Racing to the Top?

Back in March, everyone held high hopes for the billions of dollars moving from the feds to the states through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF).  Since the release of the economic stimulus package, EdSec Arne Duncan has focused on the need for innovation and improvement, improvement and innovation.  So much so that you’d think that SFSF was actually funding innovation and improvement.

Unfortunately, a recent GAO study has found that SFSF funds are not exactly going to the sort of innovation and new programs we originally dreamed about a few months ago.  Short-term stimulus dollars are going to plug existing holes and, in most places, are going to fund teachers and other long-term, non-discretionary school expenses. 
So it is no wonder that attention has no turned to the Race to the Top (RTT) Fund and all of the new dollars that will be directed to the states to improve student achievement and break the chains of the status quo in public education.  RTT is seen as the latest in big dollar federal education programs, the latest sugar daddy in a long and distinguished line.
The current talk is that the draft RTT RFP will be released by the end of the month (july 31), followed by a short public comment/review period.  By fall, states will be busily assembling their RTT applications, with most seeking the big dollars to turnaround low-performing schools and introduce their struggling school districts to the ideas of innovation and improvement.  If the plan holds, RTT dollars will be delivered by those ED armored trucks by the end of January 2010.
Obviously, the SEAs are going to be asked to address ED’s four pillars of policy: 1) standards and assessment; 2) data systems; 3) teacher quality; and 4) school turnaround.  The RFP is likely to look like those states addressed with Reading First nearly a decade ago the supposed proposals they were asked to provide on SFSF earlier this year.  States will pledge to improve student performance and close the achievement gaps.  They’ll promise to track their progress.  They’ll prioritize the lowest performers and the historically disadvantaged.  And they will have plans, boy will they have plans.
But how can ED make sure that the SEAs are truly going to focus on outcomes, and not simply to inputs?  How do we move from plans to results?  How do we hold SEAs accountable for their promises, ensuring that RTT dollars are actually resulting in student achievement and gap closures?  How do we guarantee that RTT leads to return on investment, with state and local actions charting a course for scalable improvements and innovations that chart the course for the wholesale turnaround that Duncan is looking for?
And how do we do so on the current timetable?  Offering a few weeks during the summer for public comment and review is likely to stretch beyond the planned timeline, extending into the fall.  If past experiences are any guide, the execution of RTT will take longer than expected.  States won’t get the funds until the spring of 2010, after spending for the FY2010-2011 budgets have already been determined.  That means that fast-tracked RTT funds won’t make their way until our schools until the 2011-12 school year.  Two more school years may pass before our local decisionmakers have real dollars in their hands to implement the improvements and innovations Duncan and other officials at ED are calling for now.  Two more years of status quo and mediocrity.  Two more years of our most struggling schools and students muddling through a system that has failed them to date.
So how do we rectify the two?  How do we serve as responsible stewards of new funding while demanding real results from the get-go?  How do we get new dollars into the field as fast as possible, while avoiding the implementation problems of the past?  How do we use RTT to bring about real, meaningful change instead of just continuing the status quo?
There is a great deal riding on RTT.  For many out there, we are looking for this new funding program to bridge the gap between innovative rhetoric and status quo action.  For many, RTT serves as the blueprint for charter schools, alternative certification, improved teacher quality, and data systems.  It will move us from the bare minimums of the adequate in AYP to the higher expectations of student achievement for all.  It is a way for districts in need to break the pattern that has resulted in decades of struggles, providing them the opportunity to do what is new and what will actually change school outcomes for the better.  
Is that what we will see at the end of the month?  Is that what we will see in the final RFP after key stakeholders get to weigh in and have their say?  Currently, Duncan is riding the wave as the reigning Mr. Congeniality in education.  At some point, he will have to take a hard stand that results in some stakeholders disliking him or getting frustrated with the policy borne of the rhetoric.  The big question is whether he will frustrate the reformers or the status quoers.  Will RTT result in the innovation we’re all talking about, or will it support the same old-same old that SFSF is propping up?  The end of the month will be a telling road marker.  Using the bully pulpit is easy.  Moving that vision into policy and funding programs is hard.  

341 thoughts on “Racing to the Top?

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