The Obama education reform plan is an aggressive version of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind, under which many schools have narrowed their curriculum to the tested subjects of reading and math. This poor substitute for a well-rounded education, which includes subjects such as the arts, history, geography, civics, science and foreign language, hits low-income children the hardest, since they are the most likely to attend the kind of "failing school" that drills kids relentlessly on the basics. Emphasis on test scores already compels teachers to focus on test preparation. Holding teachers personally and exclusively accountable for test scores -- a key feature of Race to the Top -- will make this situation even worse. Test scores will determine salary, tenure, bonuses and sanctions, as teachers and schools compete with each other, survival-of-the-fittest style.
Frustrated by a chronic lack of progress, business leaders and politicians expect that a stern dose of this sort of competition and incentives will improve education, but they are wrong. No other nation is taking such harsh lessons from the corporate sector and applying them to their schools. No nation with successful schools ignores everything but basic skills and testing. Schools work best when teachers collaborate to help their students and strive together for common goals, not when they compete for higher scores and bonuses.
Having embraced the Republican agenda of choice, competition and accountability, the Obama administration is promoting the privatization of large segments of American education and undermining the profession of teaching. This toxic combination is the latest Big Idea in education reform. Like so many of its predecessors, it is not likely to improve education.
Diane Ravitch, a historian of education, is the author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."