Racing Toward Long-Term Change?

It should come as no surprise that we are seeing a great number of states and school districts instituting new reforms so they appear to align with the goals and ambitions of Race to the Top and the overall Duncan reform agenda.  Just this week, Indiana’s state superintendent announced major policy shifts (including a relaxing of teacher certification regulations), Illinois’ governor agreed to double the number of charter schools in Chicago, and even the Los Angeles superintendent is looking for ways to qualify for the RttT moneys, even if California is rejected because of its firewall issues.

Without doubt, governors, chief state school officers, and urban superintendents have been listening carefully to what EdSec Arne Duncan and his team at the LBJ Building are expecting from those who will be a part of the federal school improvement gravy train.  For more than half a year, we’ve listened to speeches and dissected policies on topics such as teacher quality and incentives, charter school availability and quality, data systems, alternative teacher pathways, and core standards.  We’ve scrutinized the details and criteria of last week’s RttT draft RFP, knowing that little, if anything, will change in the final.  We all want to show we are part of the solution, and not part of the problem.
Those in the know seem certain that only a select group of states are going to be bestowed the title of Race to the Top states.  The betting odds are 10 to 15 states will earn the RttT seal.  That leaves another 36 (if you count DC) knowing the end game, but possibly lacking the financial resources to truly innovate.
Earlier this month, the National Conference of State Legislatures released data on the budget gaps.  It is no surprise that many of the states on the short end of the budget stick are states that many believe have an inside track for RttT.  For instance, Connecticut has a $4.1 billion budget gap; Illinois a $7.3 billion gap.  New York posts a $17.65 billion gap, while California clocks in at $38.95 billion.  Even with State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars, these states have major obstacles to overcome just to keep pace with previous budget years.  That means a lot of energy spent running in place, when ED is looking for states who will be sprinting out of the gates.
On the flip side, there are some interesting states that appear to be in the best financial shape, where their budget gaps are less than 5 percent of the general fund, meaning (in theory) that public education will face a scalpel, and not an axe.  So there may be opportunities in states like Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio to quickly put real reforms in place and document the impact it is having on student learning.
It begs the question, who will win RttT?  Are we looking for states with the greatest need, the states with the largest achievement gaps to overcome?  Are we looking for low-hanging fruit states, where a couple of billion dollars in education funding can make the difference?  Are we looking for states that want to invest in one major area, like STEM or teacher incentives, or are we looking for states that will be the full embodiment of the ED reform agenda?  Are we looking for states that are willing to “match” federal funding with state and private dollars to spur innovation and improvement, or are we looking for those states extending the most aggressive hand?
And equally important, will the Indianas and Illinoises of the world continue with their reform agendas if they do not get added federal funding?  We all want to believe that these proposals and changes are being offered because state decisionmakers see them as in the best interests of the schools and the students.  But the cynic in Eduflack wonders how many are acting to give their states “curb appeal” as ED starts shopping for a home for more than $4 billion in new federal education funding.  Will Illinois’ legislature fund the doubling of charter schools in Chicago without a check from the feds?  Will Indiana’s state superintendent be able to move forward with his reform agenda if the Hoosier State is a spectator, and not a participant in the great Race?  If the core standards movement doesn’t gain steam, will anyone other than RttT states endorse them?
Ultimately, programs like RttT are designed to model what is possible and spur innovation across the board. One expects RttT states to be incubators where the remaining members of our great union can see what is possible and what can work for them.  We also expect those RttT states to continue their programs well after the federal funding spigot is turned off.  But will that be the case?  At the end of the day, will states who are not Race states change, without the financial incentive to do so?  
One hopes they will, but history tells us that status quo education is status quo for a reason.  It is far easier.
 

Top 10 RTT Questions

The clock has officially started.  Last night, the U.S. Department of Education officially posted the draft Race to the Top (RTT) RFP on the Federal Register.  Interested parties can find at http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/pdf/E9-17909.pdf.  The big change from the draft circulating before last week’s unveiling is the proposed criteria are now put in a handy, dandy chart, instead of just being pages and pages of text.  Regardless, all interested parties have until August 28 to provide their comments and recommendations to officials at ED.  Eduflack would be surprised if the final version of the RFP is not released to states as close to September 1 as possible.

