29th 2010
What Kind of Reform Does Race to the Top Want, and Why Am I Not Impressed?

Posted under Education Politics & Federal Government & Governor & Innovation and Reform & PPC & School Finance & Teachers

It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining, and the big news in the education world? Colorado didn’t win any Race to the Top (RTT) federal grant money the first time around. Since only two awards were given out — Delaware and Tennessee of all places were the winners — there should be lots of money left over for Round 2 (applications due June 1).

Depending on how you look at it, the news is good and bad. From the standpoint of demonstrating seriousness about advancing real reform, the fact that only two states won suggests the U.S. Department of Education was trying to hold to some kind of selective standard.

But just what the standard might be has some rightly concerned. Andy Smarick — about the most trusted expert in evaluating RTT applications I’ve seen — had Delaware and Tennessee ranked 4th and 5th, respectively. He notes, however, that the two winners “distinguished themselves with good plans and nearly unanimous union and LEA support.” They beat out higher-ranked Florida, Louisiana and Rhode Island, which had stronger plans but more opposition from entrenched in-state education groups.

The venerable Dr. Jay Greene elaborates on the consequences:

If people know that union opposition scuttles a state’s chances, then no state will apply in the future unless they have union support. This means that the unions will dictate what reforms will be pursued, which means that there will be virtually no reform.

Sigh. While I don’t quite share the depth of his cynicism, Greene makes a very powerful point that’s hard to ignore. And if you need a reason to be even more cynical, Education Week bloggers Alyson Klein and Michele McNeil also note that

Tennessee and Delaware just happen to be the home states of two powerful, Republican lawmakers the Obama administration is trying to court in its bipartisan push to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Political coincidence? Frankly, I don’t know.

Last but not least, kudos goes to the ever-thoughtful National Council on Teacher Quality for reporting a couple weeks ago that Delaware and Tennessee were two of only three states to earn a Green Light on the RTT’s “Great Teachers and Leaders” section (the most important weight in the grant process).

So where does this leave Colorado? Our state clearly went for the consensus approach of winning “stakeholder” support. Like Tennessee, we compromised on some teacher quality provisions to gain broader school district and union backing. Unlike Tennessee, our compromises must have been too weak and we lost.

While Smarick says states like Florida, Louisiana and Rhode Island must be wondering how much to compromise their proposals to win more establishment support, I have to wonder if Colorado is asking the opposite question. The blue ribbon council on teacher quality made established groups happy with our first Race to the Top application, but watered it down too much to win.

So as we approach the second grant deadline with presumably more money at stake, what is Colorado’s next step? What is the happy medium federal officials want states to achieve? And is it really that helpful to fostering long-term, effective education reform? I don’t think so.


5 Responses to “What Kind of Reform Does Race to the Top Want, and Why Am I Not Impressed?”

  1. jj on 30 Mar 2010 at 12:16 am #

    The state scores for the money did not indicate a union bias, regardless of what our good conservative friends at the Wall Street Journal would have us believe. Pundits want there to be a bias against unions but the data simply do not bear that conclusion out. Florida still scored very high and 100% states were scattered throughout the contenders.

    I’m not defending the unions–I just want them to be criticized for reasons that really exist.

    “The unions in losing states can now essentially call the governor and say, ‘You can’t win this without us.’ But governors can also say, ‘It was because of you that we lost,’” said Andrew Smarick, an Education Department official under President George W. Bush. “This is going to be interesting.”

    Andrew doesn’t know what he is talking about. Serving under Bush will do that to a guy, though.

  2. Eddie on 30 Mar 2010 at 10:37 am #

    I think it’s a little more than just “he said”-”he said” on this point, as Smarick cites an interesting correlation in data:

    But even if it were just “he said”-”he said”, Smarick has demonstrated that he understands education reform and RTT a lot more. Then you can read what Eduwonk Andy Rotherham — hardly a righteous conservative — has to say:

  3. Ed is Watching » Breaking Down Race to the Top Awards: Taking a Closer Look on 30 Mar 2010 at 11:00 am #

    [...] I gave you the lowdown on the winners of Round One Race to the Top dollars. But we keep learning more all the [...]

  4. jj on 30 Mar 2010 at 11:54 am #

    OK, I read what Andy has to say. I’m not saying buy in from unions is not a factor, just not the decisive factor. If you want to get the unions to play along with changes they don’t like, you’ll have to offer more money to more teachers to make more changes in their practice.

    I would be curious to know however, how much the unions are directly involved with Duncan’s team in DC…

  5. Ed is Watching » Raising Concerns about Race to the Top and Move Toward National K-12 Standards on 27 May 2010 at 12:38 pm #

    [...] quest for Race to the Top federal education grant money. I’ve noted both the promise and the peril within this pursuit. But one issue I have yet to highlight is the Race to the Top requirement that [...]

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