Race to the Top: Stepping away from reform?

They say you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. That just about sums up the difference between the Race to the Top’s “proposed priorities” and the final versions released today. Theinitial offerings were big and bold, reform-oriented to a fault, so much so that they attracted the ire of the unions and others. The final documents, though still displaying a clear reform bent, are a bit more measured and certainly more workmanlike. 

This reflects a couple things. Unlike the drafts, these versions couldn’t be merely aspirational; they had to get into the weeds and deal with implementation issues. Also, the changes make it clear that the Education Department was influenced by the 1,000+ public comments sent through the federal register (and the who-knows-how-many grumbles and suggestions shared behind closed doors). As a result, the establishment’s fingerprints are visible in a number of places. 

For instance, there’s a much greater focus on traditional interventions (like professional development and training) and the stuff of day-to-day district management (like developing meaningful teacher and principal evaluation systems). A bit of a yawner but nothing wrong here. 

This bend toward the system does raise questions, however. Does the increased weight now given to “multiple measures” in teacher evaluations mean that student performance data might get crowded out? (And what exactly are “local instructional improvements systems”?) 

The establishment’s wins also raise a few concerns. There’s greater leeway for districts to use less aggressive interventions with failing schools (“the transformation model”); states can argue that district-run faux charters are a substitute for a real charter law; and a charter law with a cap can still garner points. 

In other ways, though, it’s a well-reasoned and even admirable document. The Department has properly emphasized the need to have local education agencies (LEAs) commit to executing promised reforms. The importance of getting lots of diverse stakeholders to buy into reform at the local level is also reflected in several places (likely a result of Secretary Duncan’s experience in Chicago). Most importantly, it still embraces valuable reforms like data use, charters, and efforts to improve the teaching profession. Fans of national standards will also be pleased. 

But a few critically important areas were missed. A section on performance pay, tenure reform, and teacher dismissals fails even to reference union contracts. In most places (and nearly all major cities), you simply can’t address any of these issues without fundamentally altering collective bargaining agreements. Similarly, while attention is given to expanding the best teacher preparation programs, there’s no mention of addressing the worst ones. And despite warning states for more than six months that unwisely spending earlier ARRA dollars would disqualify them for RTT grants, the scoring rubric allots only 5 of 500 points to this matter. (The Department thinks this issue is embedded in other places, but I’m not so sure.) 

Though all of these things are important, the real test starts now. We’ll have to wait to see what states put in their proposals and how the peer reviewers score them. 

The Education Department deserves credit for all the work they’ve done and the thought they’ve put into this. RTT still seeks to drive reform. But it looks to me as if “reform” now clocks in at a lower level. Maybe that’s the ultimate difference between poetry and prose in Washington.

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