Earlier this week, ED officials held a conference call to speak to the RFP (along with other funding streams such as State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, ed technology grants, and the like).  After taking some time to digest it all, Eduflack is left with more questions than he has answers.  So rather than suffer with these queries on my own, I’m just going to put them out there so others can struggle along with me (or at least realize that they are not alone).  So here’s my top 10.
1) How many states does ED intend to bestow with RTT grants?  Clearly, they aren’t intending most states to secure Race funding (else the language would be quite different).  But is this intended for half the states?  A quarter?  Fewer?  I’ve heard six to 10 states.  Alexander Russo has reported at thisweekineducation.com that the Gates Foundation is helping 15 states with their applications.  So how many states will actually become RTT states?
2) Speaking of Gates, if it is true, who are the 15 states that they are assisting?  I’ve heard two handfuls of states mentioned as possibles/likelies, including Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Illinois.  Will the four states that will play home to Gates’ deep dive states be priorities for funding?  Can states like Texas, which receives big Gates dollars, overcome the political and administrative obstacles to qualify if they have the right assistance?  Will we ever know who Gates is helping?  (Some ED RFPs require that the applicant disclose who actually wrote the proposal, but I don’t see that in the requirements here.)
3) We know that there will be a Phase One and a Phase Two of grants, so what prevents a prospective state from laying the weeds, waiting to see who is approved in Phase One, and then liberally “borrowing” from the previously approved application?  We saw some of this in the initial rounds of Reading First back in 2002.  Will we see it again this year?
4) And about those approvals, who, exactly, will be reviewing applications?  The folks over at Education Week and its Politics K-12 blog have noted that ED is expecting to get top-notch, expert, experiences individuals with SEA backgrounds to review these applications.  Obviously, reviewers can’t have a dog in the fight.  So who are these reviewers who aren’t currently working with individual states or the organizations that represent them (like NGA or CCSSO) that will be determining how the $4-plus billion is spent?
5) Are California and New York (and Wisconsin) really knocked out of the running because of their prohibitions to link teacher identifiers with student performance data?  ED did a great deal of research and vetting of what was happening in the states before releasing this draft.  I guarantee that they knew about the CA and NY laws.  And we heard EdSec Duncan in California earlier this year expressing some doubts about California being an RTT state.  Is the Golden State just too big with too many moving parts to demonstrate measurable change out of the gates?  Would we prefer to work with smaller states like Delaware, Georgia, or Ohio that may be easier to navigate in the early going?
6) How sacrosanct are the proposed criteria that guide selection?  I can’t help but notice one of the criteria is a letter of endorsement from the state teachers union.  Is that a recommended or a non-negotiable?  Do the state chapters of the NEA and AFT essentially have veto power over a state’s RTT application?  How does a state determine whether they need this item, or whether it is just a nice value-add?
7) With regard to charter schools and requirements around school choice, how will reviewers distinguish between states whose laws essentially prohibit charter schools versus those like Virginia that have terrific charter laws on the books, but just don’t authorize them?  Is the measuring stick intent or actual implementation?
8) The draft focusing on alternative certification, but where is emphasis on improving the quality of traditional certification paths?  Collecting data on the student achievement of graduates of specific colleges of education?  Comparing the impact of traditional certification with alternative certification (and with Teach for America)?  How can RTT be used to ensure an ample supply of effective teachers, regardless of the path they take to the classroom?
9) What is the real crosswalk with core standards?  It seems like ED is hedging its bets, asking states to provide annual reports based on their state assessments, yet requiring RTT states to sign onto the core standards by mid-2010 (if they are out).  Assuming core standards are in place, do we not expect assessments to accompany them?  Or do we expect that such assessments will not be completed and in place until after RTT’s four-year run?
10) Other than state self-reporting, how will we actually know that RTT dollars have improved student performance and closed the achievement gap?  What specific measures, other than state tests, will be in place?  What is ED planning on replacing AYP with for the long haul?  How do we ensure that dollars are being invested to change practice for the long term, and that RTT reforms will stay in place and have impact long after the funding is gone?  
A lot of questions, I know.  Hopefully, others are asking these questions as well as part of the review process.  Or are these just the rants and musings of an education agitator?                     

Largest ED Discretionary Program in History?

This afternoon, the U.S. Department of Education hosted a webinar as follow-up to last Friday’s festivities on Race to the Top, the Innovation Fund, and the host of other additional funding programs made possible through a generous grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  The call served as a recap of the paperwork released on Friday, emphasizing the need for partnership, the importance of innovation, and the dollars and timelines associated with both.

As to be expected, individuals and organizations were already trying to see where they fit and what opportunities would be available specifically to them.  What about really small LEAs?  Does my planned charter school qualify?  Is there money for wind power in RTT? (The third question was indeed a serious one.)
A few interesting points came out of the responses.  For now, ED says it does not intend to eliminate SES (or at least replace it with ARRA funds).  We’ve been hearing for nearly a year now that SES may be eliminated as part of ESEA reauthorization, but if that’s the plan over on Maryland Avenue, they played it close to the vest today.
We also heard Deputy ED Secretary Tony Miller endorse extended day and extended school year programs.  When asked if RTT funds could be used for extended-day efforts, Miller can an enthusiastic affirmative, and even pointed to statewide efforts in Massachusetts as example of how state RTT dollars could be used effectively.
But I was most intrigued by the answer to a question regarding the timelines for programs and how long each stream of funding would last.  When the discussion turned to RTT, Miller and company noted that Race to the Top funding was operating under a four-year plan.  So $4.5 billion, available to states over four years.  That comes out to $1.125 billion a year to me (although I learned my math before core standards were developed).
For some time, we have been hearing that Race to the Top was the single largest education discretionary spending program in the history of the United States.  Friday, officials and dignitaries discussed all of the many uses for RTT, including STEM, alternative certification, charter schools, and the like (windmills did not make the cut).  That’s a lot of potential silos being funded with the RTT stream of dollars.  Clearly, ED has not indicated how many states will receive RTT funds.  If it is six to eight states, as many expect, that is a huge boon to reform efforts in those states.  If most states get the dollars, as may be politically expedient, that check is looking a little smaller than the Publishers Clearinghouse checks so many are now expecting.
But this afternoon’s discussion has deal ole Eduflack thinking.  Is Race to the Top really the single largest education discretionary program in the history of man?  As I remember it, in 2002, Reading First became law.  As it was originally written, it was a 5-year, $6 billion program.  Yes, all 50 states were expected to receive it, but the plan was approximately $1.2 billion a year for one single stream of educational improvement — reading instruction.  Had the law been maximized, up to 25 percent of that was to go to high-quality professional development for teachers (so nearly $1.5 billion for teacher training and supports).  
Why do I raise the RF issue now?  In continued reading of RTT, the draft language seems to be all things to all people.  It is designed as a consensus program so that each person along the way can hang their pet program or favorite issue on the reform tree.  Governor gets his issue.  State superintendent gets his.  State board of education gets its favorite.  Even the head of the state teachers union (if applicable) gets the final OK, meaning they get some quid for their pro quo.  At the end of the day, the applications are likely going to be a patchwork of different things intended to improve in some places, reward in others, and placate in still others.
If that is how things roll out, and the majority of states receive RTT funds, then how do we ensure that we are really putting the dollars on the specific interventions and action items that will boost student achievement and close the achievement gap?  We struggled in tracking federal effectiveness in RF (with some reporter friends reminding me that ED still hasn’t accounted for how those dollars were actually spent) and that was just focused on a singular issue of reading instruction in grades 3-8?  How do we track, measure, and report progress and effectiveness of a host of issues that may be uncommon across states?  How do we make sure that states are truly using the dollars to race to the top, and aren’t simply stuck in neutral with a gear shift that’s a little too loose?
The clock is ticking on the 30-day review period for RTT.  Do I think the scope will narrow?  No.  But the criteria for evaluating state applications and awarding grants could do the trick.
  

