Turning This Race Into a Relay

A year ago, many words and many more column inches were committed to ensure that any and all realized that education funding coming through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was a one-time deal.  States were originally discouraged from using State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars to pay teachers’ salaries, out of fear that that account will disappear as quickly as it appeared, thus leaving states looking for new funding to pay for essential educational services in two short years.

We may forget it now, but new competitive grant programs — Race to the Top and i3 chief among them — were part of the original ARRA funding.  We allocated $650 million to fund efforts to invest through innovation in our local school districts.  And we originally set aside $4.35 billion (now down to $4 billion, as $350 million has been pulled out specifically for data systems) to provide a select group of states big dollars to fund big changes in standards, teacher quality, school turnaround, and charters.

Today, the terms and conditions associated with RttT appeared to change.  This morning, President Obama announced his intention to seek an additional $1.35 billion in funding for the next generation of Race to the Top.  The preview story can be found in The Washington Post here, and Michele McNeil has the after-announcement reporting over at EdWeek here.   

Both pre- and post-coverage leaves us with some sketchy details.  Apparently, the intent is to provide additional Race funding for states, while also making dollars available to some school districts.  The LEA component makes sense, particularly if states like California and New York are unable to put forward a truly competitive RttT application.  This way, districts like Long Beach Unified and NYC can be rewarded for both their past efforts and future plans (fulfilling the RttT mission), while providing a path for future school districts to follow.

The state dollars become more interesting.  Is the intent to expand programs in worthy states, answering the call from states like Colorado who believe their alloted range of available dollars is too small to manage their ambitious plans?  Or is the intent to add another three or four states to the Race, expanding the total number of states and giving some the chance to revise their laws and their applications after the first two batches are released?  Eduflack has to believe the intent is the latter.  In fact, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the terms of a Phase 3 Race grant reduced the need to demonstrate “past achievement” and instead provided smaller total grants to those states who have made real changes to be Race compliant and forward thinking.

We’ve heard a lot about Race being the single-largest discretionary program in the history of the U.S. Department of Education.  Now, the President will request this additional $1.35 billion in his February budget.  And with that request, we should expect to soon see an annual budget line item for Race, with dollars either adding states or expanding programs along the way.  Next year, Race will likely be added to ESEA reauthorization (as Reading First was to NCLB , making the policy (and the dollars) part of the federal code for the next five to eight years.  And then we’ve gone from a one-time booster shot for innovation toward an annual vaccination against the status quo and the fear of change.

Don’t believe Eduflack?  Just take a look at the words of House Education Chairman George Miller, who told EdWeek, “By continuing Race to the Top, the federal government shows it can be a partner in reform and work to uphold the integrity of the program so that these resources are used as intended and help leverage change.”  This isn’t an in-and-out engagement as originally believed.  We are launching educational nation-building.

And while we anticipate the details and the specifics of this extension (along with waiting with baited breath to see the 30 or so RttT apps that will arrive at Maryland Avenue today, and the 10-12 states that will win this first Race by September), one thing remains certain.  As the lifespan of RttT is extended, there will be a far greater emphasis on demonstrating success and tracking return on investment.  The mission will not be accomplished just because the money was distributed and we all feel better about ourselves as a result.  SEAs and LEAs will need to demonstrate, by preponderance of the evidence, that RttT boosted learning, increased student achievement, closed the achievement gap, and improved the quality and effectiveness of teaching, particularly in historically disadvantaged communities.

By many calculations, Reading First (the previously largest discretionary program in ED history) failed at truly documenting the cause/effect of RF dollars and student test scores.  We now need to learn from what worked and didn’t with regard to RF assessment and accountability and build a better mousetrap for Race.  Four years from now, we don’t want to be left having spent $6 billion on RttT reforms, but no irrefutable way to measure the true effectiveness of the program. Ultimately, when it comes to RttT assessment, it must be trust … but verify.

