Racing Locally

This afternoon, the U.S. Department of Education formally announced the latest round of the Race to the Top competition.  After directing significant dollars to states to drive wholesale school improvement efforts and to assessment consortia to develop new tests around Common Core State Standards, ED is back focusing on individual buildings and classrooms.

The latest Race is a competition for $120 million in new funding “to support bold, locally directed improvements in learning and teaching that will directly improve student achievement.”  Full details can be found here.
The local focus is an important one, with ED reminding key decisionmakers that reform and innovation requires local buy-in and classroom-based leadership.  We saw some state RttT apps fall short because of failures in collaboration, but there are strong districts in those states that can and should benefit from an injection of competitive dollars to support their reform efforts.
Right now, ED is casting a large net, stating “The Department plans to support high-quality proposals from applicants across a variety of districts, including rural and non-rural as well as those already in a State with a Race to the Top grant and districts that are not.”
Of course, the devil is always in the details.  With Congress resistant to expand RttT, the $120 million pool can be limiting.  ED officials say the grants will be for four years and will range in value from $4 million to $30 million.  That means two large districts who win the big one could knock out half the pool’s value.  Ain’t that what competition is all about, though?
But the real challenge is giving districts the full four years to use grant dollars appropriately and effectively.  With the average urban superintendent on the job for less than three years, that means we likely will have districts that will have two different supes governing the administration of this award.  While we all know, in theory, that one needs four or five years of good longitudinal data to know if a new program is working, how many districts may look to scuttle their RttT grant when a change comes in the big district chair?
Then again, there are worse things than worrying how you will spend your $4-$30M and if you will do so with fidelity or not.  
As the saying goes, you need to be in it to win it.  Districts planning to apply are asked to submit a letter of intent by August 23.  Final apps are due to the Feds by October 3, with decisions coming in December before we close the books on 2013.

A Little Something Something About Timing

Today’s lesson is about timing.  More specifically, it is about how one times the release of announcements so that the media and key stakeholders take notice and hear the actual message that folks want to deliver.

Many of us have heard the tales that if you don’t want someone to know something, announce it over a weekend.  Or announce it over a holiday.  While the 24/7 news environment brought to us by the Interwebz, Twitter, and all those citizen bloggers has changed things somewhat, the rule is still pretty much the same.  
When making a media announcement, one should be mindful that the media, at least those covering education, primarily work the traditional work week.  You can expect them “on duty” from 9 or so in the morning until 6 or 7 in the evenings, Monday through Friday.  Afternoons are usually spent writing on deadline.  Most reporters are, of course, always on call.  But if you want to reach them, starting during those core times is a good first step.
So it is a major headscratcher to see last week’s announcement from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.  PARCC is one of the two Common Core State Standards consortia, developing a comprehensive summative assessment to measure the K-12 standards adopted through CCSS.  The PARCC tests are seen by some as better aligned with the expectations of the US Department of Education and Race to the Top.
At any rate, late last week PARCC released a statement on the Race to the Top Technical Review and how it charted the RttT Assessment grant progress.  The finding was fairly simply, RttT found that PARCC was “generally on track,” the highest rating possible, according to PARCC.
The concern, though, was the timing of the release.  PARCC sent the announcement out on July 12, 2013, a Friday.  Email announcements were hitting reporter inboxes at 10 p.m. EDT.  So it begs the question, why dump an important and positive announcement late on a Friday night as Cinderella’s coach was turning back into a pumpkin?
Sure, one can chalk it up to bad timing.  To the release getting delayed for some reason unrelated to the announcement.  To delays in the world wide web.  All sorts of technical or manmade issues could be noted.  A cynic could even say that this was dumped late on a Friday night so that few would actually pay attention to it, not wanting to raise attention for the process of the consortia and testing in general at a time when “testing” and “assessment” are dirty words.
Regardless, we need to be a little smarter with our announcements.  PARCC’s announcement (along with the original RttT Assessment announcement) are important developments in our push toward adopting the Common Core and bringing meaningful summative assessments on line.  It deserves more than just the “document dump” treatment.  After all, any reporter wanting to cover this would now likely have to wait until Monday before someone is back in the office at Achieve or PARCC to follow up on the statement.
Nitpicking?  Maybe.  But with so many organizations and announcements jockeying to break through the white noise and have their issues heard by the media, one has to be media-friendly about the announcements.  Late Tuesday or Wednesday mornings are good.  Friday nights after prime time, not so good.  
Or maybe we just don’t want folks to know that PARCC is “generally on track.”

SOTU MIA

Earlier today, Eduflack examined the educational highlights of President Obama’s State of the Union address.  The Cliff Notes version — strong on effective teachers, keep every kid in high school until age 18, college is expensive.  But what is equally interesting is what was NOT included in the SOTU, particularly as a lead-up to the presidential campaign.  