Jumpin’ Before the RTT Gun Sounds

Washington, DC is a horrible place to keep a secret.  While the average education wonk’s calendar had a reminder that the common standards (for high school at least) would be released next week, the draft is made public yesterday, with Core Knowledge the first to reveal and then Education Week providing more context and substance around it.

Most have similarly been waiting with baited breath for tomorrow’s expected announcement of the Race to the Top (RTT) RFP draft, the great piggy bank for states to demonstrate their education innovation and improvement.  We’ve been working under a hard release date of tomorrow for RTT, with those with a dog in the fight looking to move quickly to help shape and revise the draft before it goes final next month (though I wouldn’t hold my breath on how different the final will be from the draft).
Then we start hearing about a big event in DC, where the RTT will be announced along with Innovation Funds, ed tech, teacher incentives, data systems, and even second round SFSF money.  We hear about governors and chief state school officers being invited to Maryland Avenue.  And this morning, the Education Equality Project, among others, “announces” that President Barack Obama himself will be on hand at the US Department of Education tomorrow AM to help EdSec Duncan announce the draft RTT RFP and re-emphasize the importance of K-12 education reform in our nation’s overall turnaround.  (Of course, the President’s participation hasn’t officially been announced by ED or the White House, but it seems a safe bet at this point.)
All of this is typical, particularly when you compound it with the fact that the draft Race to the Top RFP is already circulating around town.  Lest we forget, RTT is tasked with distributing $4.3 billion for, as described in the draft, “competitive grants to States to encourage and reward States that are creating the conditions for innovation and reform, implementing ambitious plans in the four reform areas described in the statute, and achieving dramatic improvement in student outcomes, including driving substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps, improving graduation rates, and ensuring student preparation for success in college and careers.”
The draft RTT regs (at least the version Eduflack has seen) currently run at 61 pages.  The money will be distributed in two phases, with states ready to run out of the gates can apply for the funds in late 2009, while others can wait until mid-to-late spring of 2010 for Phase Two to open up.  Applicants must address all four of the above noted areas, and can’t just cherry-pick the two or three they think they can make progress in.  It’s all in, or you can’t play.  
Eduflack is particularly tickled to see that STEM (science-technology-engineering-math) education has been singled out as a priority in RTT.  While groups like the Gates Foundation, National Governors Association, NMSI and others have been investing in STEM, making it an RTT invitational priority — particularly with an emphasis on training effective K-12 STEM teachers — is a huge step forward for STEM efforts across the nation.  
ED is also to be applauded for calling for stronger K-16 linkages, forcing K-12 and higher education to work together on Race to the Top.  
It is also intriguing to see some of the definitions RTT is using.  Student achievement is measured mostly by performance on the state’s standardized assessment.  Whether that means just reading and math a la AYP or whether it includes science, social studies, and other assessments offered by states is a big TBD.  Instead of AYP, which is a term all but abandoned by this ED, we are now talking student growth (with a similar definition).  Graduation rates are defined by the NGA formula of a four-year grad rate (kudos to ED for sticking with it.)  Formative and interim assessments make the definitions list.  And we are now provided with an official RTT definition of Alternative Certification Programs for teachers.  
Charter schools are featured, as is incentives for teachers and principals.  In my initial read, I can’t find mention of terms like the previously popular “scientifically based,” though they do seem to enjoy the term “evidence” for both qualitative and quantitative purposes.  
Hopefully, we will see a little more teeth in the Annual Reporting and Performance Measures section before this RFP goes to final. This is likely a point that is still being worked out with the states.  Right now, ED is basically asking states to provide an annual written report documenting how they are doing against their own goals.  But it doesn’t call for third-party assessment at all.  We’re being asked to trust grant recipients to tell us how effectively they are spending the money they get.  We’ve seen how well that has worked in the past, particularly if there isn’t an office at ED who is reviewing those reports, documented the results, and performing the spot checks on states to ensure that those written self-assessments are rooted in the realities at the building level.
On the whole, Race to the Top looks like a strong start to actually trying some new things and breaking the bonds of the status quo in far too many struggling schools.  While some will be quick to try and offer changes to the RFP and look to redefine certain sections or re-emphasize (or de-emphasize) others, there seems to be little to quibble with.  The RFP is broad, and intentionally so.  The challenge is how well states respond to it, how closely those responses are scrutinized, and how strongly the states are held to following through on what they promise to receive their RTT checks.
Regardless, tomorrow should be fun.  It’s always good to see a President throw his rhetorical weight behind public education.  Even more so when we are talking about innovation, improvement, and change, and not just more dollars for the status quo.  Now it is up to 50 governors, their chief state school officers, and their education advisors to quickly write some terrific applications so they can get at this money this fall, and put it to use before another generation of kids is lost in the cracks.

