How Valuable Are the Race Fire Drills?

In recent months, we have seen state departments of education and state legislatures scurry to make themselves eligible and better positioned to win a federal Race to the Top grant.  From knocking down the firewalls between student performance data and teachers to smoothing the path for charter school expansion to adopting common core standards to just demonstrating a hospitable environment for education reform and change, states have been doing anything and everything to gain a better position for the Race. 

Earlier this week, Michigan announced sweeping reforms to put them in line with the federal requirements.  California is currently debating similar positions (with what seems like growing concerns).  And we seem genuine changes in reform culture in states like Indiana, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and many others along the way.  (Every state, that is, except for the Republic of Texas, which as of yesterday still hasn’t committed to even pursuing RttT, despite the $250K it received from the Gates Foundation to prepare its application.)

But one has to ask, is it another tale of too little, too late?  In November, the U.S. Department of Education released a comprehensive scorecard of how RttT applications would be scored, breaking down allotments so specifically that it included everything but throwing out the low score from the Ukrainian judges.  Every state is working off the same 500-point scale, building a workplan that aligns as closely with Arne Duncan’s four pillars as humanly (or bureaucratically) possible.  We’re working toward extra points for STEM and for charter schools and for demonstrating a general culture of reform.  And we’re growing more and more mindful of how those points break down, recognizing, for instance, that STEM and charters are worth virtually the same score as turning around low-performing schools.

Often overlooked in the discussion, though, is the fact that 52 percent of a state’s RttT application is supposed to be based on past accomplishment and achievement.  So for all of those states who just recently removed the caps and changed the charter laws, will they only earn half-credit for their plans for the future, or do we recognize them for the intent of their efforts?  What about those states, like California, New York, and Wisconsin, that are just now taking down those data firewalls?  Are they out of luck when it comes to evaluating their past performance?  And will ED reviewers really dock Texas 80 points (nearly 15 percent of the total score) for not signing onto common standards, when Texas’ state standards may already be closely aligned with where the NGA/CCSSO effort is ultimately headed?  Is the 52/48 split a hard-and-fast rule, or is it meant as a guiding suggestion to states to shape how they write they apps, with ED officials hoping to see equal focus on what states have done in these areas and what they are planning to do in the future?

If we believe the former, we are looking at a very, very select group of states that are qualified to win RttT in the end.  How many states come to the table with real, tangible, and longitudinal successes on all four of the pillars of Race?  How many can really talk about their strong work in effective data systems?  How many have really invested in meaningful teacher quality efforts, including state-led teacher incentive pay programs?  How many are doing what their legislatures and SEAs have now committed them to do in the future (and more importantly, how many can prove it)?

If the projections are true, 80 percent of states will be submitting their Phase One applications later this month.  If we are lucky, we’ll have more than four states actually win in Phase One.  (that, my friends, is where Eduflack is setting the Phase One over/under)  What will happen to those states that either are not called for oral defenses in March or fail to wow their dissertation panels?  Do those states go back to the drawing board, and try to turn around a winning app in 30-60 days, or do they lick their wounds, move on, and say they never really wanted the grants in the first place?

Only time will tell.  Regardless, Race has been effective for the enormous influence it has had on changing state laws and policies without doling out a single dollar to support the changes.  We have already changed the culture of public education in the last 12 years, at least in terms of regulation and legislation.  If a state fails to win the Race, they are unlikely to go back and reinstitute the firewalls, re-restrict charters, or pull out of the common core standards movement.  Maybe that was the intent all along …

344 thoughts on “How Valuable Are the Race Fire Drills?

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