The Weingarten Doctrine

For those who remember the early days, Eduflack was founded nearly three years ago to comment on how successfully (or unsuccessfully) we were communicating education and education reform ideas.  At the time, NCLB was a hot topic in many circles, Ed in 08 was committed to raise the profile of education issues in national campaigns, and changes in organizational leadership and new constructs of advocacy groups threatened to move education back onto the front pages.

But as a recent Brookings study has demonstrated, education stories simply aren’t capturing the hearts and minds of the media, let alone the residents of Main Street USA.  So Eduflack evolved with the times.  Rather than critique the scraps of media, I spend most of my time talking about the issues that merit discussion.  But we long for the good old days and our original mission.
This is particularly true of speeches.  As a former speechwriter (for members of Congress, members of presidential Administrations, and executives at Fortune 500 companies and leading non-profits), I greatly appreciate the written word.  I particularly appreciate capturing a speaker’s voice, gaining an audience’s attention, and delivering a real ask that results in a change of thinking or a change in behavior.  Unfortunately, such speeches are few and far between in education.  Yes, we occasionally get the Gingrich/Sharpton engagements brought by our friends over at the Education Equality Project, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.  EdSec Arne Duncan delivers a good speech, but pretty much sticks to the stump speech these days (with the true exception being the speech at the NEA last June).  President Obama can deliver a powerful ed reform speech, as he did at the National Academies of Science last spring on the topic of STEM, but those are rarities.  And if we spend time at many of the forums and discussions in DC and around the country, those “discussions” could be scripted and blocked out weeks ahead of time, with transcripts (including questions and answers) released before they are delivered.  For the most part, education rhetoric has grown stale, with us saying the same things to the same audiences with limited impact.  After all, what truly unique discussion can we have on topics like ARRA spending guidelines or RttT guidance.
But last week was one of those true exceptions.  Last Tuesday, before a packed house at the National Press Club, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten unveiled “a serious and comprehensive reform plan to ensure great teaching, taking on systems that have been ingrained in public education for more than a century.”  The full speech can be viewed here.
Over the last week, the field has seen some terrific analysis and critique of Weingarten’s remarks.  Eduflack is not going to add to the chorus.  Instead, we want to take a look at the “Weingarten Doctrine” as a communications vehicle, effective or not.
MESSENGER: From her days leading the UFT, Weingarten has cultivated a reputation as a reformer, one not set on defending the status quo.  While she may not be the most eloquent of public speakers, she is passionate about her issues and a true believer.  Since arriving in DC a year ago to take over the national union, she has laid relatively low.  She hasn’t made headlines and she hasn’t truly rocked the boat.  That changed on Tuesday.  Channeling both the late AFTer Al Shanker and the Randi of her early UFT days, Weingarten was a truly effective messenger on a topic (teacher quality and effectiveness) that has been longing for a strong voice from one of the two teachers’ unions.
MESSAGE: When we wait long enough for a strong voice on an important issue, our expectations get higher and higher.  Even with those sky-high expectations, Weingarten was able to deliver.  She didn’t seek an expected middle ground on the issue.  She didn’t try to defend the way things have always been.  She didn’t run interference for the status quo.  At a time when many think that teachers’ unions are the biggest obstacle to meaningful school improvement, Weingarten made clear that AFT is prepared to lead on the issue.
AUDIENCE: The AFT speech was delivered to a collection of the education blob, as membership organizations, advocacy groups, and those who influence (or pretend they influence) education decisionmakers.  By delivering this speech to this audience, Weingarten sought to reposition the AFT in the current ed improvement debate.  Most in attendance remember the days when the AFT fought the status quo.  This speech informed those stakeholders that the AFT of old is re-entering the game.
