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Race to the Top: Mixed Reactions in the Bay Area

December 12, 2012

Today’s education news includes the announcement of Race to the Top grant recipients, with this round of grants going to districts instead of states.  California had three winning districts, as EdSource Today reports:

Three California school districts are among 16 winners in the latest round of the federal Race to the Top funding competition. The relatively small districts beat out several of the state’s largest districts, which didn’t even make it into the final round.

This round of funding was the first in the series of Race to the Top competitions to be made available to individual districts. New Haven Unified in Union Citywith about 13,000 students, was the largest of the California winners. Lindsay Unified, in the Central Valley midway between Fresno and Bakersfield, and  Galt Elementary District,  south of Sacramento, also won. Each of those districts has around 4,000 students. The three districts won a combined total of just under $50 million to implement a range of reforms.

Writing on this blog in the past, I’ve been critical of Race to the Top as a reform strategy, calling it a form of cheap conversion for strong-arming states and districts into ill-advised policy changes.  The outcomes reported in some instances have validated concerns about the potential pitfalls of Race to the Top.  More recently, I also defended teachers’ unions criticized for withholding their approval for grant applications that called for union collaboration and buy-in.

So today, when I saw that New Haven Unified is among the grant winners, I found myself in a curious situation.  I know the president of the New Haven Teachers Association, and when I saw what the grant would do for students in that district, it sounded pretty good (quoting again from EdSource Today):

New Haven Unified had one of the strongest applications in the country, ranking second out of 351 applicants. The district was awarded $29 million. That includes funding for an ambitious technology plan to provide each student in grades 6 through 12 with a digital tablet. Tablets will be provided for students in the lower grades as well, at a ratio of one tablet for every two students. Teachers will also be given tablets and laptops to help with instruction. In addition, the funds will expand programs and activities already under way, including hiring additional literacy, math and assessment coaches to help teachers use data to personalize instruction for students and leadership development.

That all sounds great, right?  Too good to be true?  I had to know, so I called Charmaine Banther, and wondered how the union president was reacting to the news.  She knew what I was thinking: “Everyone’s asking, what did you get us into?”  I asked for details about the union’s collaboration with the district management to put together a successful grant application, especially on the teacher evaluation issues.  Here’s what she told me:

  • The district’s joint task force on teacher evaluation started work in the spring of this year, and agreed to work together to support the Race to the Top grant.  They have not finalized their teacher evaluation changes, but the union did secure a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that says the task force will negotiate an evaluation system not to be “trumped” by any changes based on the grant, and they included that MOU in their grant application.
  • The joint task force has agreed to pursue a two-pronged approach to teacher evaluation, with formative and summative components.
  • The formative component is going to be based on a coaching model.  “That’s what we really want,” Banther explained.  “We’re willing to use data for improvement – will work on that together.”  She added that “data” will include all sorts of student work and assessments – created by teachers, schools, the district or the state.  The goal will be to engage teachers in efforts to improve teaching and learning, but this piece of the evaluation process will not be used personnel actions or decisions.  Banther said that there was no interest on either side of negotiations to move towards a system that would attempt to break down evaluations into quantifiable chunks (20% based on observation, 20% based on student learning, etc.).
  • The summative component of evaluations – similar to current model of teacher evaluation more prevalent around the state – will remain the tool for the more supervisory aspects of teacher evaluation.

How did New Haven Unified manage to work out an agreement on issues that have stymied so many other districts?  I had a guess, and Banther agreed: size matters.  All three of the “winning districts” in California are small.  Banther leads a union of 650 teachers – that might be the equivalent of staffing three or four high schools in LAUSD.  She has eight years of experience working closely with the district’s HR director, and says there’s a good level of mutual trust.  “We’ll be here for the long run, working it out together.”

Education policy makers, and policy watchers, please take note.  When you write policies for the whole state, don’t let mega-district dysfunctions be your sole guiding light.  Innovative collaborations between unions and districts are happening.  You can find some on this blog by searching QEIA, Poway Unified, San Juan Unified, San Mateo Union High School District, and Algebra Success Academy.  Enact policies that support that kind of work, and beware of false generalizations concerning “the” teachers union.

So my Race to the Top story for today could end there, except for one nagging problem.  These grants will benefit around 21,000 students.  I wish them well, but are we going to stop there?  Are the students in other districts less deserving?  My concerns were similar to those in an email that was sent to me and several other people.  Carrie DuBois, a local school board member and delegate to the California School Boards Association, questioned the rationale for Race to the Top, and raised some important issues of equity.  Here are some excerpts from her email:

I don’t believe that our schools and teachers fail our kids, but instead as a nation we fail to courageously confront our challenges when it comes to our neediest students. …Just ask people who work with California’s foster children if our education reforms have improved outcomes for the students they serve. You will learn that foster youth continue to have the worst educational outcomes of any subgroup, and California has more foster children than any state in the nation.

… Our students would be much better served if U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recommended that every district in our nation be given a stipend for counseling services or special education funding relief. Another option would be to award $29 million to help fund services for California’s foster youth, homeless youth or court-involved youth instead of funneling the money to one district. This way, our neediest students would get the extra support that they desperately need.

Several months ago, I visited a public school in San Mateo County that serves students who are addicted to drugs. I found amazing teachers there that are totally committed to their students. Schools such as this have abysmal test scores because most of the students are far below grade level. The teachers I met told me they work hard every day just to get their kids reading and writing. I asked why their kids are not proficient and was told it is because their students have all been in and out of many public schools — so many schools that it is impossible to locate all of their educational records. The students grew up with addicted and homeless parents, and these students were abused and neglected.

Who should we blame for this? Should we punish the teachers that these students have had, fire all of the principals that have crossed their paths, and close down all of the schools that have served these kids? This little public school that is doing amazing things for our children would never qualify for a Race to the Top grant.

If we must have a Race to the Top, I’m glad there are districts that can provide good examples of innovation and labor-management collaboration.  If we want equity, we must not have a race to the top, and make our actions and policies match our stated expectations.

Ironically, if you engage in some international comparisons, Finland ostensibly is winning any race to the top, without even trying to race – by focusing on equity, consistently, for decades.

[EDIT, 12/12/12 – updated a last name]

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