Speaking Collaboratively on RttT

For months now, Eduflack has been asked the same question from a growing group of education policy observers and a great many of those who are looking to get out of the stands and into the game.  The question focuses on why a number of groups have been relatively silent on issues like the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, Race to the Top, and other new funding streams coming out of the U.S. Department of Education.

Typically, the query focuses on two groups — Education Trust and Democrats for Education Reform.  Is EdTrust just planning on transferring its status as NCLB cheerleader and chief over to RttT (somehow those folks seemed to miss the strong critique coming out of EdTrust during the stimulus debate)?  Or is EdTrust speaking no evil because Russlynn Ali is now over at ED?  Is DFER simply basking in the glow of having so many of its disciples named to ED posts?  Or is DFER simply measuring itself for NCLB 2.0 cheerleader skirts?
All of those questions were put to rest last night with a quick look over to the public comment postings for the draft RttT language.  In a strong, powerful statement, EdTrust and DFER, along with the Center for American Progress and the Education Equality Project, offered a detailed, thoughtful, and tough critique of RttT (and SFSF), making quite clear that we have far to go before we have “perfect” education reform and improvement policy.  The full statement can be found here.
The reform collaborative reminds us that, with all of the talk about reform and improvement, we can’t lose sight of those schools most in need, those “serving large numbers of low-income students, English-language learners, and students of color.”  And at a time when we are talking about using SFSF monies to backfill budgetary losses, the organizations are quick to point out that “the temptation to use State Fiscal Stabilization Fund and Race to the Top funds to get things back to normal must absolutely be resisted.”  In other words, using funds to get us back to the status quo is the wrong path to take.  Funding systems that result is only 40 percent student proficiency and a growing number of drop-out factories is simply not the way to improve and innovate.
The groups make several thought-provoking points:
* In our zeal to use data to determine and reward teacher quality immediately, we fail to acknowledge that we don’t have the information systems needed to deliver on the promise.  Such data systems are years and years away, yet the law could be using bad data or incomplete information to identify and reward “effective” teachers.  This is particularly true in schools and districts that serve historically disadvantaged students.  We just don’t have the data or the systems to collect the data to truly measure teacher effectiveness.
* Struggling schools are not stuck because they don’t know what to do.  We need to move off the notion of focusing on “the metrics only on the interventions made,” and instead be sure to require reporting of subsequent student achievement results.  In simpler terms, like its predecessors before it, RttT runs the risk of evaluating inputs and processes, and not outcomes and results.  And while the group acknowledges that ED is working toward fixing the problems of measuring high schools, the current proposal is still not adequate.
* While applauding the core standards movement, the collective notes that “better standards and better tests aren’t enough.”  Teachers need better curriculum, students need better instruction, and we all need better expectations.
* In addition to ED’s current focus on standards and assessments, real reform needs greater emphasis on college and career readiness.
As one would expect from EdTrust, DFER, and the like, the education thought leaders offer three specific recommendations for improving RttT language:
* Assure a stronger focus on equity by (a) asking states not just about the amount of funding in education, but also about the fairness of its distribution to high- and low-poverty and high- and low-minority districts and schools, and (b) asking states to document their efforts (required under federal law) to address gaps in teacher quality between high- and low-poverty and high- and low-minority schools.
* Ensure that higher education does its part by including a sign-off from the state’s chief higher education officer (or CEO of the public university system) on the RttT application.
* Bolster the evidence of progress in raising achievement and closing gaps requested of states.
When one takes a look at the more than 106 pages of RttT online comments (representing well more than 1,000 pieces of “input” provided from all sorts of groups with specific interests and self-interests in mind), it is easy to see many groups and individuals looking to defend their “turf.”  What makes this collaborative statement so interesting is that it isn’t about the four organizations who have lent their signatures to the final draft.  It is about improving teaching and learning for those students who need improvement the most.  While these reccs may not influence the final RttT guidance, they certainly should serve as a guide for how we can improve standards, assessment, data, and teachers as part of ESEA reauthorization and the future of education policy.
Kudos to DFER, EdTrust, CAP, and EEP for putting forward this draft and focusing on the bigger picture.  Rather than getting hung up in the weeds, they are offering a clearer, alternative path for improvement and innovation.  And these groups know of which they speak.

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