Raising the Gates on Teacher Effectiveness

As most know by now, yesterday the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation officially named the four school districts that will share in the coveted “Deep DIve” prize.  Originally billed as a $500 million endeavor, we learned yesterday that the four winners are now sharing in $335 million grant money.  Hillsborough County Schools in Tampa, FL received $100 million; Memphis, TN secured $90 million, Pittsburgh took in $40 million; and five charter school systems in Los Angeles (including Aspire and Green Dot) picked up $60 million to fund teacher quality and effectiveness efforts.  A full article on the announcement can be found in this morning’s Washington Post here.  And Stephen Sawchuk has a particularly good writeup of the decision over at EdWeek here.

In addition to the district awards, Gates is committing another $45 million to determine how one actually measures teacher effectiveness, an important rubric as most states now scurry to meet the high-points expectations of the teacher quality section of the Race to the Top RFP.  Details to come, Eduflack guesses.
I’ll leave it to the experts to determine the efficacy of these four winning applications, how soon we should see results, and how we’re actually measuring such results in the first place.  These districts are wading into relatively unknown waters at this point, at a time when too many people are defining teacher effectiveness based solely on student test scores.  A lot of eyes will be on these districts, which represent a pretty good cross-section of the challenges facing public education across the nation.  All we needed was a good urban district, and we’d have our little model U.S. public school system.
But the announcement begs three questions.  For nearly a year now, we’ve been hearing how Gates was committing a half a billion dollars to this effort, with WaPo even stating that this investment is on par with the discretionary moneys that Duncan and company are spending over at ED.  So where is the remaining $125 million going?  Is that money that will be spent on this topic at a later date, either to replicate the promising practices found in the winning districts or to further engage in national explorations of measurement and tracking?  Or is this a scale back in overall investment, with Gates already looking to move some of this funding to new priorities and new areas of interest?
Second, why, exactly, did Omaha drop out of the running as it was approaching the final tape?  Did it read the handwriting on the wall and think it would be the only partygoer left without a seat come announcement day?  Did the school district have a change of heart?  Or was it as simple as the “financial constraints” argument they offered EdWeek, where they found that accepting the grant would mean all sorts of additional costs and investments they just weren’t prepared for (a realization that far too many aspiring RttT states still have yet to internalize)?  And if it was an issue of financial constraints, how much are each of the winning districts expected to bring to the table themselves in order to enjoy the dollars being showered by those well-meaning ed reformers from the Pacific Northwest?
And finally, how will this Gates money complement, intersect, or interfere with the $100 million that the Ford Foundation is investing to transforming secondary education.  A big chunk of that money is going to investigate similar issues of teacher quality, both in terms of preparedness and effectiveness.  The American Federation of Teachers is one of the early beneficiaries of this stream of Ford support.  Is there the possibility of collaboration in struggling urban districts like Memphis, or will this become a territorial thing.
It will be interesting to see some of the early returns coming in from the Gates Deep Dive, particularly in Memphis.  Somehow, this city has quickly become ground zero for education reform.  Memphis City Schools is one of the central components to New Leaders for New Schools’ EPIC program, funded through federal TIF dollars.  Tennessee is a clear frontrunner for RttT funding.  The state’s business community has recently moved a major education reform agenda forward.  And now they win a Deep Dive grant.  It’s a city with a strong union presence and many of the pitfalls of modern-day urban public education.  In short order, the glances of all ed reformers will soon be on Memphis, with expectations higher than ever before.

Just the Race Facts

For now, Eduflack is generally done opining about Race and what we should infer by the the final Race to the Top docs released by the U.S. Department of Education.  But there are some additional facts now out there that are worth consideration and thought.

