Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why RTTT is a game changer

My friend Jeanne Allen of The Center for Education Reform responded to my last email as follows:

DEAR WHITNEY. So, some might call us critical of all of this R2TT business, but we prefer the term skeptical (experienced, wary). Even friends are patting us on the back and saying "calm down, it's over, we've won." Well, to that we ask: "Who's won, exactly?" Have kids won when states like Maryland, Hawaii, Ohio and North Carolina take home the prize? Are they moving the ball forward? Will more money lead to more options for where and how kids are educated in their states? How about more choices for their parents? Did they pass substantive legislation to rid themselves of the obstacles posed by unions and other entrenched interests? Do any of them have a charter law in even the top tier of the country? Are any of them reform-minded by any stretch of the imagination? For 17 years, we haven't settled for the "good is good enough" line of thinking, and we aren't about to start now. (www.edreform.com/Press_Box/Newswire_Library/?Newswire_August_25_2010&year=2010)

I think she's both right and wrong.  As I noted in my last email, we're in agreement that some states won that shouldn't have, and vice versa, etc.  But where we fundamentally differ is that "good isn't good enough."  We've been on a journey of 1,000 miles for 20 years and I'd say that in the first 18 years, we'd made 100 miles of progress and we've made another 100 miles over the past two years due to the Democratic party starting to tip on this issue (thanks to the leadership of President Obama, Sec. Duncan and the efforts of DFER and a handful of other great organizations).  Race to the Top was an absolutely critical ingredient to the progress in the past two years – let's call it 25 of the 100 miles.  I call that a smashing success that should be celebrated, but critics are trashing the entire program under the theory that had it been better designed and implemented, there could have been gains of 30 or 35 miles, and that 25 miles in the context of a 1,000-mile journey isn't enough.  Such criticism is TOTALLY misguided. 


I want to make the case very clearly that Race to the Top is a game changer.  Let's start with all of the things RTTT catalyzed: here's what Arne Duncan said recently (from his speech at the end of this email):

This $4.3 billion program -- representing less than one percent of education spending nationally -- has prompted states and districts across America to change laws, remove obstacles to reform, and force stakeholders to work together in ways that they haven't for decades.

More than 30 states have changed laws around the issue of public charter schools, and teacher evaluation. As of today, 37 states have agreed to adopt higher standards and others are still considering them. I congratulate your state, Arkansas, on taking this bold step for your students last month.

All told, 46 states and the District of Columbia applied for Race to the Top funds and just yesterday we announced the final winners of this year's competition. We now have 11 states along with DC positioned to bring real and lasting change to American education and 35 others with comprehensive plans in hand that can shape their reform agenda.


And here's a more detailed summary of the impact from the DFER memo attached to my last email (www.dfer.org/list/issues/policy):


Standards and Assessments




         48 states are participating in the Common Core Initiative, to develop "college and career ready" standards. 


         37 states have adopted the Common Core Standards.[1]




Two large consortia of states are competing for the $350 million in Race to the Top Assessment Grants to develop broad, new, high-quality tests tied to college and career ready standards that move beyond the crude "fill-in-the-bubble" approach most states use now.


         38 states are participating in one or both consortia.


         The 26 states in the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium alone educate over 60 percent of the K-12 students in the United States.


Public Charter Schools


At least 13 states –  Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Utah –  altered laws or policies to create or expand the number of public charter schools.


Teacher Quality


         Five of the six states with "firewalls" that previously barred student achievement data from being used in teacher evaluations repealed those laws: California, Wisconsin, Nevada, Maine, and Indiana. (New York simply let its law expire.)


         17 states reformed their teacher evaluation programs.


         At least 11 states –  Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee –  enacted legislation that requires student achievement data to be used in teacher evaluation or tenure decisions.


         Zero states are using a single test result to evaluate teachers, despite some of the rhetoric that is used by opponents of these policies. The highest weighting any state has given student tests in teachers evaluations is 50%.


Lastly, just ask any reformer who's been fighting in the trenches in cities and states around the country about the impact of RTTT: it was a total game-changer in MANY states.


Let me conclude with another analogy.  For many years, we reformers were a guerilla group, so totally outmanned and outspent that we had no choice but to engage in sporadic hit-and-run tactics.  But just in the past couple of years (I'd cite the DFER-organized event at the Democratic National Convention as a key tipping point – see links below), we now have enough power in many place to fight to a stalemate, so instead of looking like the Revolutionary War, this is beginning to look more like the trench warfare of WW I (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trench_warfare) – a bloody war of attrition in which neither side is powerful enough to advance, but both sides are powerful enough to stop their opponents from advancing. 


So what broke the stalemate?  A key factor was the Allies developing tanks (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanks_in_World_War_I).  Race to the Top is our tank.  We deployed it, it totally changed the battlefields in many, many states, and we need to make sure that RTTT and similar competitive, reform-oriented initiatives are not only preserved, but expanded. 


Using this analogy, it's easy to see why the critics are so wrong when they say, "Tanks break down a lot (a chronic problem in WW I) and, by themselves, they can't win a war, so therefore they're lousy and let's abandon them."  The correct answer, of course, is that we need to improve them and deploy them more widely, but also recognize that they're only one of many elements that are necessary for victory.


I'm damn proud to have backed (and cheered on) many of the key people and organizations that conceived of, designed, built, and are driving our tanks.


(Sorry for all of the war talk – it's not pleasant, but we ARE in a war and those defending the status quo will stop at nothing…)

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