Compromising on Education Reform?

By Jacqueline Klingebiel

Nov 12, 2009 6:00pm

The Obama administration today launched its competition to award stimulus money to states that overhaul their school systems and embrace education reforms. While the Education Department is pushing a controversial agenda, the final guidelines to compete include several union-backed changes. Some critics say the administration compromised too much in its “Race to the Top.”

Read Mary Bruce’s report and tell me if you agree.

Today the Education Department opened the “Race To The Top” grant competition for states to vie for a piece of $4.35 billion in stimulus funding – the largest amount of discretionary federal spending for education ever. After considering roughly 1,100 comments on the draft guidelines, the administration included union-supported changes in the final application. While the unions expressed satisfaction with the plan, reform advocates and policy experts claim the administration watered-down its agenda.

President Obama’s education reforms contain several controversial elements, including evaluating teachers based on student performance and embracing charter schools. The unions offered strong objections to both reform criteria in their comments on the proposed guidelines and today the Department appeared to budge in those areas.

In order to compete states must eliminate legal barriers to linking teacher evaluations to student performance. But the final application also encourages states to use “multiple measures” to evaluate teachers, including peer reviews. While the Department continues to promote the use of charter schools, the reform initiative was moved to a section on “general selection criteria.” In the draft guidelines, charters were highlighted as a means to turn around low-performing schools.

“The Department of Education worked hard to strike the right balance between what it takes to get system wide improvement for schools and kids, and how to measure that improvement,” said President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, who went on to praise the Department for responding to their call for greater teacher involvement in evaluating systems.

Reform advocates, however, are speaking out against the changes. “The innovative reform piece was charter schools, they’ve muted that. The teacher reform piece was performance pay, they’ve muted that,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the nonprofit Center for Education Reform. “We thought Arne [Duncan] liked the girl with the brains but he’s dumped us for the popular girl…. The education establishment got to them.”

“I’m terribly worried that they seem to have backed away further from the parts that I thought were most promising,” said Frederick Hess, an education policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

The administration strongly disagrees. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s watered-down,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said this afternoon in a conference call with reporters. “The critique we’re getting is that this is very, very tough and we do think it’s tough. We think it’s tough but fair.”

The Secretary said the final application actually places an increased emphasis on charters. “We moved it out of just turning around the lowest performing schools and actually made charters more important,” he said.

Several states have already taken action to eliminate barriers to compete. California and Wisconsin, for example, have changed their legislation to allow teacher pay to be linked to student performance. Other states, including Tennessee, Ohio, Connecticut and Rhode Island, defeated proposed cuts to charter school funding and raised their charter caps.

The application unveiled today also lays out a 500-point system for scoring states' abilities to meet the four "assurances": using college- and career-ready standards, building a workforce of highly effective educators, creating data systems to support student achievement, and turning around the lowest-performing schools. Applications will be evaluated by the Department and a team of peer reviewers.

Duncan made clear there is “no fixed number” for how many states will receive money. Funding will only go to the states with the most aggressive proposals and proven ability to raise the bar and close achievement gaps, he said. Based on budget guidelines released by the Department, four states – California, Texas, New York and Florida – could get as much as $700 million each. Smaller states could earn amounts ranging from $20 to $400 million. 

Critics are concerned the money may be used by states to fill budget gaps rather than real reform in the classroom. “Money is fungible,” Hess noted.

The Department will hold two rounds of competition for the grants. The first round of applications will be accepted until the middle of January and funding will be awarded next spring. The second round of applications will be due June 1 with winners announced by September 30, 2010.

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