Chapter 9 in Detroit

What happens when a school district files for bankruptcy?  We have heard of LEAs on the brink before, but we’ve never witnessed a district actually enter bankruptcy court, as they are usually saved at the 11th hour by the city or state.  But the latest talk and action coming out of the Motor City points to a new first for K-12 public education in the United States — a school district seeking bankruptcy protection from the courts.  The Wall Street Journal has the full story here.

We’ve obviously heard a great deal about corporate bankruptcies, what with General Motors and Chrysler (Detroit Public School neighbors) already seeking help from the courts.  In a previous life, Eduflack worked with a wide range of companies on bankruptcy communications issues, helping consumer goods manufacturers, healthcare companies, and microprocessor producers navigate the Chapter 11 process.
On the corporate side, there are often a great number of misperceptions regarding Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings.  Despite popular belief, it is not usually the first step to liquidation or closing one’s doors forever (that’s left the Chapter 13).  It does not mean that salaries won’t be paid or pensions and benefits have been lost.  It does not mean that vendors will never be paid.  And it certainly does not mean that core business operations will not continue.
Bankruptcy is a chance to reorganize.  Typically, an organization has lost its way and has strayed from its core business.  Expenses have gotten out of hand, debts and obligations have risen, and what has worked in the past simply won’t work again.  As circumstances and conditions change, these organizations need a fresh start.  They need a second chance, an opportunity to break from bad deals and bad situations.  And they need a chance to shed the status quo and refocus on what works and where the future is taking them.  We’ve witnessed companies such as Macy’s, 7-11, and others used bankruptcy reorganization to help them strengthen their business, improve their brand, and better serve their customers.
So when Detroit’s Public Schools talk about filing Chapter 9 bankruptcy (a distinction under the federal code for public entities like school districts), it does not mean Detroit is giving up.  It certainly doesn’t mean we are shuttering public schools in the Motor City and telling all of the area’s students that they need to move on to Catholic schools or similar competitors.  It means Detroit is looking to take control of its own destiny, seeking the flexibility to restructure so it can focus on its core business of educating students and deal with the realities of shrinking student numbers and local tax pools.
Earlier this year, EdSec Arne Duncan referred to Detroit’s schools as a “national disgrace.”  The term drop-out factories may very well have been created to reflect the state of secondary school instruction in Detroit.  While the nation may have been focused on leaving no child behind, Detroit failed to get the memo.  Despite statewide efforts in Michigan to improve public education, boost the high school graduation rate, and better prepare Michiganders with the skills and knowledge they need for the 21st century Michigan workplace, Detroit was a reality we tried to forget, or at least chose to write off.  It stands as the worst-case scenario for the modern-day school district, used as the butt of jokes and an example of what other struggling districts want to avoid. 
All of that makes it very easy for Detroit leaders to simply throw up their hands, say nothing can be done, and simply accept the status quo as the way things need to be in Detroit.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb should be commended for charting the course toward Chapter 9 bankruptcy …. as long as he intends to use it effectively.  
Detroit cannot, should not, and must not simply use bankruptcy to clear the books and go back to operating in the same old way.  Enrollment has dropped nearly 50 percent in less than a decade.  Schools have been closed.  Teachers have been laid off.  These are major changes for a school district.  Such changes mean that one cannot simply go back to the administration and operations of old, content that old debts are behind you.  Doing so simply allows Detroit to run up new debts and likely find themselves in this same situation not too far down the road.
If Bobb and his team take the final step and file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, they need to use the opportunity to change the administration, culture, expectations, and results of Detroit Public Schools.  The courts will provide Detroit the time to reorganize.  They need to take that time to build a better system.  Let’s be honest here.  Students have left DPS in droves for private and charter schools because of quality and outcomes.  Parents want to see their kids succeed.  They want them to be safe.  They want them to learn.  They want them to graduate.  They want them to gain the skills and knowledge necessary for success.  Too many parents haven’t seen those qualities in Detroit Public Schools, so those with the ability — even in this tough economy — have turned to alternatives to ensure their kids are getting the education they need.
Bobb has already taken major steps to clean up Detroit’s administrative issues.  He’s scrubbing the books, rooting out fraud, and providing a clearer view of what, exactly, Detroit is spending its school money on.  Bankruptcy protection provides him additional time and additional power to continue these efforts and build a better operational infrastructure for the schools.  But he must also take the opportunity to focus on the product — ensuring that Detroit is taking the steps to improve the delivery, quality, and results of a Detroit Public Schools education.
How?  Eduflack has three ideas for Mr. Bobb and his team:
* Teacher quality — Simply staffing Detroit’s public school classrooms with whatever warm bodies are coming out of local ed schools isn’t getting the job done.  Detroit needs to demand higher-quality teachers.  They need to require a more rigorous teacher education program from local colleges and universities, one that demands a more rigorous curriculum, a strong clinical experience, and the content and pedagogy that moves classroom educators from “qualified” to “effective.”  Detroit needs to invest in rigorous, content-based professional development for all its teachers, striving for constant improvement.  It needs to reward effective teaching.  And it needs to recognize that not everyone with a teaching degree is cut out to successfully handle the rigors of teaching in Detroit.  Challenging times require the best teachers.  Detroit needs to invest in getting those teachers, and not simply setting for those willing to be part of a failing system.
* Innovative programs — Two weeks ago, Bobb announced plans to bring in partner organizations to help turn around Detroit’s high schools.  This was a master move, and it needs to be followed through (the school board seems to be balking since the announcement).  Bankruptcy be damned, Detroit needs to invest in innovation and new approaches.  it also needs to focus on return on investment.  Elementary school investments make people feel nice, as we help little kids, but their impact isn’t felt for a decade.  Bobb’s plans for the high schools can yield immediate return.  If implemented with fidelity, these partners can boost high school test scores and graduation rates.  They can better prepare today’s high school students for tomorrow’s jobs.  They can be the first step in bringing Detroit’s schools into the 21st century.  We need more thinking and action like this, and fewer roadblocks from those that fear c
hange or embrace the status quo.  These contracts need to be honored and these programs need to be up and running by the start of the new school year this fall.
* Customer focus — Companies that file for bankruptcy often do because they strayed from their core business and invested in products and efforts that didn’t fit their mission.  Detroit Public Schools should have one focus — dramatically improving student achievement.  Every decision coming from the central office should be proceeded by the question, how does this impact student performance?  The hiring of teachers and principals.  The adoption of textbooks.  The selection of instructional programs.  The introduction of technologies and supplemental education.  School build repairs.  Scheduling.  Course offerings.  Professional development.  Every aspect of school operations should focus on the customer (the student) and how to deliver a better product (an education) to that customer.  If an expenditure or a decision is not going to improve the quality or effectiveness of learning, it is likely not needed.
The citizens of Detroit need to see this as an opportunity.  Those voices across the nation calling for school reform and innovation need to see this as an opportunity.  The teachers and students of DPS need to see this as an opportunity.  Bankruptcy filings mean you are not bound by what has happened in the past.  You get a new start, an opportunity to do things differently and take the right steps forward.  It is a chance to succeed when success had been out of grasp for so long.  While many will try to steer Detroit back into its past ways, Bobb needs to keep his eyes on the prize and focus on the end game.  Forget what has been done and focus on what Detroit’s students need to succeed.  We are approaching a new era for Detroit Public Schools.  Here’s hoping it is an era of the new and the innovative, and not a retrospective visit to an era that has failed far too many Detroit students.

