importance of a long-term investment in education and recognized the critical role that teachers play in student success, calling for more respect for the teaching profession. His strong message of support for education and his call to fix No Child Left Behind is sorely welcome. However, as with many good things, the devil is in the details.
Global competition is a fact of life, but competition in education funding can have negative consequences. That’s why we have expressed concerns with funding models, like the Race to the Top program, that create winners and losers among our students. The federal government has a vital role to play in advancing the quality of education and ensuring equity and opportunity for all students.
The track record with Race to the Top calls into question this program’s ability to meet this critical objective. To date, 39 states were non-participants or losers in the Race to the Top competition. And according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, after two years of implementation and close to $4 billion dollars, many underserved communities – Black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian students, ELL students and poor rural states – have been poorly represented in Race to the Top’s distribution of resources.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was intended to provide a level playing field and equal opportunity, but the competitive nature of Race to the Top has pitted students against their peers, and educators against their colleagues. The expanded use of competitive grant policies has the potential to dangerously undermine public education, and for this reason we believe this formula must not be a part of ESEA reauthorization.
In the push to renew ESEA, we must change the punitive approach of No Child Left Behind, especially the fanatical focus on standardized tests and the unrealistic AYP requirements that brand thriving schools as failures. We should focus on schools that are in the most desperate need of transformation. That’s exactly what NEA is doing in our Priority Schools Campaign, which is engaging our members in districts across the country and identifying more and new ways to help students succeed.
In short, we need to redefine the federal role in education: moving beyond testing, labeling and punishing, and partnering with states to transform public education for all students.
Dennis Van Roekel is the president of the National Education Association (NEA).
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