Last week, the Federal government finally released 775 pages of guidelines (really, 775 pages!) for states to use to apply for “Race to the Top” grants. I’ve been waiting for someone to read through it all and summarize the juicy bits but five days after the announcement there are still no comprehensive Cliffs Notes to be had. Still, there are a few places to learn more without doing the hard slog (I’m a policy wonk and my readers are dear to me, but there are limits!):
It appears that the Education Department actually listened to some of the criticisms from people who really work in schools every day. The requirement that states allow a link between teacher assessment and student achievement stayed in, but it was mitigated by suggestions that such links be used to improve instruction rather than hiring or firing. Instead of insisting on an arbitrary increase in charter schools, the new rules suggest that states show that they are implementing innovative public school models that include, but are not limited to charter schools.
But here’s the real downer, at least if you live in California: the rules set out a formula for how much each state could receive (assuming its application is perfect). According to the formula, California could receive as much as $700 million — $700 million? That is a lot of money, no question, but it’s frankly a drop in the bucket when you consider how much California has already cut from education since September 2008. According to an analysis prepared by the California School Boards Association in August, the state has cut $12.5 billion in programs and cost of living adjustments, plus an additional $4.5 billion by deferring payments to future years.
Today’s New York Times has a good article on the golden handcuffs represented by Obama’s “Race to the Top” fund for education. I’m so annoyed by this whole thing: it seems that unprecedented Federal money for education has been tied to a relatively narrow and hard line reform agenda.
Specifically, the Department of Education has published proposed priorities for its $4.3 billion “Race to the Top” fund that would eliminate any state that refuses to explicitly link student achievement data to identifiable teacher information. This is controversial, and not just among teachers — for one thing, it increases the reliance on high-stakes testing at a time when many of us were hoping that the new administration would have a more nuanced approach to student assessment. For another, there really isn’t any data that says the best way to measure an effective teacher is to look at his or her students’ test scores. Testing might be part of the picture, but it’s not everything. It’s very disappointing that the Obama admininstration is prepared to continue some of the worst aspects of No Child Left Behind.
I submitted a comment (PDF) on the proposed priorities tonight, and encourage anyone who is interested in this issue to do the same (you have until August 28 to do so, but don’t wait). It’s also very interesting to read the comments submitted by others; I was particularly struck with sharp comments submitted by Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education under the first President Bush. Ravitch says:
I think the DOE should respect the requirements of federalism and look to states to offer their best ideas rather than mandating policies that the current administration likes, even though there is no evidence to support them.
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.