What was missing?
Race to the Top — No mention whatsoever of the crown jewel of the Obama education reform platform.  No talk about the progress states like Delaware and others are making. No discussion of the new world order likely coming out of the first few rounds of RttT.  (But there was that veiled reference to RttT driving states to adopt the Common Core, but only the insideriest of insiders will have caught the “for less than one percent of what our Nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every State in the country to raise their standards …”)
Early childhood education — Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars the Obama administration just awarded to the winning states in the RttT Early Learning edition, there was no mention of ECE or the importance of ensuring all kids are ready to learn when the hit kindergarten.
Principals — In the President’s focus on effective teachers, he seemed to forget that a great principal is just as important — if not more so — in improving student learning and turning a school around.  Using “educators” is the common catch-all phrase, but Obama decided to focus just on teachers.
ESEA — No call to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  No sense of urgency to act, as we have heard in previous years.  Have we officially determined this is a 2013 activity now?
Parental engagement — In one of his earlier SOTUs, Obama got all Bill Cosby on us and called for greater parental involvement in the K-12 process.  This year, nothing.  If we are serious about real reform, it can’t all be on the backs of the teachers Obama singled out.  It requires involved and committed parents, clergy, business leaders, and community voices too.
Choice — Embracing the entire public school infrastructure — traditional publics, public charters, magnets, and technicals — used to be a part of the President’s educational stump speech.  But when talking about the need for all kids to finish high school, there was no mention of ensuring all of those kids actually have access to good high schools.
Competitive Grants — Similar to the failure to mention RttT, we saw no mention of the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, no discussion of the impacts of recent educational budget “consolidations,” and no teaser on ARPA ED.  Are competitive grants moving to the back burner?
What else are we missing?  Anyone?  Anyone? 

The Strangest of Bedfellows on Ed Reform

This morning’s New York Times Opinion page headline says it all — “How to Rescue Education Reform.”  No, this isn’t the first time we have tried to diagnose the ed reform movement nor is this the first (or last) effort to talk through how ed reform can drive the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

What makes the NYT piece so interesting is who shares the byline.  The most recent piece on how to rescue education reform is co-authored by AEI Education Policy Director Rick Hess and Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.  While not exactly the Burns and Allen we’d expect to see on education reform, Hess and Darling-Hammond offer an interesting and refreshing perspective on public education’s needs.  The fact that it comes from two individuals who most would believe couldn’t agree that the ed world is round or that it rotates around the sun makes the reccs even more interesting.
And what, exactly, do the dynamic duo offer up?  After agreeing that the federal government “should not micromanage schools, but should focus on the four functions it alone can perform,” Darling-Hammond and Hess point to these four functions:
* Encouraging transparency for school performance and spending, noting that “Without transparency, it’s tough for parents, voters and taxpayers to hold schools and public officials accountable.”
* Ensuring that basic constitutional protections — such as civil rights and special education — are respected.
* Supporting basic research, particularly that which “asks fundamental questions.”
* Providing “voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation while providing political cover for school boards, union leaders and others to throw off anachronistic routines.”
On the latter, it is important to note that the authors don’t necessarily see Race to the Top as that innovation, noting that RttT “tried to do some of this, but it ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate.”
And what shouldn’t the federal government do?  According to the newest Batman and Robin of education, the feds shouldn’t focus on making schools and teachers improve.  Too much is simply lost in translation as we take it from the Feds down to the schools and districts that need to put it to use.  “The federal government can make states, localities and schools do things — but not necessarily do them well,” Hess and Darling-Hammond write.
So what say you, education community?  Are Linda and Rick onto something?  Have we been over thinking and over planning ESEA reauthorization?  Do we need to focus on a few core principles and not try to be everything for everyone?  Or can we not get beyond the shock of this partnership and thus fail to see the merits of the argument?

Whither ESEA Reauth?

Earlier this year, President Obama and EdSec Arne Duncan made it perfectly clear.  We absolutely, positively needed ESEA reauthorization before the start of the 2011-2012 school year.  As we are now less than three months from that benchmark, how close are we?

