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.

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