VENUE: To reach those stakeholders, AFT hosted the speech at the National Press Club.  This was probably the least visionary of AFT’s decisions.  This speech was to gain media attention, regardless of where it was held.  And while the NPC is a convenient venue for the DC chattering class, it provides a generic setting for a groundbreaking speech.  With school reform, we often forget the true customer — the student.  The backdrop of this speech would have been far more effective at a public school in the DC area.  And extra points could have been awarded for going out on a limb and talking about the new AFT at a charter school (a market that AFT covets for future membership).  Yes, you run the risk of using kids as props, but it is a powerful visual nonetheless.
POSITIONING: AFT was able to position the speech well with the media and key stakeholders alike.  The day before, AFT provided embargoed copies of the speech to select reporters, providing strong media coverage the morning of the speech.  Those pieces drove additional coverage that day, particularly within the ed blogger community.  So in a media environment that can be difficult to wrangle, AFT did a strong job of maximizing a speech, and a vision speech at that (since there was no news or results to really talk about).  Moreover, the AFT strategy seemed to box NEA out of the story, with the nation’s largest teachers’ union offering a “no comment” in the advance stories, assuring limited focus in the day-of coverage.
POLICY IMPACT: Without question, Weingarten’s speech made clear to the Obama Administration (and Duncan specifically) that Weingarten is ready, willing, and able to be part of the solution.  She all but endorsed the EdSec’s four pillars of ed reform, expanding his tent and grading the road ahead just a little bit.  It should be no surprise that the speech was delivered as the AFT (and the NEA) officially communicated to their states and localities that the unions were supporting Race to the Top in general, allowing the local unions to sign onto RttT application MOUs and have an impact on state ed improvement efforts in the coming years.
PRACTICAL IMPACT: Here we begin to see the unexpected consequences of rhetoric.  Immediately following the speech, the new superintendent of Houston ISD in Texas sought to use Weingarten’s words to alter the dynamic of his negotiations with the local union on measuring teacher effectiveness.  And Eduflack would be shocked if Michelle Rhee isn’t plotting the same thing in DC, using the speech to end her long stalemate with the Washington Teachers Union and seeking to do away with teacher tenure in our nation’s capital by moving Weingarten’s words into quick practice.  Those carefully crafted words could come b
ack to haunt some in the teachers’ unions.
THE LONG TERM: Ultimately, speeches are rhetorical devices. They are not hard-and-fast policy, nor are they promises we are often held to.  Weingarten’s remarks, in particular, lay out a vision for where we as a nation can go with regard to teacher quality and school effectiveness.  Addressing issues such as professional teaching standards, standards for assessing teacher practice, implementation benchmarks, and classroom supports, Weingarten has offered a blueprint for how teachers and teaching fit in the current school improvement environment.  But moving those words into the “Weingarten Doctrine” requires buy-in from federal, state, and local policymakers, from school leaders and practitioners, from business and community leaders, and from parents and teachers.  This is no small feat.  Delivering the speech is easy.  Moving the rhetoric to practice is hard.  Weingarten has planted the flag, now she needs to protect it and have others rally around it.  
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: And that leaves us with the “what nexts?”  How with NEA respond?  Will ED and the policy community see this as a starting point for negotiation or simply meet AFT as is and adopt these reccs as their own policies?  How will the rank-and-file teachers react to this shift in policy?  How will school districts beyond Houston seek to use this to negotiate new collective bargaining agreements and contracts?  Does this end the debate on linking student achievement to teacher evaluation, or does it simply turn up the volume?  Is this the prelude or the climax to the teacher quality discussion?  
Regardless, Weingarten (and her speechwriters) deserve kudos for a well-executed “event.”  The remarks moved AFT to the front of the discussion.  It positioned the union as part of the solution, as an organization committed to school improvement.  And it captured the attention of the chattering class, if even for only a news cycle or two.  Will it change the future of ed reform, no.  But it gives us some hope regarding the rhetoric, news, and ideas that may be possible in the near future.