Similarly, we heard promises from some in the U.S. Senate that a new ESEA bill would be offered to those on the senior circuit by Easter 2011.  The ears have been eaten off of virtually all the chocolate bunnies, and there is nary a stale jelly bean left.  But still no ESEA.
Unfortunately, it looks like we are no closer to reauthorization than we we last year, or in 2009, or even in 2007 (when it was originally due).  In fact, we may be further away than it seems.  Eduflack has said it before, and he’ll say it again.  In all likelihood, ESEA will be reauthorized in the first half of 2013.  (Yes, that isn’t a typo.  2013.)
Why?  Let’s take a look at things.  Round 3 Race to the Top and Round 2 Investing in innovation details went over like a lead balloon last week.  About a billion dollars in new spending for states and districts was discussed, yet few paid it much attention.  And those that did seemed to criticize it.  Too much money for early childhood education.  Too little money for Round 2 RttT finalists.  Yet another round of proposals, applications, and reviews for those seeking i3.  The ed reform merry-go-round continues, with heavy rhetoric but light financial incentive, at least by most perspectives.
Other than a Labor Day wish, we’ve seen little from the U.S. Department on Education regarding reauthorization.  No updated blueprint.  No new recommendations.  Just proposed program cuts and consolidations in the President’s budget, and the promise of more competitive grantmaking and investments in innovative ideas.  And some are already chattering that the folks on Maryland Avenue are going into “hunkering down” mode, just hoping to make it through the elections a mere 17 months away.
So let’s move to Capitol Hill.  On the House side, we have an Education Committee Chairman following Ohio State’s old “three yards and a cloud of dust” philosophy.  The House is moving incrementally, moving individual bills on individual issues to “fix” or “improve” NCLB.  Chairman John Kline (MN) has made his agenda clear, and the Committee will take things piece by piece.  Assuming the Senate acts on the House bills, we could have a nice little ESEA patchwork quilt by 2013, anchored by the original NCLB and enhanced by the patches and flourishes developed by the House committee.
And on the Senate side?  Chairman Tom Harkin (IA) has been resolute in his intention to bring ESEA reauthorization forward.  But in the absence of a final, complete piece of legislation, gossip has filled the void.  Is there a full piece of ESEA reauth, based on the components that have been floating around for months?  Will the chairman bypass the usual process for moving legislation forward, and instead just move to a multi-day, full committee markup of the NCLB law?  Or will the Senate follow the Kline model and start picking off important issues like special education, ECE, rural ed, and accountability?  
Only time will tell which path we actually head down.  But it begs one important question.  Do we really need ESEA reauthorization right now?  Short of the EdSec acting to address the AYP pitfalls coming in 2014, are there other necessary changes to enact in ESEA?  RttT and i3 can continue without being codified in ESEA.  Tweaks to teacher quality can proceed, as can much of the turnaround efforts.  And we can continue to focus on data systems and assessment models and even common core without making changes to ye olde ESEA.
Assuming Duncan and company can secure the dollars for their agenda in the upcoming budget, 2013 doesn’t seem so bad after all.  Sure, you don’t get the bounce in your step from passing “landmark legislation,” but you have little preventing you from enacting your plans and policies.
 

Racin’ on Preschool Legs

In an announcement far less anticipated than previous rounds, EdSec Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education today announced the parameters for Round Three of Race to the Top.  After Congress agreed to throw another $700 million in the RttT kitty as part of the FY2011 CR budget deal, most expected they knew how the current round would be distributed.

Original word around town was that ED would simply move down the list of Round Two finalists, making dreams come true.  So New Jersey, which finished less than three points (on a 500-point scale) behind the final Round Two winner, Ohio, was seen as a shoo-in (and a potential recipient of hundreds of millions of federal dollars).  Then came Arizona, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Illinois.  Presumably, the $700 million wouldn’t even last long enough for Illinois to line up for its check, leaving the full boat to be distributed among four states (and four states run by Republican governors, coincidentally).
But a funny thing happened on the way to today’s announcement.  Instead of funding, or nearly funding, the remaining plans that scored the highest, ED determined it best to share the wealth across all of the Phase Two finalist states.  So now we can add California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky to the list.  Nine states sharing RttT dollars, with all likely getting just a fraction of their ask, yet all of the red tape, bureaucracy, and expectation to go with it.
Why?  Because Duncan threw the education community a curve ball.  Of the $700 million going to RttT Round Three, only $200 million of it will go to these nine states.  The remainder, a whopping $500 million, will now go to fund a new Race competition for early childhood education.
If you’ll recall, last month Eduflack wrote about a key change to the RttT law — the addition of early childhood education as a new priority to Race.  At the time, I wondered whether this was finally a real commitment on behalf of the Administration to invest in ECE, or whether this was more rhetoric, without the teeth of real dollars to back it up.
That question was answered loudly and clearly today by Duncan.  Five hundred million dollars to go to a competitive grant program to fund the improvement of early childhood care and education, and it will now carry the Early Learning Challenge moniker.  Half a billion dollars to support preK programs.  Some of the specs released today include:
* State-based award focused on comprehensive plans for early learning
* Emphasis on coordination (presumably with K-12), clearer learning standards, and “meaningful workforce development”
The statement from ED is unclear on some of the larger issues, though.  It notes that just 40 percent of four-year-olds are in preK.  So is the intent to improve preK programs or boost enrollment in existing programs?  At a time when states are reducing their own investments in preK (just look at the Pew numbers), is $500 million spread across the nation enough to jumpstart a universal preK movement?  And when we again challenge the innovation community, this time to get involved in ECE, what role do we see for the private sector and the edu-prenuers to be playing in early childhood education?
On the K-12 side, we see a few other issues.  So now those nine RttT finalist states can recompete for $10-$50 million grants, needing to develop new applications (with ED’s help, of course).  One only needs to do the math, though, to realize we are looking a lot more like a number of $10 million grants than a handful of $50 million ones.  Is $50 million even enough to enact real improvement in a state like California, Illinois, or Pennsylvania?
Most importantly, though, is this an indication that we’ve already given up on RttT?  When it was originally announced, we heard all about how it was most effective when a few states were given big dollars to enact real changes (Former Duncan advisor Mike Smith originally hypothesized there should only be two or three total RttT winners for the original $4 billion prize).  Now that we move to Round Three, we are shifting to small checks for a large number of states, now for targeted activities.  When Delaware and Tennessee received more that they were originally slated to gain in Round One, do we really expect the nine expected to benefit here to be able to do real work and enact real improvements with a fraction of what they asked for (and presumably need)?  Time will tell …
UPDATE: Make that eight.  South Carolina has already pulled out of the RttT3 competition, according to Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog, with its State Superintendent, Mick Zais stating RttT is “offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington.”
 