Bill Gates: Ed Reformer in Chief

This morning, Bill Gates addressed the National Conference of State Legislatures.  This was a little more than just an address.  Gates’ remarks have the possibility of being the education reform equivalent of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.  In riffing on everything from teacher quality to charter schools, college preparedness to data systems, Gates laid out a passionate call to arms for school improvement.  In doing so, he demonstrated that the Gates Foundation is more than just a checkbook, it is beginning to lay out a vision for K-12 improvement.

Rather than summarizing Gates’ words, let’s just go right to the horse’s mouth — Gates’ speech to NCSL. 

Thank you for that kind welcome. And thank you for offering me this chance to talk with you as you face big decisions for your states and our country.

These are not ordinary times. We’re in a severe economic downturn—and you, as state legislators, may have a more complete picture of the impact of this recession than anyone else in the country. You are forced to balance your budgets, even as the recession increases your expenditures and cuts your revenues. Your constituents are losing their jobs, their savings, and their homes—and everywhere you go, people are asking you to make it better.

This is a painful time.

But difficult times can spark great reforms—and changes we can make now can help us come out of the downturn stronger than when we entered.

We’ve been in an economic crisis for a year or so. But we’ve been in an education crisis for decades. As a country, our performance at every level—primary and secondary school achievement, high school graduation, college entry, college completion—is dropping against the rest of the world.

In college graduation rates, we are now 10th among industrialized nations—down from number one. If that is a leading indicator, I don’t like where it’s leading.

But this performance is not a fair measure of our country’s energy, effort, or intelligence. It’s a reflection of weak systems run by old beliefs and bad habits.

In these circumstances, a crisis can work as a pivot. It can give us the traction to leave behind bad habits—to start something new and better…

…. if you’re willing to do it.

You are the authorizers and appropriators of school reform in America. The president and the Congress can make recommendations—and they have passed a stimulus package with billions of dollars you can spend to advance school reform—but ultimately, you decide.

I hope you decide to accelerate reform, because America is changing.

African-American and Hispanic-American youth represent a rising share of our workforce. Success in this century will depend on how well America does what we have so far done very badly: give low-income and minority students a world-class education.

