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Obama’s Race to the Top competition won’t fix public schools

Competition may bring out the best in business and sports, but that logic doesn’t necessarily apply to public schools. The practical way to mend the educational system is by implementing economic and social reforms that focus on the children.

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For taxpayers who are frustrated and angry over the glacial pace of school improvement, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative. Patience, after all, has its limits. But distribution of $4.5 billion in discretionary funding to schools that qualify will not improve educational quality for all children.

This assessment is based largely on the emphasis given to competition as the centerpiece in creating successful schools.

A slew of recent commentary articles have argued that, because competition brings out the best performance in athletics and business, it should raise the quality of public education, too. Only by being patient with charter schools and by offering performance pay for teachers as the embodiment of competition can reform ever become a reality.

But since US education is at a crossroads, it’s imperative to take a close look at the assertion that competition would boost performance.

The trouble is enthusiasm for both charter schools and performance pay runs far ahead of any compelling data that indicates their merit.

The most recent data came in September, when economist Margaret Raymond of Stanford University released the results of her study of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia. She found that 37 percent of charter schools posted worse standardized test scores than comparable traditional schools, 46 percent did about the same, and only 17 percent were superior.

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