Let districts decide on Race to the Top
It’s not surprising that Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s secretary of education, Bonnie Reiss, are ambivalent about reapplying to Race to the Top. You can sense the dread in between their words.
California ranked 27th out of 40 states in the first round; having gone through one knock-down over reforms, the Legislature is in no mood to go through another. Districts that didn’t sign up the first time won’t change their minds. The California Teachers Association isn’t about to encourage them. And it will take a huge amount work to make the state’s application competitive – if that’s even possible, given glaring faults that judges pointed out.
But before pulling out, state officials should at least consider a very different direction: building up by scaling back.
Forget the consensus approach that led to vague promises and escape hatches for districts that the judges saw through. Approach a core of districts that have proven they’re open to change: Long Beach, San Francisco, Fresno, Oakland, Sacramento. Add in the dozens of charter schools that signed up in the first round and throw in a few districts with open-minded unions, like San Jose Unified, and pockets of Los Angeles Unified, where teachers are recreating their own schools.
Get superintendents and union reps in a virtual room and ask them whether they’d be willing to go further and be bolder. Ask if they’d be willing, among many options, to:
- Waive layoff and hiring rules for schools facing restructuring in order to keep good teachers who’d otherwise be laid off;
- Agee to incentives to attract the best teachers to the worst schools;
- Throw out the current perfunctory teacher and principal evaluations and, together with teachers, write new ones that move good teachers up and bad teachers out;
- Analyze which teaching credentialing programs produce effective teachers and steer away from those that don’t;
- Trade a pay system based on years of service and advanced degrees for a system that honors teachers for hard work, leadership and the performance of their students; then, agree to go to voters in those districts with a parcel tax to pay for the raises;
- Change their high school curriculums to build in career academies with apprenticeships for most students.
If they agree in principle to these and other ideas, then go ahead with a second-round application, knowing that two weak areas of the state’s application – turning around failing schools and developing and retaining good teachers – would be vastly improved.
Would that be enough to move California up to the final 15 or so states that would get money? It’s hard to say. As Stanford emeritus education professor Michael Kirst, a judge in the first round of applications (though not of California) observed, there are 30 categories for awarding points in Race to the Top. A few points here, some tinkering there, could quickly add up, if the state were strategic. A detailed analysis could determine that.
California would still lose major points because it’s way behind in creating and using a statewide student data system (and falling father behind if it doesn’t get the new system fixed in a hurry). And there could be no denying that most districts and local unions wouldn’t sign on; the state would be dinged for that. But it could also argue credibly that the reform districts and charter schools still would comprise more students than in many states and that the best way to effect change in California is by example.
Finally, the state shouldn’t be greedy. With fewer districts, the state should ask for less than the $700 million maximum for a large state. There still will be plenty of dollars for the state to implement goals in the first application: create formative assessments for all districts to adopt; establish a training program for principals, an alternative credentialing program for STEM teachers, and regional centers for collaboration.
Schwarzenegger, O’Connell and State Board of Education Ted Mitchell may decide, in the end, that the odds are too long. But before folding their hand, they ought to let districts decide whether to up the ante.