Putting the R&D Back in Education

Without question, educators and policymakers alike are using the term “innovation” more today than they ever have.  If we look at the dictionary definition of the word, we are asking for “something new or different introduced.”  If we look at programs such as the Investing in Innovation, or i3, program, we are expecting “something new or different” that is proven effective, offering some sort of research base behind it, some sort of data to support it.

Throughout such discussions, conversations on education innovation are likely to focus on the use of education technology in the classroom.  It is an obvious avenue to pursue.  Most of us equate technology with innovation. From flat-screen TVs to iPhones to interactive whiteboards to search engines like Google, we see technology as innovation.  And for educators, moving that technology into the classroom is a likely extension of the innovation debate.
Over at ISTE Connects (www.isteconnects.org), the good folks at the International Society for Technology in Education are rolling out their Top Ten in ’10, a list of the most pressing education technology issues facing U.S. classrooms today.  In one of the most recent postings, they raise the issue of education R&D.  In calling for increased investment in ongoing research and development, ISTE notes that “solid investment in education R&D, particularly if focused on innovation in teaching and learning, ensures that we remain a global leader.”
Loyal readers of Eduflack know that this issue of education R&D has long been near and dear to my flickerin’ little heart.  When you compare education to other industries, particularly healthcare, our investment in research and development is but a microfraction.  We look to teachers and schools to innovate, but we don’t necessarily have the resources to do the all-out research to determine what innovations are the most effective, with what audiences do they work, and what are the most effective uses.  And unlike healthcare, we surely don’t have researchers out there developing instructional interventions for one issue, only to find that it works for something completely different.  So our R&D process becomes more like faith healing than Mayo Clinic.
Groups like the Knowledge Alliance (formerly NEKIA) have long fought to increase federal spending on education R&D.  And since the establishment of the Institute of Education Sciences six-plus years ago, we’ve seen greater attention focused on the research side of the R&D house.  In the last decade, we’ve made incredible progress in increasing the visibility of and the need for education R&D.  But we still have miles and miles to go before we can sleep.
Over the years, Eduflack has seen some truly incredible education R&D work, including the effective use of MRI scans to track a student’s literacy abilities.  For those who say that education is more art than science, all you need to do is check out an MRI as part of reading skills acquisition.  You can actually see brain activity change as students learn and gain proficiency.  It is absolutely incredible.
I recognize that reading instruction may be a little passé these days, so let’s look at topics such as teacher quality.  We have a wealth of research on the necessary components for effective teacher education programs.  It doesn’t matter if they are traditional or alternative routes, we know the skills, knowledge, and support that aspiring teachers need to be effective in the classroom.  So how do we take that research, continue to extend it, and apply it to current efforts to boost teacher quality and incentivize good teaching?  How do we ensure that research, a familiar topic in education, is actually connected with development, be it policy or instruction?
And equally important, how do we use the R&D process to ensure that those latest and greatest technologies are being effectively used in the classroom?  As I wrote earlier this week, EdWeek’s Kathleen Kennedy Manzo had an interesting piece on the use of interactive whiteboards in the classroom, and whether they actually improve learning.  So what does it take to move the research on how such technologies can improve both teaching and learning into the hands of those teachers and educators who receive the technology?  How do we use the R&D process to ensure that ed tech comes with the “manuals” necessary so that the end users can be most effective?
As part of its Top 10, ISTE (a group Eduflack has been fortunate to work with) is soliciting feedback from its members and other interested parties on how closely the ISTE list crosswalks with the concerns and needs of the field.  R&D has always been a tough sell to education practitioners.  They can see it as taking funds away from instruction or turning their classrooms into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.  But at a time when we are asking more and more of our schools, when resources are at a premium, when it is demanded we innovate, and when the teaching and learning opportunities offered by new technologies have never been greater, education R&D has quickly become a non-negotiable.  

Welcome to Mr. Jefferson’s U, Madame President

Big news coming out of Charlottesville this afternoon.  Today, the University of Virginia, Eduflack’s alma mater, officially announced that Dr. Teresa A. Sullivan would become the eight president of Mr. Jefferson’s University, following two decades of terrific leadership by John T. Casteen III.  Dr. Sullivan assumes the post August 1.

