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Race to the Top leaves state back at base camp

Washington finished well out of the money in the federal Race to the Top, the competition for school funds. But can the state take lessons from the effort?
Chris Korsmo, executive director of the League of Education Voters, visits Crosscut.

Chris Korsmo, executive director of the League of Education Voters, visits Crosscut. Judy Lightfoot

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire CTED

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.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Aug 30, 10:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Who cares about the "race to the top?" Federal funding for schools is a tiny fraction of the total costs. Schools are run by local boards with state funding. If you don't like how that works, run for the school board. Trying to lump all students together by standardized testing is a losing proposition. Even Bill Gates with his billions has failed to help schools.

Yet all is not lost. The basics of teaching students haven't changed in the last 200 years. Rote learning for the majority of students, special ed for those not fitting in with a high student teacher ratio and vocational tracks for those not suited for the pre-college track, coupled with running start to leverage the local community colleges for the gifted. That and a district that tracks down truants and puts them on notice, that one some one cares whether they go to school, and secondly that they need to get the heck back to class.

GaryP

Posted Mon, Aug 30, 2:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Joe, perhaps you should read the latest scholarly work on tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. It is available at www.epi.org. LEV, the Alliance, Stand for Children, etc. would also be wise to read this. As it turns out there are big problems with incentive pay for teachers and using student test scores as a large component of a teacher performance evaluations. In their executive summary the authors note:

"But there is not strong evidence to indicate either that the departing teachers would actually be the weakest teachers, or that the departing teachers would be replaced by more effective ones. There is also little or no evidence for the claim that teachers will be more motivated to improve student learning if teachers are evaluated or monetarily rewarded for student test score gains."

The fact that the WA state did not receive RttT money may be a blessing in disguise

Margie

Posted Mon, Aug 30, 11:09 p.m. Inappropriate

This group says this, that group says that. The League, the Union, the Association. Meh.

The individual stakeholder no longer has a voice and those with the means to do so, leave the system.

KarenLee

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