First up, the final RttT docs are finally posted by ED (Interestingly, though ED seems to be using the RTT tag.  Good to know).  The final docs can be found here.
More importantly, though, we now know how much money each state can potentially receive.  Officials over at ED have divvied up our great 50 states (and DC and Puerto Rico) into five categories.  The $4 billion in Race money will be divided based on the following designations:
Category 1 — $350-$700 million
* California
* Florida
* New York
* Texas
Category 2 — $200-$400 million
* Georgia
* Illinois
* MIchigan
* New Jersey
* North Carolina
* Ohio
* Pennsylvania
Category 3 — $150-$250 million
* Arizona
* Indiana
* Maryland
* Massachusetts
* Missouri
* Tennessee
* Virginia
* Washington
* Wisconsin
Category 4 — $60-$175 million
* Alabama
* Arkansas
* Colorado
* Connecticut
* Iowa
* Kansas
* Kentucky
* Louisiana
* MInnesota
* Mississippi
* Nevada
* Oklahoma
* Oregon
* Puerto Rico
* South Carolina
* Utah
Category 5 — $20-$75 million
* Alaska
* Delaware
* District of Columbia
* Hawaii
* Idaho
* Maine
* Montana
* Nebraska
* New Hampshire
* New Mexico
* North Dakota
* Rhode Island
* South Dakota
* Vermont
* West Virginia
* Wyoming
Why are these categories important, when each state’s application will be judged on its own merits?  Do the math.  We have $4 billion total to distribute.  If we assume that half of states win (50 percent from each category) and each of those states received the mid-range of their category, we spend $1.05 billion on Category 1, $1.05 billion on Category 2 (awarding 3.5 states), $900 million on Category 3 (awarding 4.5 states), $940 million on Category 4, and $380 million on Category 5.  That’s $4.23 billion.  So for those good with numbers, less than half of all eligible states are going to win Race awards, and far less than half will win if states receive grants in the top half of their award range.  So again, we are back to planning on 15 or so states winning awards, unless we oversample Category 5 winners (who can demonstrate faster results with smaller grants).  
Now if only someone would tell us how many points, out of 500, it will take to win one of these prized grants …

The Race Officially Begins … Now

At 9 p.m. this evening, the starting gun for the Race to the Top officially started.  While many states are already laps into their applications (and many may even be running in the right direction), the U.S. Department of Education officially released the RFP, along with some interesting insights as to how applications will be scored moments ago.

