Tom Vander Ark: Stealth Education Reform Beats the Health Debacle

Watching the Sunday morning arguments about health reform, I was struck by how fortunate we are that Obama’s team snuck education reform into the stimulus bill. While most of the $100 billion for education just partially backfills cuts, it forced states to acknowledge the Department of Education’s priorities of standards, accountability, and choice. The remaining 5%, nearly $5 billion in grant programs, will be used to feed the rabbits (the states ready to move) and won’t be held back by the rebel, laggard, and the complacent states. It sure beats having an education reauthorization fight to go along with the health care debate.

This week the Department of Education released selection criteria for the $4.3 billion Race to the Top (RTT) program for states. Of the 19 criteria, these eight form a powerful reform package:
1. Developing and adopting common standards
2. Developing and implementing common, high quality assessments
3. Fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system
4. Differentiating teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance
5. Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals
6. Intervening in the lowest-performing schools and districts
7. Increasing the supply of high-quality charter schools
8. Building strong statewide capacity to implement

Standards. RTT requires states to work together to develop college and career ready standards. It’s crazy that each state has their own. An unintended consequence of NCLB has been a lowering of standards (to show higher passing rates). Common standards will encourage investment in next generation content and new online assessments as well as making it easier to compare performance across state lines. However, there are lots of ways states and interest groups could still muck this up.

Assessment. States are encouraged to work together to develop better tests including those designed to improve teaching and learning. This part of the proposed language should be more forward leaning–it’s a big chance to move most state testing online and to incorporate adaptive tests that quickly zero in on a student’s learning level.

Data. The ten elements of Data Quality Campaign, pushed for more than five years by the Gates Foundation, are a required component of the grant. Early adoption states like Florida put data to work to narrow the achievement gap. Because most curriculum will soon be digital, the trick with tests and data will be creating a frame flexible enough to encourage individual progress rather than lock step age cohorts. State policy makers should ask, “will this work for virtual schools?”

Teacher evaluation. RTT requires that states eliminate any barriers to linking student achievement data to individual teachers and using it for evaluation, placement, and compensation. Wow–that’s a big deal. But most of the barriers exist in local contracts and practices. It will be interesting to see if states can actually make some changes.

Teacher distribution. The grant program requires that teacher effectiveness data be used to make sure that low-income students get good teachers–easier said than done. Teacher distribution is a function of local contracts and budgets and a lot of personal choice. And we’re not very good at measuring effectiveness. The push for alternative certification (which is great) complicates the desire for equitable distribution–even reform groups have a hard time agreeing on how to ensure equitable distribution.

Intervention. This is Duncan’s big push–to replace or transform the worst 5,000 schools in the country. The proposed language for intervention is pretty good but it doesn’t require that bad schools be named. The definition of low-performing doesn’t include graduation rates and it must–how else will we target and replace the 2,000 drop out factories?
Charter schools. States have been scrambling to lift charter caps in preparation for RTT application–a big early win. There’s a nod toward charter facilities and equal funding but not a strong set of requirements. I’m afraid charters will continue to get jerked around by local districts.

Capacity. There’s nothing controversial about capacity–we just don’t have any. State education offices are thinly staffed to administer the complex codes their legislatures right. It’s too bad the first phase of the grant program won’t open until late 2009 but it is obvious that states will need time to plan and build support for their plans. None of the states have the program management staffing to do this right. RTT and foundation grants will help. Let’s hope some of it sticks around after the grants run out.

It’s unfortunate that the Department directs that at least half the RTT money must be distributed to districts based on a federal formula, but it’s a about the only way they can ensure that high need districts get help.

I’ve been worried that political pressure, probably linked to the health care debate, would force the Department to spread RTT funds like peanut butter. But if they stick to the intent of the proposed language, it will be hard for a senator to make the case that his/her state deserves funding when they just don’t measure up.

Instead of fighting a reauthorization battle, Team Obama is pushing preauthorization reform. While they will be disappointed in the number and quality of state applications, a few states will show the way for the rest and in doing so will reframe the reauthorization debate–and promote equity and excellence for all American students.


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