That’s what I want to talk with you about today. The $100 billion in education stimulus money should do more than stimulate the economy. It should stimulate us to rethink the way we run our schools. We need to make achievement more measurable, and the system more accountable, so we can get dramatically higher numbers of Americans to and through college.

America is a land of staggering opportunity. But if you want to make the most of this opportunity, high school is not enough, and some postsecondary is no longer enough. If you want to have the skills to build a career, or the resources to raise a family, you need a two-year or four-year degree. You need to complete college. Yet college completion rates in the U.S. have been flat since the 1970s.

Our foundation has set a goal to dramatically increase the numbers of young people who complete a postsecondary degree or credential with value in the marketplace. We hope you will set a similar goal in your states.

The first step toward this goal is to find out which colleges are doing a good job—and which innovations are making the biggest difference.

The institutions and innovations that are getting great outcomes should be expanded. Those that aren’t should be changed or ended.

To do this, we need to measure what matters. We need to know what the students learn, and what jobs they get. We need to know why students of some community colleges do better in the job market than others. Why minority students at some colleges take longer to earn a degree than similar students elsewhere. We don’t know the answers. We’re not even asking the questions.

I understand that there are challenges in developing fair measurements—but colleges are not entitled to escape scrutiny at a time of a plunging educational performance and permanent fiscal pressure.

Without measurement, there is no pressure for improvement.

 As we push to measure performance, the second step is to make an important shift in the incentive system: We should ensure that state funding, financial aid, and other incentives reward the institution when students make progress toward a degree, not just when they enroll.

Financial incentives for completion can encourage colleges to offer schedules that make more sense for students who have to work. They can encourage colleges to offer courses and counseling that guide students toward explicit job goals. They can encourage colleges to make more innovative use of technology—to use online lectures that students can watch anytime, anywhere.

This would help colleges—many of which are facing both funding cuts and enrollment spikes—to serve more students at higher quality and lower cost.

With the right incentives, more colleges will make these changes and help many more students complete their programs.

I would urge the legislators here to start the push to greater measurement by asking the colleges and universities in your districts to publish their graduation rates. In the future, we should also be able to publish data not just on completion, but on how many of those with degrees get professional credentials and are hired into good jobs.

Greater measurement, more public attention, and smarter financial incentives will spark innovation that can make a dramatic difference in the number of students who get a postsecondary credential with value in the workplace.

Of course, the most important step in helping students complete college is ensuring that they graduate from high school ready for college. 
While the rest of the world has been raising their high-school graduation rates, U.S. rates have not improved for 40 years.

More than 30 percent of our students drop out before graduating from high school. For minority kids, it’s nearly 50 percent. Among those who do graduate, most are not ready for college.

Those statistics are appalling. If all you knew were these numbers, you’d be pretty demoraliz
ed. But this is a composite picture, and it hides some really exciting successes.

In fact, whenever I get discouraged about public education, I go visit some exceptional schools to see how great they can be. I recommend you do the same thing. It will give you a burst of optimism.

Last year, I went to Texas, walked into a classroom, sat down, and thought: “What’s going on here?” The energy was so high I thought, “I must be in a pep rally or something.” The teacher was running around, scanning the classroom, pulling in every kid, putting things up on the board. It was a very exciting class.

I was at a KIPP School. KIPP stands for the “Knowledge is Power Program.” Eighty percent of KIPP students are low-income kids; 95% are Black or Hispanic. Among eighth graders who have gone to one of 30 KIPP middle schools for four years, average percentile scores jumped from 31 to 58 in reading; and 41 to 80 in math.

KIPP Schools are amazing, but they are not isolated examples. There are public schools and charter schools serving some of the most disadvantaged students in the country and getting astounding results.

In my experience, when you find a stunning success—you let it grow.

Unfortunately, states are putting caps on the number of these high-performing schools. Why do we want to put caps on the greatest success stories in American education?

Caps should be lifted for charter school operators who have a proven record of success—and charters should be offered the same per-pupil funding as other public schools. As you know, a relatively small percentage of schools are responsible for a high percentage of the dropouts. We can make dramatic advances by replacing the worst schools with high-performing charters —operated by organizations with a great track record.

This is not just to benefit the students who attend charter schools; this is to benefit all students. Charter schools are where many of the new discoveries are coming from—the value of the longer day, giving teachers data on student performance, and the huge advantage from having a critical mass of effective teachers in one school.

Charter schools, in my view, have been the lead researchers in the most important recent finding in the field of school reform. Namely: The most decisive factor in student achievement is the teacher.

Our foundation has studied the variation between the teachers who get the most student achievement and those who get the least – and the numbers are absolutely unbelievable. A top quartile teacher will increase the performance of an average student—based on test scores—by 10 percentile points in a single year. What does that mean? That means that if the entire U.S., for two years, had top quartile teachers, the entire difference between us and Japan would vanish.

So, when you see the power of the top quartile teachers, you naturally think: We should identify those teachers. We should reward them. We should retain them. We should make sure other teachers learn from them.

But we don’t identify effective teachers and reward them. We reward teachers for things that do not identify effective teaching—like seniority and master’s degrees. And we don’t reward teachers for the one thing that does identify effective teaching—great performance.

If you guided your students to great accomplishments last year, that’s the best indication that you’re going to do it again next year.

Even in the earliest grades where the effects of class size are strongest, students get five times the gain from having an effective teacher as from having a small classroom.

