Innovation will be key in ‘Race to the Top’

    President Barack Obama showed up at Madison’s Wright Middle School last week to talk about reforming education, but that topic may not have been top of mind for everyone who came to hear him.

    It was the day after Democrats lost races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey, two states where Obama made personal appeals, and during a time in which Congress was stewing over health-care reform, troop levels in Afghanistan and legislation to extend unemployment benefits.

    In case anyone was listening, however, the setting was as good a place as any to talk about what it will take to produce better educated citizens.

    Wright Middle School is a 12-year old charter school within the Madison School District. It has about 240 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, mostly black and Latino, with attendance rates that historically hover around 93 percent. It’s been a public education success story because the students who attend all choose to be there – and their parents choose to be involved.

    Obama wanted to speak at Wright Middle School to highlight the "Race to the Top" competition, which will invite states such as Wisconsin to compete for a share of $4.35 billion in federal education grants. Obama, who believes lagging achievements in education are a chronic problem in the United States, urged Wright students to aim higher, calling education "a prerequisite for success."

    He’s right, of course. Better educated people are more likely to find jobs, keep jobs, earn a good living and contribute to society as a whole. The real debate is how best to produce more of them.

    "Race to the Top" dangles federal aid carrots to states that raise academic standards, improve teacher quality and expand the reach of charter schools. While $4.35 billion is a lot of money, it represents only a fraction of total K-12 education spending in the United States – about $667 billion in 2008-2009. It’s even a fraction of federal-only spending on elementary and secondary education, a category that has grown sharply since former President Bush launched "No Child Left Behind" in 2001.

    More money alone won’t solve the problem. For "Race to the Top" to work, it must spur education innovation that spreads far beyond a charter school here and a new standard there. It must build upon best practices that can be broadly implemented, in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

    Public-private efforts to enrich science, technology, engineering and math education provide ready examples of innovation. In Wisconsin, programs such as Project Lead the Way, Science Olympiad and FIRST Robotics have energized students and teachers alike – and are beginning to yield results.
    Project Lead the Way is one instructive example. It prepares middle and high school students for careers in engineering and technology through courses that capture students’ imagination. It’s used in 2,300 schools nationwide, including 162 in Wisconsin, and is taught by existing public and private school teachers who are immersed in PTLW techniques. The track record is impressive: 73 percent of Project Lead the Way students enter engineering or tech programs, and 80 percent earn their degrees.


    Another example of thinking differently about education involves student testing. Wisconsin has begun the process of phasing out its current system of testing student performance in grades three through eight and 10 in favor of a system that will more effectively guide teachers, parents and students – and help prepare those students for college and the workforce.

    In the process, it should also help businesses in search for workers with 21st century skills, and Wisconsin taxpayers who have a stake in more effective use of local, state and federal dollars.
    Other states have remade their testing systems already. Some, such as Oregon, have developed an Internet-based system, which dramatically shortens reporting time and allows for repeat tests for those who want to improve. Michigan requires the ACT test in its system, which lowers the statewide average score (a Wisconsin bragging right for decades) but serves to encourage more students to continue their education after high school. Nebraska built a statewide assessment system from classroom and district best practices. They’re all designed to raise standards and performance.

    Don’t get me wrong: Wisconsin could use whatever share of the "Race to the Top" dollars it can get: It ranks a miserable 49th among the 50 states in per capita federal spending on K-12 education, according to one recent study. But let’s make sure those dollars are put to work on innovation that can spread far beyond a school here or a classroom there.


    Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

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