So what are we looking at?  We’ve essentially whittled 80 pages of a draft RFP into an “easy-to-read” 14-page summary.  The four pillars of the Duncan regime remain the same (standards, assessments/data systems, teacher quality, and school turnaround).  To win, states must have no barriers to linking student achievement data to teachers and principals for the purpose of evaluation.  The timetable is as projected back in the early fall, with Phase One applications due in mid-January (to be awarded in April 2010) and Phase Two apps due June 1 (to be awarded September 2010).  But we’ve added two bidders’ conferences scheduled for next month in Denver and DC.  So there are some new factoids here.
In addition to the four pillars, RttT lays out six additional priorities:
* Comprehensive approach to education reform (an absolute priority)
* Emphasis on STEM (a comprehensive preference priority)
* Innovations for improving early learning outcomes
* Expansion and adaptation of statewide longitudinal data systems
* P-20 coordination, vertical and horizontal alignment
* School-level conditions for reform, innovation, and learning
Of these priorities, only STEM is worth extra points on the scoring, offering an all-or-nothing 15-point bonus to those states with both a clear record and clear plan for STEM education.  (That 15 points represents 3 percent of the total score.)  The others are general value-adds or reflected in other larger scoring buckets.  
So what does that overall scorecard look like?  What’s the rubric on which states will be evaluated?
States are working toward a max of 500 points (including STEM emphasis).  “State success factors” represent 125 points, or 25 percent of the total score.  These factors include how well the state’s reform agenda is articulated, whether the state has infrastructure to implement the agenda, and its ability to demonstrate success in raising student achievement and closing the achievement gap.  “Standards and assessment” is good for 70 points, or 14 percent, essentially measured by adopting common core standards and developing the assessments to measure against those standards.  “Data systems to support instruction” is worth 47 points (9 percent) and is focused on the longitudinal data systems all are talking about.  
“Great teachers and leaders” are worth 138 points, or a whopping 28 percent, and while it continues to focus on teacher quality and effectiveness, this time around it has a far greater emphasis on principal quality and effectiveness.  “Turning around the lowest-achieving schools” is worth only 50 points, or 10 percent of the total.   “General” collects the remaining 55 points (11 percent), with most points coming from ensuring conditions for high-performing charter schools “and other innovative schools.”  
As these 500 points are broken down, ED is giving slight emphasis to what states have already done (52 percent of the score), or their “Accomplishments” versus 48 percent of the score coming for “Plans” for the future.  So that’s an interesting wrinkle for those who are trying to build a new reform city on their old education hill.
In announcing the RFP, ED says it reviewed the nearly 1,200 responses (1,161, actually) that were submitted to the draft, and made changes reflecting the ideas put forward by those concerned citizens and groups.  But despite a 12-page document prepared by ED on the “major changes” that have been made to the RFP, the final looks remarkably similar to the original draft that sparked so much interested many months ago.  Yes, there are some changes, including the highlight that states should use multiple measures to evaluate teachers and principals.  School district buy-in also plays a larger role in the final than it did in the draft.  But while some of the definitions have changed, the overall goals, tenor, and vision remains whole.  It seems ED has clarified some of the gray areas from the first go-around, but hasn’t quite changed those issues that many found objectionable or fraught with potential problems.  Based on many of the comments Eduflack has read, there are going to be a significant number of disappointed organizations out there, even among the traditional ed reform circles.
So what do we make of all of this?  First off, it is clear that those with the dreaded teacher firewalls are going to have a hard time meeting the point threshold.  So California, Nevada, New York, and possibly Wisconsin may have some problems.  Signing on the dotted line for core standards is also a must, so Texas and South Carolina may be on the outside looking in as well.  But it seems ED has softened its overall approach to “my way or the highway,” making firewalls and common standards the only true non-negotiables for winning a grant.
Eduflack is most interested by the emphasis on accomplishments, though.  We’ve heard a great deal about what states are doing right now to better position themselves for Race.  The thought seems to be that a new coat of paint on the ole education system would provide more curb appeal and give the impression that a state is “reform minded.”  But with the final scoring, ED is making clear that Race states are those with both a strong track record on improvement and innovation and a desire to ratchet up current work to the next level.  This is not a start-up enterprise, with states needing to demonstrate a proven and ongoing investment in the four pillars prior to the RttT announcement.
And what does this mean for the total number of winning states?  We’ve heard everything from four or five total winners to upwards of 40 states getting a taste of the winner’s circle.  Based on the summary and documents circulating this evening, Eduflack suspects it will be somewhere in between.  In Phase One, we’re likely to see four or five winners, stacked mostly by those states in the Gates Foundation’s Top 15 list.  Phase Two will probably see another dozen or so, giving us 20 or so total winners.  Interestingly, there will be time for Phase Two applicants to see who wins Phase One and make some final changes to their apps before submitting in June.  (And we should also note that ED cites $4 billion available for RttT, with the remaining $350 million going to support the development of assessments aligned with core standards, funding that is being discussed at ED-sponsored public forums this month.)
Regardless, the 500-point scorecard is going to have many states (particularly those Gates-incentivized states that have been feverishly writing their apps believing the draft RFP would be final are going to be scurrying the next two months to revise and extend their remarks.  Teacher and principal quality is priority one, with strong explanation of state success factors a very close second.  The two represent more than half of the total score.  Standards, assessments, and data systems clock in for nearly another 25 percent.  School turnarounds are worth only 10 percent, with charter school conditions worth almost the same amount as overall commitment to turnaround efforts.  And those states that are already invested in STEM (like Colorado, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) need to take advantage of the 15 percent bump their track record provides.
How many points will it take to win the Race?  That’s to be determined.  We still don’t know what curve states will be scored on.  But at least
we are now clear on distance, terrain, and other Race conditions.  The gun has officially sounded …

Race-ing to Teacher Quality

Last week, Eduflack opined over at Education Week on the need to differentiate between incentivizing good teachers and incentivizing good teaching.  Essentially, we need to make sure that any incentives are not just given as a thank you to teachers, but are used to identify, catalog, and share the best practices that have made their teaching so effective.  The full piece can be found here.