No factor advances student achievement more than an effective teacher. So a true reformer will be obsessed with one question: “What changes will improve the quality of teaching, so every student can have an effective teacher?”

We need to take two enabling steps: we need longitudinal data systems that track student performance and are linked to the teacher; and we need fewer, clearer, higher standards that are common from state to state. The standards will tell the teachers what their students are supposed to learn, and the data will tell them whether they’re learning it. These two changes will open up options we’ve never had before.

We’ll be able to reward teachers for raising their students’ achievement. We’ll be able to pay the best teachers more for teaching in low-income schools. We’ll be able to see what successful teachers are doing, and use that to give targeted help to other teachers. This will increase the average quality of teaching dramatically – and that will be a fantastic thing for pupils at the top, the middle, and the bottom.

Fortunately, the state-led Common Core State Standards Initiative is developing clear, rigorous common standards that match the best in the world. Last month, 46 Governors and Chief State School Officers made a public commitment to embrace these common standards.

This is encouraging—but identifying common standards is not enough. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards.

Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced that $350 million of the stimulus package will be used to create just these kinds of tests—next-generation assessments aligned to the common core.

When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better. Imagine having the people who create electrifying video games applying their intelligence to online tools that pull kids in and make algebra fun.

There can also be—and there should be —online videos of every required course, taught by master teachers, and made available free of charge. These would help train teachers. They would help students who need some review or just want to get ahead. Melinda and I have used online videos when we’ve helped our own kids on some of their school work. They are phenomenal tools that can help every student in the country—if we get the common standards that will encourage people to make them.

If your state doesn’t join the common standards, your kids will be left behind; and if too many states opt out—the country will be left behind. Remember—this is not a debate that China, Korea, and Japan are having. Either our schools will get better—or our economic position will get worse.

Common standards define what the students need to learn; robust data systems tell us whether they’re learning it—and they tell us a whole lot more than that.

Most data on student performance today comes in the form of a snapshot. We know only how students did on a test at the end of the year—we don’t see the progression; we don’t have much context, and the information comes too late to improve the teaching.

In postsecondary schools, our information is even worse. Current federal data systems track only graduation rates for full-time students who are enrolled for the first time—but that’s a minority of our postsecondary students.

The stimulus package contains funding for longitudinal data systems; I hope you will use this funding to support systems that track student performance from early childhood education through high school and college and into the workplace. Student performance should be linked to the teacher and the curriculum and the instructional tools. It should let us know what the best schools and teachers are doing differently and what kind of teacher training promotes student achievement. It should help us improve college completion rates, and determine what curriculum leads to career success.

According to the Data Quality Campaign, 47 states have adopted portions of a strong data system, but we still have a long way to go. There is a big gap between the data that states are gathering and the data they need to have to answer important policy questions.

There are dozens of different data points a state could use to define aspects of student and teacher performance. That difference is compounded across 50 states and the federal government. And states use different products that manage that data in different ways – so states can’t compare their results to see what works best.

All states and districts should collect common data on teachers and students. We need to define the data in a standardized way, we need to collect all of it for all of our students, and we need to enter it in something cheap and simple that people can share. The stimulus bill includes competitive grant funding for these efforts. I hope you make use of it for the people in your state.

In the coming year, our goal is to partner with state education leaders, the Secretary of Education, and others to advance the field so that policymakers and educators demand standardized data—not just for compliance, but for improving student achievement.

Of course, if you do build this system and get this data, you may have to deal with people who don’t want you to use it.

Last year the New York legislature passed a law that says you can’t consider student test scores when you make teacher tenure decisions. That was a strategic win for people who oppose reform – because no real reform will happen until we can evaluate teachers based on their students’ achievement.

I understand the legitimate concern of teachers who point out that, without the right design, teacher measurement systems based on student performance could seem arbitrary.

But without them, we won’t be able to identify our best teachers, reward them, help others learn from them, or deploy them where they’re most needed. We won’t be able to see what curriculum, instructional tools, and teacher training work best.

The solution is not to block teacher evaluations. The solution is to work with teachers who are eager to help build measurement systems that are transparent, that make sense, that lead teachers to say: “This works. It’s fair. It helps me become a better teacher.”

These systems would include test scores, but they would also involve classroom observation, parent and student surveys, and video taken in the classroom.

We’ll know we have the answer when teachers are eager to see the data, to see how their kids are doing and find out what worked. The stimulus package provides funding that could be used to build these kinds of measurement systems. I hope you make the most of it.

My big hope is that some states will establish these systems over the next three to four years, and their success will help spread them to other states. No single initiative could do more to get every student a good teacher.

Over the past ten years, Melinda and I have dedicated a large share of our foundation’s resources to the cause of school reform. We believe America’s greatest promise is in its commitment to equality—and fulfilling that promise demands strong public schools.

This responsibility—to a great extent—lies with you.

I’m asking you to draw on the stimulus funding to do two things:

  1. Embrace common standards and data systems so we can know where we stand and how to move forward.
  2. Raise the quality of teaching by measuring teacher effectiveness, encouraging innovation, and spreading best practices.

I know you’ll face pressure if you push for reform.

But I want to ask you to consider two different schools. In one school, student achievement is low, morale is low, and nothing ever changes—because nobody expects anything better. In the other school, minority students from low-income families take the toughest classes, get the best teachers, and go on to get college degrees.

