Diving Off the Gates High Board

In our zeal to find out which states have the inside track with regard to Race to the Top (and the good folks over at EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog have given us the list of the 15 states getting a quarter million from Gates to “help” with their applications, providing the most inside of inside tracks) we seem to have lost sight of the Gates Foundation’s big plans for a “deep dive” into school district-based professional development and teacher support.

For those who have forgotten, earlier this year Gates announced its intention to award four school districts a grand total of $500 million to invest in real, meaningful teacher development activities.  That works out to $125 million per district, real money that can speak directly to teacher quality issues in those specific districts while providing a model for what can work in other urban LEAs looking for ways to boost teacher achievement and success.
Back in the spring, the initial list of “finalist” sites for this grant was leaked, with many quickly handicapping the race.  At the time, Gates has requested proposals and planned site visits at 10 locales — Atlanta, Denver, Hillsborough County (FL), Memphis, Omaha, Palm Beach County (FL), Pittsburgh, Prince George’s County (MD), Tulsa, and a group of Los Angeles charter schools.
When that original list went public, the chattering class immediately began handicapping the field.  We assumed PG County was a slam dunk, since its superstar superintendent John Deasy had just moved over to the Gates Foundation to help oversee this project.  Because of her longevity, track record of success, and ability to deliver results, we bet that Beverly Hall and Atlanta would make the final cut.  Many thought that the merit pay successes of Denver’s ProComp program would give the edge to the Mile High City, even though its superintendent had moved on to the U.S. Senate.  And we all know that that group of unnamed charter schools in the greater Los Angeles area has to be none other than Green Dot, a favorite child of the Gates Foundation and the Duncan regime.
So those were our supposed final four.  Some would put one of the Florida districts in as a dark horse (not distinguishing which one), recognizing that the Sunshine State has been a terrific site for school reform efforts.  Other cities had their pluses and minuses, but we assumed the die were cast and checks were being cut in Seattle for our frontrunner districts.
It seems a funny thing has happened on the way to determining the ultimate Deep Dive winners.  The New York Times is reporting that the list of final finalists has narrowed, and most of those slam dunks are now on the outside looking in.  According to the Times, the pool of 10 has now been narrowed to five — Florida’s Hillsborough County, Memphis, Omaha, Pittsburgh, and the Los Angeles charters.  No Prince Georges.  No Atlanta.  No Denver.  No frontrunners, save for Green Dot.  The full story can be found here. 
So what do the finalists tell us?  Three of the five (Hillsborough, Memphis, and Pittsburgh) are in states where Gates is trying to help secure RttT grants.  And Green Dot is a huge hat tip to Duncan’s emphasis on the role of charter schools in urban turnarounds (the fourth pillar of RttT).  Omaha is a surprising diverse school district, chock full of magnet schools and other programs designed to offer choice and alternatives, so it is a darkhorse that makes a lot of sense.
So which of the five will be the one district left without a chair when Gates’ music stops?  Historically, the teachers union in Memphis has been resistant to these “latest and greatest” efforts, most recently pushing back in both contract negotiations and the adoption of a Teacher Incentive Fund effort in the city.  Pittsburgh has done some interesting ed reform efforts, but always struggles with the view it is a “second city” to Philadelphia.  Hillsborough (essentially Tampa) is already a big Gates grantee and is heavily invested in teacher programs from National Board Certification to merit pay, meaning it may be far enough along with the additional help.  And Green Dot needs little extra fanfare.
Most surprising?  The truly large urban districts are noticeably absent from the finalists.  Gates has clearly made the decision to focus on more manageable LEAs where the money can be wisely invested, progress tracked, and best practice defined, captured, and modeled.  By focusing on the second ring of urban school districts, Gates is targeting some of the lower-hanging fruit, hoping that past Gates investment coupled with a district-wide culture of self-improvement and a focus on teacher quality will help win the day.
This will only be further enhanced if Gates’ RttT efforts are successful.  Deep Dive money in Tampa, Memphis, and Pittsburgh can be leveraged with teacher quality commitments under RttT to provide “super investments” in teacher development in these communities.  And we can assume that Gates is readying similar applications for the anticipated Innovation Fund, teeing up each of its finalist Deep Dive districts for a piece of the $650 million in innovation dollars expected to be released shortly by the Office of Innovation and Improvement.
Regardless of who makes it through the final filter, all eyes are going to be on “what” this money will be spent on.  Looking at the big picture, $125 million per district, spent over five years, isn’t the hugest of huge dollars.  But $25 million a year can go a long way in those districts that are currently being targeted by Gates.  If the funds really go to determining what qualities make the best teachers, how we measure those qualities in the classroom, and how we replicate and teach those qualities to all teachers in the district and throughout the nation, then we may really be onto something.  But that is the real key.  Many will tell you we already know what goes into good teaching.  Our struggle has always been applying what we know.  If Gates can’t figure it out, then few others can.

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