In response, there was an interesting comment from Stephanie Hirsh, the executive director of the National Staff Development Council.  Hirsh wrote: “I suggest distinguishing between, individual, team, and school incentives, with a focus on the strategies that have the greatest impact on student learning and whole school success.  Let’s incentivize teachers from contributing to collaborative initiatives that lead to improvement both within and outside their classrooms: participating in school improvement decision making and processes; mentoring their less experienced colleagues; acquiring knowledge and skills that prepare them to be learning team facilitators and then serving in this position; and acquiring knowledge and skills that prepare to serve as instructional coaches and then serving the school in that role.”
These are interesting concepts, particularly as the latest State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF) education guidance continues to focus on the current federal definition of a highly qualified teacher, setting aside (for now) the opportunity to more accurately define what an effective teacher is and what high-quality teacher professional development may be (and more importantly what data points are needed to prove all of the above).  While we’d like to believe that plans are in the works to revisit HQT and the federal definition of effective teaching in the future, namely in ESEA reauthorization, it was clearly a missed opportunity to move the ball forward now.
But the ideas of how to best define effective teachers is not something everyone is waiting on.  Yesterday, Education Trust and the New Teacher Project released two new reports on how to increase teacher effectiveness efforts, particularly in state RttT applications.  EdTrust’s Fighting for Quality and Equity, Too and TNTP’s How Bold is “Bold”? provide some interesting food for thought on how to measure teacher effectiveness, as well as how to train, recruit, and retain those teachers that measure up against the rubric.
The EdTrust report, in particular, offers nine steps for states to consider as they pursue the Holy Grail of teacher effectiveness under expected RttT funds, including:
* Produce better information on teacher effectiveness
* Require clear teacher reports on teacher quality and equity
* Place information on teacher effectiveness in the hands of those who need it
* Require teacher evaluations to focus on effectiveness
* Write explicit policies that expect equitable access to effective teachers
* Eliminate state policies that sustain the status quo in local districts
* Produce incentives for effective teachers to work in high-needs schools
* Make certain that high-poverty districts and schools have what they need to attract and retain effective teachers
* Pump up the supply of talented teachers
Of course, the four-billion-dollar question is what, exactly, will states be asked to do with their Race applications?  Current chattering says that the final RttT RFP will be released by the U.S. Department of Education tomorrow.  When it comes out, there will be a robust discussion of what the final means for the ultimate awards.  If the RFP remains largely unchanged from the draft shared this summer, then we are back to the thinking that seven to 10 states are slated to win Race grants, putting more resources and higher expectations on those states.  If the RFP is significantly changed, as many believe it will be, then we are likely looking at a weaker RFP that will be targeted 30-35 grant winners, spreading the wealth around but limiting the federal resources going to a great number of priorities.
Assuming the latter for a second, will any state have the federal Race funds to actually adopt what EdTrust is calling for?  Let’s say 30 states win.  The average grant is $145 million.  Divide that by the expected four-year RttT period, and the average state gets $36.3 million a year.  Half of that goes to the LEAs for turnaround schools and teacher quality, meaning that approximately $9 million a year would be available to school districts in a Race state to invest in meaningful teacher quality efforts.  Is that anywhere close to enough to address the nine pillars that EdTrust offers up?  Is that enough to address just three?  And if it isn’t enough to deal with teacher quality in a meaningful, systemic, and long-term way, is it worth throwing the money at the issue in the first place?

Tale of the Tape — Anna, Fall 2009

A couple of times a year, I ask for Eduflack readers to provide me a personal indulgence as I report on the progress two of the greatest joys in my life — my son and daughter.  Many of you have read multiple reports on Miggy, my three and a half year-old son, but we’ve heard less about my two-year-old daughter Anna.

