A Race to the Top: Understanding the Federal Government’s Shortsighted Dash for Education

Much of modern education is driven by sanctions and other legislation put in place by the government of the late 20th century. It might seem that the federal government is not in a position to dictate what states do in their own schools, but the fact is that the federal government can largely impose its will on state and local governments.

The impetus is monetary. The imposition of NCLB on states is unparalleled in scope. Traditionally, local and state governments were responsible for the details concerning the operation of their schools. Some of this local control has eroded under NCLB. The federal government has a firm hand in the local school systems because of strict and unrealistic performance outcomes mandated by NLCB.

The annual testing is just part of the overreaching of federal authority. The requirements also involve the standards concerning the teachers’ credentials. With these requirements, local systems may not even be allowed to hire the best instructors for their locale and circumstances. Penalties are in place to punish those states and localities that do not conform. Consider this: the U.S. Constitution contains approximately 7,500 words; the NCLB Act contains an astronomical 300,000. And as with any federal law involving schools, the local schools are responsible for following all the details to the letter.

The Race to the Top competition instituted by the federal government provides an example of how the federal government can use the promise of federal funds to insert itself into state and local school operations. During the first round of awards, the only states that were provided with federal money under that competition were those that agreed to base teachers’ salaries on how well their students performed.

States also had to have a plan for dismissing teachers whose students consistently performed poorly. They agreed to provide professional development for these teachers but had to eventually terminate them if improvements were not made within a certain period. Of course, this instigated an outcry from teacher unions across the country; but even unions needed to sign on to some aspects of the Race to the Top criteria in order for their state to fare well in the competition.

The competition also addressed the performance of administrators and required that districts in the states have plans to turn around the lowest-performing schools. Race to the Top set out detailed criteria meant to effect comprehensive school reform and included both supportive and punitive elements. Still, the competition clearly represented an example of how the federal government can get states and local education agencies to implement its visions and goals for public education.

So far, the government of the 21st century has been working to scale back the impact of NCLB, but the process of cleaning up the residue of past educational systems will be a long and nonlinear one. To learn more about how education got to where it is today, check out or series of articles on the history of the American school system.

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