Both kinds of schools exist in America. How many of each depends on you. 
 
You could be tempted to shrug off this responsibility if the schools in your district are pretty good. But America’s schools are not pretty good, and they’re your schools too.

This is a national challenge.

It doesn’t really matter whether you are driven by an ethical commitment to equal opportunity or by a long-term economic vision for the country. Both lines of reasoning lead to the same conclusion. We need to measure progress. We need to hold teachers and schools accountable. We need to give all students a chance to make the most of their lives.  

Real Improvement or Student “Creaming” in DC?

What exactly is happening with K-12 transformation in our nation’s capital?  Last week, DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced that reading and math scores in the District improved for the second year in a row, with nearly half of DC’s elementary students scoring proficiency or better on the standardized test.  Two years ago, just more than a third of such students were posting such scores, allowing one to clearly proclaim that the past two years have resulted in test scores on the rise.

Buried under the test scores lede was that fewer DC schools made adequate yearly progress, or AYP, this year.  Just 27 percent of DCPS schools made AYP, compared with 31 percent last year.  And that is after Rhee closed 15 of the poorest-performing schools in the first place.
So how do scores go up, but AYP declines?  Rhee herself provided us insight into how DCPS can improve yet do a poorer overall job.  By teaching testing strategies, targeting “low-hanging” fruit students who could make one-year gains, and conducting that dreaded “teaching to the test,” DC schools were able to focus on the immediate gains.  And before one gets too critical of Eduflack’s choice of words, look at Rhee’s own word choice here.  “Low-hanging fruit” is her description for DCPS’ new targeted approach to learning.
Let me be very clear here.  I want to see DCPS and Michelle Rhee succeed.  For too many years, for too many generations of students, DCPS has failed the people of Washington, DC.  The hearty embrace of the status quo has not worked in DC.  Increasing per-pupil expenditures, yet spending on failed programs, has not worked.  Focusing on the inputs, while trying to divert attention from the outcomes, has not worked.  Denying students most in need access to the schools, teachers, materials, instruction, and attention they need has not worked.
Without question, DCPS needed a revolution.  It needed a new way of thinking, a new way of acting, and new way of measuring success.  It needed a way to harness all of its educational experiments — charters, vouchers, TFA, NLNS, and everything in between — to determine what works and what doesn’t.  And it needed a new sheriff who was beholden to no one but the students she was trying to serve.
In donning the badge, the new DCPS sheriff has been granted powers and authority that previous superintendents simply have not received.  She’s acted quickly, shutting down failing schools, removing failing principals, and seeking to do the same to struggling teachers.  She added a new “return on investment” approach to public education, calling everyone’s attention to the bottom line — results.  And she has done so successfully.
But in cherry picking that “low-hanging fruit,” Rhee has forgotten her responsibility to all of the students of the District.  Increasing test scores is important, yes, but at what cost?  Do we sacrifice real learning to hit the magic number on one test administered each winter?  Do we sacrifice the majority of students to focus raising scores for the one quartile most likely to show improvement based on statistical models?  Is the school day for learning or test prep?  Does an increased score for some on the DC-CAS substitute for improved high school graduation rates and for the acquisition of the knowledge and skills all DC students will need to succeed?  What about those teachers who are not teaching the “chosen group” of students who get the added push to improve?  Are they to be held responsible because they drew a classroom that didn’t make the cut for the added resources and attention?  Instead of making a high-quality public education a right for every DC student, have we really reached the point where it is acceptable to leave significant segments of the student population behind because it is too hard to improve their scores on the standardized tests?
Yes, all of this may be a bit of an overreaction.  DCPS should be proud that it has raised scores for the second year in a row (personally, I expected a small slippage in the numbers this year, the result of year two weariness and the ongoing battle between Rhee and the teachers union).  But we should be troubled that fewer schools are hitting AYP, particularly after already closing the worst of the bunch.  In a city of haves and have nots, we run a real danger of building a class system in the public schools, where some students are on the path to potential, and others are simply just running out the clock.
Such problems are compounded with Mayor Fenty’s decision to cut funding for the independent assessor who was to evaluate the success of Fenty and Rhee’s transformation of DCPS.  With so many changes, reforms, and innovations underway, with so many dollars being spent and additional dollars potentially coming in, with scores rising yet few knowing exactly what to attribute the increases to, an independent assessment is exactly what the DC Public Schools needs.  We need an impartial third party to come in and determine what is working and what isn’t.  We need a review of policies and procedures.  And we need a true vetting of the data to ensuring that such gains are real and sustaining, and aren’t simply a spinning of the numbers or a fancy card trick that can’t be replicated or sustained with all of DC’s young people.
For the sake of all of the students in all of DC’s 128 schools, let’s give Rhee the benefit of the doubt.  Student proficiency in reading and math is increasing.  The achievement gap is narrowing.  The reforms are taking hold and having effect.  And even those efforts targeting “low-hanging fruit” are nothing more than phase one of an effort to do the same for all students, better preparing all for the rigors of more rigorous and comprehensive assessments down the road.  These are the first steps in a true revolution to improve the quality, access, and impact of education for all DC students.  Now we just need to make sure they continue to move onward and upward for years three, four, five, and beyond.
Yes, let’s trust Rhee.  But let’s do so with independent reviewers scrutinizing what’s happening under the DCPS hood.  Trust … but verify, if you will.