Sullivan brings the pedigree we would expect for the top public university in the nation.  She joins U.Va. after serving as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan.  She previously spent nearly 30 years at the University of Texas system, rising to the post of executive vice chancellor for academic affairs.  And for the record, she holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago (too bad it wasn’t from Virginia), with her scholarship focused on labor force demography.
She is going to have HUGE shoes to fill.  President Casteen has been one of those leaders that so many institutions dream about.  A steady hand at the helm for 20 years, Casteen kept U.Va. as a top public Ivy throughout his tenure, weathering massive budget cuts from the state.  With less than 10 percent of his funding coming from the Commonwealth, Casteen has continually grown the University, building new buildings, recruiting top professors, and strengthening the overall institutional brand.  He even had U.Va. football ranked number one in the country (albeit briefly).  And Casteen is a triple Hoo to boot (B.A., M.A., and Ph.D.).
But perhaps even more impressive are the two capital campaigns Casteen has led for the University, raising billions of dollars to ensure our position as one of the top universities in the nation.  So as Sullivan sits down in the big chair, the alumni network likely expects to see fundraising continue, U.Va. atop the US News rankings, and some national championships, preferably in football and basketball.
President Sullivan carries even more baggage when she looks at the history before her.  She will be the eighth president for a university founded nearly two centuries ago (granted, there was no official U.Va. president for the institution’s first 80 years).  More importantly, she is the first woman to serve as president of the University, an institution that did not go coed until only four decades ago.  In fact, Sullivan officially takes over a month before the 40-year anniversary of the first class of undergraduate women at the University’s College of Arts & Sciences.
Across the nation and around the world, Virginia alumni should be proud.  Proud of the legacy Dr. Casteen has left.  Proud of the history the Board of Visitors has made by selecting Teresa Sullivan.  And proud of the opportunities now before us.  Today is a proud day for Mr. Jefferson’s University.

Whiteboarding “Uneven” Learning

Too often, we preach technology for technology’s sake in education.  Not wanting to be the last industry sector to adopt the latest toys or shiny playthings, we rush out to acquire that which we may not understand or appreciate.  As a result, we have that which is cool or cutting edge (at least for the next 10 minutes), but we often lack the training, support, and expertise to truly put it to use in the classrooms that need it the most.

Case in point — interactive whiteboards.  Over at Education Week, Kathleen Kennedy Manzo has this piece on the impact of interactive whiteboards in K-12 classrooms.  Asking the impact of such technology on teaching, Manzo has come back with a disturbing answer — “uneven.”  For some, such technology is a godsend, an ability to bring 21st century tools into a 21st century learning environment, helping better integrate student interests and inclinations into a learning style that can maximize outcomes.  For others, these pricey investments are used as nothing more than glorified chalkboards, reducing the latest bells and whistles to a 21st century reincarnation of Little House on the Prairie learning.

So why are such tools and technology “uneven” when it comes to improving teaching and learning in the classroom?  From the cheap seats, there are two major differentiators between those who are utilizing such technology effectively and those who might as well be banging rocks against those expensive whiteboards — integration and expertise.

From Manzo’s piece and from tales of good education technology across the nation, we know that teachers who effectively integrate technology into the wants and needs of both students and society are the ones who succeed.  To put a finer point on it, it isn’t what we teach, but rather how we teach it.  Putting Chaucer’s or Dickens’ greatest works on a Kindle does not teach handheld technologies. It uses handheld technology to deliver some of the greatest literature the world has ever read.  It provides content in a way that many of today’s students are better used to dealing with, opening their minds with great tech so we can feed them time-tested technology.

In far too many schools, we still “de-skill” students, unplugging them from the mediums they are most comfortable with to teach through methods contemporary to the buggy whip.  We unplug our students, believing that laptops, iPods, cellphones, and even whiteboards have no real place in teaching the three Rs.  As a result, students fail to see the relevance of their education as they judge the delivery and not the content.  In our quest to boost high school graduation numbers and build a more educated workforce, we should be doing everything and anything we can to better connect students to those learning and opportunity pathways.  That not only means technology, but it means well-integrated tech.

