Washington state could have done worse in the federal competition for Race to the Top education funds. The state could have given up without even trying.
To compete, legislators, Gov. Chris Gregoire, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn did a lot of work. They put in place a system for taking control of failing schools, outlined how districts can evaluate principals and teachers on the basis of performance, developed a framework for wide-ranging improvement efforts, and pulled together an application for what could have been tens of millions of dollars in federal funds. The state has something to build on in the future if it chooses.
Still, the state’s finish in the Race to the Top flies in the face of easy assurances about how well our schools, principals, and teachers perform. In a national competition, Washington didn’t just miss out on federal funding, it flopped. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia applied, and Washington beat only four other states — two of them the perennially under-funded Deep South duo of Alabama and Mississippi.
Washington rang up a score of just 290.6 on a 500-point scale, with the grading done by expert reviewers. The 10 winners all scored more than 440 points.
It took considerable leadership on the part of Gregoire and others to pull together even this application. There had been suggestions that Washington wouldn’t have a chance because of its lack of charter schools, which have been rejected by state voters. But under the 500-point scoring system, charters and, to a small degree, innovative public schools counted for only 40 points.
As it turned out, Washington could have been handed the full 40 points and still finished only 29th, notes Maureen Trantham of the Partnership for Learning, an education reform advocacy group. Only nine states and the District of Columbia (whose superintendent has led forceful reform efforts) won federal help under this round of the Obama administration’s signature plan to encourage rapid improvements in student and school performance. Two others won earlier.
Speaking to Crosscut writers and editors this week, Chris Korsmo of the statewide League of Education Voters said the state suffered “a kind of a death by a thousand cuts.” She said the general problem for the state in the competition was the “focus we don’t really have on turning around student achievement and readiness for college.”
Some of the most glaring shortcomings for the state related to school reform — specifically the level of the state's commitment and the interest of local teachers unions in making changes. Perhaps the greatest weakness, in the view of the five experts assessing the state’s application, was in the state’s plans for making principals and teachers accountable for improving student outcomes.
In a way, that’s not surprising, given that the state merely allowed districts to use student performance as part of their principal and teacher evaluations, but didn’t go any further. As Trantham suggested, the holes in that approach were apparent to the evaluators. Still, the scoring in that critical category was remarkable: The most generous judge gave the state 29 of 58 points — exactly a 50 percent score. The next highest reviewer score was 19 points, not quite 33 percent.
As the Education Voters’ Korsmo pointed out, much of how state education policies actually are translated into action depends on the framing of contracts between districts and their professional educators. She and Trantham see strengths in the Seattle School Board's current proposals for a new contract with the Seattle Education Association. And Trantham said the feds are looking for big-city schools to provide a lot of the impetus for change. Some of the biggest needs are in places like Seattle, too, especially in getting better teachers and principals into the poor schools where the achievement gaps have been most persistent.
For the state, Trantham sees the feedback from the federal competition as vital to further improvements. The state took a shot, based on valuable improvements, she said. But substantial parts of the country are engaged in more sustained and serious efforts to improve schools.
Washington’s political leaders have clear guidance on where the state is falling behind if they want to try to catch up. Or as Trantham puts it, the state can ask itself, “Do we want to be with the curve or behind the curve? That is the question.” There’s no option for fooling ourselves into believing we are somehow ahead of the curve.
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