The lead story in this morning’s New York Times is a peek at the Obama Administration’s plans for NCLB (No Child Left Behind, now re-christened ESEA — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). First passed with great bipartisan fanfare by the Bush Administration in 2000, NCLB sought to focus attention on achievement gaps between different groups, and require all schools across the country to close those gaps by 2014.
Well, here it is a decade later, and we’ve certainly focused on achievement gaps in the past decade, but the goal of bringing all children to proficiency still seems far off. In the meantime, the law has labeled thousands of schools as “in need of improvement,” and come under a great deal of fire for being all stick and no carrot (because it set penalties for failing to reach “adequate yearly progress” but offered few additional resources to help schools get there).
So it comes as a relief that, according to the Times report, the Administration seems willing to abandon the 2014 deadline, as well as other provisions:
Today President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan officially announced the beginning of the ‘Race to the Top,’ an unprecedented $4.35 billion competitive grant fund that will support educational innovation and renewed focus on rapidly closing the achievement gap. In the announcement, the President said:
This competition will not be based on politics, ideology, or the preferences of a particular interest group. Instead, it will be based on a simple principle—whether a state is ready to do what works. We will use the best data available to determine whether a state can meet a few key benchmarks for reform—and states that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant.
And there’s the rub, as far as California is concerned –we don’t stand a very good chance in this competition. For one thing, there’s the budget crisis, which has severely limited our ability to hold on to the status quo, let alone innovate. For another, there’s the fact that California is among the worst of all the states in tracking and analyzing student academic performance data — one of the reforms that are central to the President’s education agenda. Today’s Los Angeles Times has an article on this topic, in particular our conscious policy choice not to link student performance with a particular teacher, a decision which Secretary Duncan has reportedly called “mind-boggling” and “ridiculous.” (The Times chose to frame this debate in rather alarmist terms, saying the state would be “threatened with loss of funds” because we continue to debate whether student test scores are the best way to measure teacher effectiveness. But really we are being threatened with missing out on new money if we don’t go along with the Secretary’s enthusiasm for this reform.)
Here in San Francisco, we had been hoping that our local reform agenda and influence in Washington would help us qualify for a taste of the ‘Race to the Top’ funds. But when he visited San Francisco last spring, the Secretary threw a dash of cold water on any expectations that individual school districts in California would be able to convince him to sponsor their reform efforts. He made clear that ‘Race to the Top’ is about state-level reform.
It’s a shame, because encouraging innovation and fostering reform in California could have a tremendous effect on the state and the nation as a whole. The combined size of the California’s 10 largest school districts (San Francisco is the 7th largest) is over 1.3 million students–primarily low-income students of color– and bigger than the total K-12 enrollment of 39 states. There are good ideas and energy here, and the impatience and frustration is palpable at every education conference and meeting I attend. Right now, because of the state’s broken system of governance and the budget crisis, education in California can’t catch a break.
Updating any interested taxpayers on my trip: last week I attended the Legislation and Policy Conference of the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy organization of 67 urban school districts that works for equitable distribution of educational resources, conducts research on education issues and lobbies Washington on behalf of urban districts.
The highlight of the conference was the speech made by new U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, outlining President Obama’s major education priorities:
- Establishing common career- and college-ready standards for all of the 50 states;
- Moving towards a series of assessments that support those standards rather than one high-stakes test at the end of the year;
- Better data collection and tracking;
- Rewarding the “best and the brightest” in teaching;
- Getting teaching talent where it is needed;
- Improving the lowest-performing schools — many schools have improved greatly in recent years but the performance of the schools at the bottom has barely budged or even declined.
Over and over, speakers at the conference told us that the amount of Federal money on the table for education is unprecedented: not only have they allocated significant increases in funds for special education (IDEA) and for low-income children (Title I), the President has asked for $5 billion in a special competitive fund that will be awarded to school districts based on how well and how innovatively they respond to the administration’s priorities as outlined above.
Now, in our favor is that locally we have great relationships with Secretary Duncan. Not so much in our favor is the general disrepair of the educational system here in California. Since the state will get stimulus funds first, the worry here is that the Governor and the legislature will use our stimulus funds to backfill gaps rather than allow us some flexibility to show that we have the capacity to innovate. Secretary Duncan was very clear in pointing out that states and school districts that are innovative will have the ability to draw on far more money from the $5 billion than those that simply maintain the status quo. We have a plan and momentum here in San Francisco — the question is, will the state support that or let us founder for lack of resources?