My princesa turned two about a month and a half ago.  Three weeks ago was the one-year anniversary of her arriving in the United States, when she became a U.S. citizen on October 17, 2008 as we touched down in Houston after a long 13-month process to bring her home from Guatemala.  For the last year, she has quickly adjusted to life in the edufamily, hearing English for the first time (for an extended period), getting used to her big brother (who is also her full biological brother), and learning how to wrap Eduflack around her prettiest of fingers.
This week, Anna went in for her two-year checkup.  She passed with flying colors.  So now for the tale of the tape.  Anna weighed in at 24 pounds, putting her in the 23rd percentile nationally.  She is 34 1/4 inches tall, putting her in the 65th percentile.  And she has a head circumference of 18 inches, again in the 23rd percentile.  (Personally, I am still wondering why we need to care about head circumference, but it seems to be a standard benchmark for child development.)
More importantly, her doctor said her speech is fabulous (without even considering she has only heard English for less than half of her life.)  And she was a brave girl, taking all her shots with “no cries.”
The eduwife and I also got to check in on Miggy and Anna’s preschool experience this week.  This fall, both kids enrolled in Temple Rodef Shalom Preschool, the best early childhood education program I could find in our neighborhood.  Miggy is enrolled in the five-morning-a-week program, and the early reports list him as imaginative, artistic, caring, and bright. He also give the “best hugs.”  Anna is enrolled two mornings a week and was tagged with being intelligent, independent, strong willed, and a leader.  I couldn’t be more proud of either of them (though I’ll reserve my thoughts on parent-teacher conferences for two-year-olds).   
When I look at both of my kids, reviewing their artwork from the school week, watching them “work” in my office alongside me, listening to my son tell terrific stories, and watching my daughter command a room, I see nothing but opportunity for both of them.  And I am reminded of why I became an education agitator in the first place, and why I continue to push in what ways I can to improve access to a high-quality education for all students.
And what better way to end a Friday afternoon than to see the smiling faces of my kiddos.

Reading Gaining Speed as Fed Priority?

With all of the talk about RttT, school turnarounds, and the like, we haven’t spent much time at all talking about core instructional issues.  As many schools continue to struggle reaching AYP and demonstrating the sort of student achievement we all expect (and that the federal law still demands), we just haven’t been focusing on the curricular foundations that help us get to our intended destination.  This is particularly true of reading instruction, which has been a red-headed stepchild in federal education policy for the past few years (ever since Congress defunded the Reading First program short of its intended completion date).

For the past year, those in DC who pay attention to reading instruction issues have been hearing grumblings about the next generations of Reading First, a new federal policy that would provide comprehensive reading instruction across grades kindergarten through 12.  We’ve seen working drafts circulated about town talking about a more “comprehensive” approach to reading, a greater emphasis on teaching techniques (and less so on instructional materials), and the possibility of a new definition of “scientifically based,” the one term that came to define RF, for good or bad.
But all has been quiet on the reading front for the past six months or so.  The closest we’ve gotten to talk about reading has been discussions of common core standards.  But after six years of making reading instruction in the elementary grades priority number one in school improvement, we’ve all but forgotten about reading.  (OK, most have forgotten.  Some of us have continued to tilt at windmills in search RF, the next generation.)
Now we finally have our answer.  Yesterday, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (WA) introduced the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation Act, or LEARN.  The bill summary looks remarkably similar to the working drafts being circulated around town earlier this year by folks like the Alliance for Excellent Education, the International Reading Association and others.  Among LEARN’s highlights:
* $2.35 billion in total funding for K-12 literacy instruction, with at least 10 percent going to early childhood education, 40 percent going to K-5 (RF’s sweet spot), and at least 40 percent going to grades 6-12.
* A new rigorous national evaluation of the programs being funded through LEARN (with a particular note of “stringent conflict of interest restrictions for the program’s peer review process,” a direct response to IG investigation into RF)
* A focus on state-based literacy programs (again similar to RF), focusing on leadership teams, a state literacy plan, subgrants to LEAs, focus on struggling schools, and attention to pre-service literacy instruction.  Interestingly, LEARN also includes language to help fund those districts doing well in reading, so they can continue improvements.
The bill summary offered by Senator Murray’s office also sets forward four key goals.  LEARN is intended to “support the creation of local high-quality literacy programs in schools by:

a) providing high-quality professional development for instructional staff that is job-embedded, ongoing, and research-based, providing teachers with expertise in literacy instruction appropriate to specific grade levels, analyzing data to improve student learning, and effective implementation of literacy instruction strategies; 
b) providing students with explicit, systematic, and developmentally appropriate instruction in reading and writing, including but not limited to vocabulary development, phonemic awareness, 
reading comprehension, and the use of diverse texts; 
c) utilizing diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments to inform and improve instruction and student learning at all age levels; and 
d) supporting schoolwide literacy programs and additional literacy supports to address the specific learning needs of struggling readers and writers, including English language learners and students with disabilities.” 