That leaves us with expertise.  We can’t simply install a new whiteboard in a veteran teacher’s classroom and expect her to use it like the salesperson originally demonstrated.  If we are to utilize ed tech effectively in the classrooms, we need to provide all teachers (and not just those designated tech teachers or affiliated with the business departments) with the skill and support to use available tools.  That not only means supporting ed tech “experts” in the schools, like we would reading or math experts, but it also means ensuring that all teachers have a basis of understanding and know how for how to put new tech to use in their old classrooms.  From interactive whiteboards on down, technologies can impact reading to foreign language, math to science, history to theater.  But we can’t make teachers walk the path alone.  We need to support them.  And we need to make clear that technology is the tool, and not the teacher itself.

In past years, schools across the nation have turned to federal programs such as the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program to provide the funds and guidance necessary to seed technology professional development in the classroom.  But at a time when ed tech has never been more important to the future success of our schools and our students, programs like EETT have all but been discarded like an eight-year-old operating system.  When the program was originally envisioned less than a decade ago, Congress intended for EETT to provide approximately $1 billion a year in PD support.  A small drop in the bucket when it comes to federal education spending, but the earth, moon, and stars for the ed tech community.  EETT never reached that intended target, and today the program only receives $100 million in federal support.  That’s one-tenth the funding to support thousands of schools at a time when technology, innovation, and turnaround has never been more paramount.  And one-tenth the intended funding at a time when supporting, encouraging, and developing qualified and effective teachers has never been a greater priority. 

Are whiteboards the solution to our struggling schools?  Of course not.  They are just the latest example of what technology has to offer.  We asked this question of one-to-one computing a decade ago.  We’re starting to ask it of options like iPhones and Twitter today.  The point is not the technology itself, but how well positioned our schools and educators are to receive the latest and greatest industry can produce.  Those teachers who understand (and are supported in) how to use technology to make instruction more relevant and interesting to the student will always thrive.  Those schools that are regularly providing educators the professional development and ongoing support to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing learning environment will always succeed.  

When we invest in our classrooms, our ROI should never be defined as “uneven.”  At a time when technology in education is the quickest path to meaningful improvement, we must make sure we are investing in the people and conditions to ensure success.  Interactive whiteboards alone can’t do it.  Teachers who understand the full power and reach of those whiteboards (along with the next big three things to come down the pike) can.

Running a New Race in New Jersey

I am not ashamed to admit that Eduflack is a Jersey guy, and I don’t just mean that I like Springsteen.  I spent many of my formative public school years in New Jersey public schools.  I was an altar boy at Holy Name Catholic Church in East Orange.  I still dream of those Saturday night visits to Star Tavern pizza in Orange.  I was a paperboy for the Newark Star-Ledger, my first paying job. I look fondly on the days when I was fortunate enough to work for U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley.  And today, my family makes the trek up to central Jersey (Hamilton, to be exact) for most major holidays and family functions.  So while the body may reside in DC, Eduflack’s heart will always be in the Garden State.

As such, I’ve been paying particular attention to recent Race to the Top activities in the state.  Back in the fall, the New Jersey Department of Education issued an RFP to find consulting firms who could help it prepare the state’s Race application (as it was not a beneficiary of Gates’ summer grant gifts).  Then in November, mere weeks after proposals were due and after Chris Christie defeated incumbent governor Jon Corzine, the state returned all submissions unopened, suspending their engagement.  Most saw this as a sign that the SEA was holding off, dumping RttT in the lap of an unprepared Christie administration.

But a funny thing has happened since then.  New Jersey Education Commissioner Lucille Davy and her team have been scrambling to complete their application, with every intention of submitting for Phase One consideration.  And just yesterday, two weeks before the Phase One deadline, Davy announced her comprehensive plans (and reforms) for making NJ a contender in the Race.  The full story can be found in yesterday’s Star-Ledger here.

New Jersey has a compelling story to tell when it comes to education reforms.  From the reforms caused by the Abbott decision to some of the bold actions taken by Newark Mayor Corey Booker, there is much to talk about.  Yet Jersey lags when it comes to charter schools.  And the strength of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s teachers union, is legendary.  All this makes a Race application difficult to write, and even more difficult to enforce should the state win.

