Monday, February 01, 2010

Education reform's 'Race to the Top' features some non-starters

TFA's Kevin Huffman with some good points on how some states made real reforms and many didn't in response to RttT:

I'm picking on New Jersey not because it has the worst plan (it doesn't) but because it so perfectly embodies the old way of applying for federal education funding -- lots of promises and ideas; little chance of change on the ground.

By contrast, Louisiana submitted a clear, concise, actionable plan to reform a large swath of its public schools.

The beauty of Louisiana's reform model lies in its simplicity. The state has taken critical baseline steps, it proposes expanding projects that have shown promising results, and it has ensured that participating school districts will actually do the things that are in the application.

Louisiana already built and uses a data system that ties students' test scores to the teachers who taught them and to the universities and programs that trained the teachers. In its application, Louisiana proposes expanding the use of data and using test-score results to count for 50 percent of teacher evaluations and to help drive decisions of hiring, retaining, and promoting teachers and principals.

Louisiana's plan to take over and turn around low-performing schools isn't an esoteric policy concept. The state took over nearly 10 percent of its neediest schools, turning some into public charter schools and overhauling school leadership and faculty.

Mr. Duncan has been getting flak this week for calling Hurricane Katrina "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans," but he's right to praise the enormous progress there since 2005. New Orleans schools have seen significant growth in student achievement levels over the past three years, and the state has real lessons to apply to other struggling schools.

Most critically, the state is serious about enacting its plans. State Superintendent Paul Pastorek made participating school districts sign on to all of the requirements. This reduced participation far enough that only about half of the state's students would fall under the grant, a number that Pastorek finds reasonable. "We wanted people to know what they were getting themselves into," he told me. "We need 100 percent of the participants, 100 percent committed to the reforms."

The success of the Race to the Top program depends partially on the Education Department making smart choices with its grant awards and sending most states home empty-handed -- which Mr. Duncan has repeatedly promised to do.

For systemic change, though, local political leaders need to understand the difference between talk and action on education reform. Too many states are attempting to Amble to the Top with their reform plans. In April, a handful of states will walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars. The rest will have the chance to reapply for funding in June. That gives states five months to take a good hard look at the plans of their faster-moving peers -- and decide if they have the intestinal fortitude to join the race for real.


Education reform's 'Race to the Top' features some non-starters

By Kevin Huffman
Saturday, January 30, 2010; A15

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