RttT reforms are good, but can we afford them over the long-haul?

Yesterday, Ohio was selected as a winner in the Race to the Top federal education sweepstakes, garnering $400 million for the state and local schools. We are happy to see Ohio win funds – especially during a brutal recession and with an impending funding cliff threatening K-12 funding. In the short term, the money will surely help Ohio’s schools and its children. But in the long-term, we’ve likely made promises that will prove empty as we don’t have the political muster necessary to see them through or make the trade-offs to support reforms while making necessary cuts elsewhere.

Ohio deserves recognition for being one of the first states to adopt the Common Core standards in English language arts and mathematics and for prioritizing high academic standards and the creation of assessments aligned to them. This is an important step toward lifting Ohio’s student performance, and Race to the Top surely helped nudge Ohio off the fence about adopting the standards. The state also deserves credit for other reform areas highlighted in its application, such as leadership in the collection and use of value-added data connected to teachers. 

That said, one doesn’t have to be a skeptic to wonder why obvious front-runners like Colorado or Louisiana were left out in the cold, especially compared to states such as Maryland, Hawaii, and Ohio -- whose applications (according to multiple groups) were comparatively less rigorous on multiple fronts.

It’s been noted that the ten winners (Ohio came in dead last among the list, barely making the final cut) were awarded on the basis of the reviewers’ scores , a natural defense against speculation that politics played a role in the final decisions – especially in Ohio, where a Democratic incumbent governor is facing a tight race for re-election.  However, politics certainly may have played a role in Sec. Duncan’s decision not to go against the reviewers’ recommendations and reward the most-deserving states.  After all, it seems glaringly unfair that seriously reform-minded states like Louisiana, Connecticut, and Colorado – who’ve already enacted the sorts of radical changes that Race to the Top purports to represent -- fell to Ohio, a state with a laundry list of promises not yet realized, and certainly not funded.

Now that the award has been made, Ohio must ensure that this one-time money creates systemic changes that will last long after the final grant dollar is spent. Ohio has committed itself to a long list of reforms that include many we like, such as:

  • Partnership with alternative teacher programs like Teach For America and The New Teacher Project;
  • Partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology (CELT), and five other states to develop a process for tracking student-teacher linkages so that value-added reports can be provided to all eligible teachers by 2014;
  • New teacher evaluations comprising student growth data as a “significant” portion of the evaluation;
  • Annual teacher and principal evaluations that incorporates such student data, which will in turn inform “compensating, promoting, and retaining teachers and principals”;
  • Removing ineffective principals and teachers, even those that are tenured;
  • Creating a year-long school turnaround specialist program in order to place 68 leadership teams in Ohio’s lowest performing schools;
  • A performance-based funding structure for ed-schools based on linking student achievement data back to the colleges that prepared those teachers (and publicly reporting such data);
  • State intervention (takeover or closure) of School Improvement Grant-funded schools  (collectively receiving $132 million) that fail to meet improvement benchmarks;
  • Future assistance and support of charter management organizations such as Cleveland’s Breakthrough Schools;
  • Future assistance and support of alternative schools such as SEED (in Cincinnati);
  • Future assistance and support of early college academies in Ohio, and restoration of their funding, as these were lifted up in the application.

Ohio needs most of these reforms, but it also needs to live within its means. The state’s RttT application makes promises for future programs and efforts, many of which are needed, but it doesn’t do this in a way that cuts costs elsewhere. Further, there’s little reason to believe that state leaders will have the political will to enact these changes, especially without ample funding and with Ohio allowing local districts to pick and choose reforms. To give just one example – Ohio couldn’t overcome union resistance to pass a law allowing Teach For America alumni to get licensed to teach here, but we should believe the state will suddenly be open to working with TFA now?

Savvy grant writers spun Ohio’s list of layered-on, rather hodge-podge promises into an award-winning proposal. In the end, though, we’ve simply vowed to do more without a viable, long-term plan for how that will happen when the federal funds and current political leaders are long gone. 

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