Davy focused her remarks yesterday on the adoption of state-of-the-art data systems and school turnaround plans.  Calling the plan “aggressive but achievable,” she noted that NJEA was at the table helping to develop the plan (even though NJEA leadership is now voicing objections, particularly to the Race-mandated teacher merit pay provisions).  Obviously, this plan is the capstone to Davy’s tenure, representing what she and Gov. Corzine have been working on for years in the area of public education.  And for the record, it is a good plan, particularly when you consider the history and politics of public education in the state.

Why all of this expository?  Davy’s team will be submitting Jersey’s Race application on the same day that Christie is sworn in as the state’s next governor.  It is safe to say that his transition team is not significantly involved in the application development, particularly since Davy did not focus on Christie’s education reform centerpiece — charter schools.  So we have a very real possibility of New Jersey charting a course that the incoming powers that be will either be unable or unwilling to actually steer toward.  It was a dilemma that Eduflack noted back in November, and now it has become all too real.

So what should Christie do?  RttT guidelines say that the application must be endorsed by, among other people, the state’s governor.  As of the Phase One deadline, then Gov. Christie’s signature will not be on the application.  It may be semantics to some, but at the time of consideration, the New Jersey Race application will not have the endorsement of the state’s sitting governor.  So what’s a Jersey governor to do?

If Eduflack were standing in Christie’s shoes on January 19, there is only one inevitable action to take.  I would withdraw the state’s Race application.  Pull it back from the U.S. Department of Education before it is reviewed and scrutinized.  Note that it does not hold the endorsement of the state’s governor … yet.  Buy myself some time so my advisors, both in state and out, can help assemble a plan that would utilize that nearly $400 million in possible education support to forward my own plans for education improvement.

(The major wrinkle to all of this, of course, is NJEA.  They are now on record as not being thrilled with Davy’s plan.  They also led a passionate, expensive, and some say vitriolic non-stop attack against Christie throughout the campaign, trying to paint his as Public Enemy Number One for the state.  Rewriting the Race app means likely losing NJEA support entirely (it’s not like they would have a significant seat at the table the second time around).  And the state needs the endorsement of the teachers union to put forward an acceptable application.  It’s a real damned do/don’t for Christie.  Accept the application as is, and live with the plan and NJEA’s role as a driver in it, or pull it back and offer a plan you can truly get behind.)

But if he does withdraw the expected Phase One application, Christie will then have four months to figure out his next move.  His Department of Education can begin work sketching out a new vision, building on Davy’s plans for data systems and moderate teacher merit pay while using charters as a major driver for school improvement.  He can look to replicate recent reforms in Newark in cities like Trenton.  He can show more love to Jersey’s STEM education commitment.  He can even look to strengthen the standing of programs like Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools across the Garden State.  He has the time and power to craft a Race application that represents his vision and demonstrates the Christie path to improved student learning and test scores.

Or he can be even bolder, and simply decide that New Jersey will not compete in Race to the Top.  He can determine that the obligations under standards, assessments, and data systems are too great to manage in this economy with a meager $400 million.  He could decree that his education improvement agenda is focused exclusively on the expansion and support of charter schools, and since charters are but a minor part of Race’s intentions, he’s going to go all-in on charters in his own way, and he’ll find the state and private-sector support to make it happen without the federal oversight.

Yes, New Jersey has bigger issues to address than Race to the Top.  Christie has to focus immediately on a struggling economy, high taxes, high unemployment, a state pension system out of control, and a populace that has lost confidence in most of its social institutions.  Making a bold move on Race, in his first day in office, can signal that Christie is not business as usual.  He listened to the state, and knows they are hungry for change.  He realizes that today’s struggling parents want a better future for their kids.  And that future begins with stronger schools.  This may be the one real opportunity he has to truly make his mark on public education, acting now and the refocusing on the state’s economic needs.

From one Jersey boy to another, think about it Mr. Christie.  We often complain about what we inherit from the predecessors in our jobs.  Rarely are we given the opportunity to change things right out of the gate.  RttT is a major commitment for New Jersey.  Do you take this opportunity to fo
llow, or to lead through your own bold strategy?

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 …