A similar bill is expected to be offered in the U.S. House of Representatives.  RIght now, LEARN is slated to move forward as an independent piece of legislation, not attached as part of ESEA reauthorization or any other similar bill.  Of course, if ESEA reauth does move quickly early next year (a hope Eduflack is quickly losing confidence in) it could easily be rolled into the larger bill.
So what are we to make of all this?  There is much good here, and much still to be determined, including:
* LEARN re-declares a federal commitment to reading instruction, putting billions more into supporting the advances made by many states and school districts under RF;
* It extends our commitment to reading beyond the previous grades K-4 to K-12, ensuring that all of those children who benefited from RF investments in recent years are now seeing similar commitments in middle and high school;
* It recognizes that reading instruction in those middle and secondary grades is essential to our national goals around high school graduation and college-going, and emphasizes that literacy instruction must continue throughout one’s academic career;
LEARN continues to emphasize the importance of professional development, an often overlooked piece of RF (where the law called for up to 25 percent of RF’s $6 billion be directed to PD and teacher training);
* It actually doubles down on the importance of professional development by specifically focusing on the pre-service needs of preparing teachers to teach reading; and
* It continues our emphasis on explicit, systematic, and developmentally appropriate instruction in reading.
And what remains TBD here?
* First and foremost, the money.  RF focused $6 billion on the elementary grades, and many are still questioning the effectiveness of the program and its impact.  As we expand the program to include early childhood education (likely swallowing what was Early Reading First), elementary grades (the old Reading First), and middle and high school grades (currently funded by the meager Struggling Readers program), we are now doing for more in federal reading instruction with significantly less money.  Does the proposed funding get the job done, or does it merely set things in motion, leaving it to SEAs and LEAs to find new funds to enact the comprehensive reading efforts needed.  It is frightening to say, but $2.35 billion, particularly if distributed K-12 to all 50 states, likely won’t be enough.
* It talks about instruction beyond vocabulary and phonemic awareness, but doesn’t specify a specific definition.  Some will read this as a repudiation of RF.  Others can see it as a continuation of those priorities, where phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension were the intended foci.  Both sides in the reading wars will be fighting to “redefine” what LEARN’s instruction is intended to focus on.
* It calls for diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments at all age levels.  An essential piece to education reform in the current era, without doubt.  But do we have such tests?  RF was limited by state assessments in grades 3-8, yes.  But after spending the past decade in the so-called “high stakes testing” era, do we have research-based, accepted diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments that can be used immediately in grades k-12?  Or a better question, do we have such assessments that all parties will agree on and use correctly?
* While there is mention of “research-based,” how will that be defined?  Clearly, the previous SBRR definition is going to be rewritten.  So how do we capture “research-based,” and how do we do it so that it means something, and isn’t merely a consensus definition that is acceptable by all, but loved by none?
* While I understand the reasons behind it, can we successfully use LEARN money to both raise reading achievement in struggling schools while incentivizing high-performing schools to continue their investment in results-based reading instruction?
* Most importantly, what are the intended outcomes?  If all of the points identified in Murray’s summary of LEARN are followed and followed with fidelity, what should we expect to see at the end of three or four years?
These are all questions that Murray and other legislators will be able to answer in the coming months as LEARN moves through the process.  Regardless, LEARN is a good next step for our federal reading instruction efforts.  Will make RF advocates happy?  No.  Will it satisfy RF critics?  Based on the summary, absolutely not.  But it may just have the right combination to continue to improve the acquisition of reading skills among students in grades K-12, while continuing to equip all teachers with the literacy instruction skills they need to lead a successful classroom.  It continues to focus on doing what works in the classroom, pursuing paths that are supported by the research and demonstrate effectiveness.  And it recognizes that school and student success hinges on a child’s ability to read at grade level, regardless of what grade they are in.
In an era where nearly two-thirds of all of our nation’s eighth graders are unable to score proficient or better on the eighth grade reading NAEP, LEARN is clearly much needed legislation.  Here’s hoping it doesn’t get lost in the push for Racing, Innovation, and such.  This is too important an issue not to be at center stage for school improvement efforts.

Teacher or Teaching Quality?

Over at Education Week this week, dear ole Eduflack has a commentary on current teacher quality efforts, asking the question if teacher quality (as primarily reflected in teacher incentive efforts) or teaching quality (such as the current push for improving teacher education) is the strongest path toward real, lasting school improvement.