     

The CR Ain’t All Bad …

Last week, Eduflack detailed the long and distinguished list of “losers” in the FY2011 Continuing Resolution and the ongoing budget fight between the White House and Congress.  All those billions that both sides had to cut needed to come from somewhere and, unfortunately, education was unable to avoid the knife.

Fortunately, President Obama made it easy for those looking to nip and tuck from the ED budget.  In the previous two budget cycles, Obama offered up lists of programs to either be eliminated or consolidated in the ED budget.  Those programs eliminated were often cited for a lack of efficacy.  Those consolidated into a potential competitive grant program were victims of a new world order when competition is king, and the dollars for a competitive process needed to come from somewhere.  So if the President wasn’t going to protect specific education programs in his own budget, it made them easy pickin’s for an opposition Congress.
But it seems there was a bit of good edu-news in the CR after all.  Yes, we saw increased in Race to the Top ($700 million), Investing in Innovation ($150 million), and Promise Neighborhoods ($20 million more).  But there was also some interesting policy language inserted into the CR.
While campaigning in 2008, Obama often spoke of the importance of early childhood education.  Good ECE and good parenting were the cornerstone to his child development plans.  But that rhetoric never seemed to translate into real policies.  Parental engagement continues to lag, despite both authority and funding under NCLB.  And although ECE offered real promise in 2008, the realities of state budget cuts have stymied expansion plans, with ED and HHS relatively unsure of who should actually take control of moving strong, evidence-based ECE into practice.  At least until last week, say the experts.
Buried in the wording regarding the additional $700 million for RttT is language that adds a new priority to ED’s prized RttT.  ED, along with early childhood education advocates, are touting the addition of “Improving Early Childhood Care and Education” as a RttT priority and something Race dollars can now fund.  (Always the skeptic, Eduflack must admit that I’m still not completely sure how this differs from the original Priority 3: Invitational Priority — Innovations for Improving Early Learning Outcomes, but I must just be hung up on the language of the language.)
This is potentially a major step forward for ECE in two ways.  First, it opens up new funding streams.  While it doesn’t provide specific, dedicated ED funds for ECE, it does confirm that RttT dollars can be spent on early childhood education.  ECE can now be a fundable component of those grants seeking a piece of the $700 million in extra pie.  And one could even make the case of adding ECE efforts to the current RttT winners’ effort.
More importantly, though, the language addition signals a general commitment — from both the Administration and the Congress — that early childhood education is a key component of the educational continuum.  We turn around low-performing schools, in part, by better preparing kids for school in the first place.  We address the dropout and remediation problems by ensuring that kindergartners are not starting the formal learning process a year or two behind some of their classmates.  We make a difference by providing instructional building blocks early and often, finally declaring that ECE, if done correctly, is more than just babysitting on the cream and the clear.
While there is still much work to be done to build up our national commitment to high-quality early childhood education, the new RttT language is definitely a start.  Add some significant dedicated funding, and we might really have something here.
  
UPDATE: So sometimes a priority just isn’t a priority.  Per my confusion about Priority 3: Invitational Priority versus this new priority in the CR.  As it has been explained to me, the Priority 3 is the “absolute, competitive and invitational priorities” in the original RttT applications.  The new priority, on improving early childhood care and education, added a new priority to the RttT authorization statute.  So early childhood now joins 1) maintenance of effort; 2) achieving equity in teacher distribution; 3) improving collection and use of data; 4) standards and assessment; and 5) supporting struggling schools.