Setting the Standard in Education

Posts Tagged ‘Arne Duncan’

Backward March!

In Federal on July 29, 2010 at 1:47 pm

The National Urban League, which is having its centennial convention this week, backed off of its criticism of President Obama's education agenda.

Michele McNeil reports that a group of civil rights organizations who released a document criticizing Obama and the Department of Education’s reforms have done an about face. Despite originally calling for Race to the Top and other recent reforms to be dismantled, three of the groups now say the document was released too early and do not support it. Instead, they say that they agree for the most part with what the Administration has done. Hugh Price, former president of the Urban League, one of the original organizations signing the document, called what the White House has done the “most muscular federal education policy I’ve ever seen.” This comes after Duncan said that he thought the criticisms were unwarranted and that the DOE’s policies have been particularly effective for minorities.

President Obama today spoke at the National Urban League’s 100th Anniversary Convention, pressing for support of his actions, saying that the pushback is due to “a general resistance to change, a comfort with the status quo .” He called education the “economic issue of our time” and said that the reforms that have passed are all about accountability. In the end, it seems the critics have backed off, whether from fear or from a feeling that they were being to hasty. The Reverend Al Sharpton, who was supposed to be one of the speakers at a press conference for the document on Monday that was eventually cancelled, said he agrees with the president and is “prepared to fight for a lot of what he’s saying.”

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Chaos and Teachers’ Voices

In Federal, LA on July 6, 2010 at 4:09 pm

As I was reading Joanne Jacobs’s blog today, I came across this tidbit from Organized Chaos. Its author, Ann Bailey-Lipsett, was invited to a panel discussion with Education Sector. You can see the whole video here. Here’s what Jacobs quoted that interested me:

With first graders this process usually starts out in a few different ways.

The “structure-seekers” ask a lot of questions like “Where do I put my pencil?” “What is the right answer?” and “Do you want us to use blue paper or light blue paper?” while the “oh good, freedom! Let’s see what we can do/get away with” group gets busy making something happen. Not necessarily the right thing, mind you, but paper gets cut, glue bottles are out, excited chatter starts. Then another group, of course, the “run and hiders” manage to sneak into the classroom bathroom, or into the classroom library . . .  All the while, the “I have the right answer” group of children is walking around the room telling everyone else what to do with utmost confidence. And of course, because they are 6 and 7, they end up crying, stamping their feet, and swearing that they are not Susie/Jamie/Max’s friend because Susie/Jamie/Max wont listen to their idea.

Which is, actually, somewhat similar to what’s going on in the education-sphere as we all react to Race to the Top, and the (possible?) changes in Elementary and Secondary Education Act (The act formally known as NCLB).

Some states immediately got busy applying for RttT grants, while others refused to participate in the process. Some are not acknowledging that any change is occurring and will not until they’ve seen progress from other states, while some, who comfortably followed NCLB, are still waiting for specific instructions. Even in the room today, as I listened to the debate over how much students’ standardized assessments should play into teacher evaluation I couldn’t help feel that this how we are reacting to the discussion even on a personal level. Some of us are the bossy first graders announcing we know what the answer should and should not be. Some of us figure it will all play out in the end and we’re just along for the ride, while others look at this as a blank check to start some change.

Was this classroom full of 6-year-olds or policy-makers?

I really enjoyed Bailey-Lipsett’s insights, so I figured I’d look a little deeper and see what the rest of her blog post had to say. I thought a few of her points were really important. First of all, there is a worry that this method of being “tight on goals, loose on means” as Duncan has said can backfire. Bailey-Lipsett says she named her blog “Organized Chaos” specifically because of the craziness that results in these similar methods. Everyone has a different reaction and it takes a lot of energy to get to the end. However, after thinking about it, she realizes that with the right constraints, she ends up with better products in her classroom than when she has more structure. The idea behind the methods is clearly that with so many people trying many different things, there will be a big mixture of successes and failures from which to learn. Those lessons can then be applied in the future. If we only try one method, we can only know whether that one method worked. If we try many, there are many lessons to be learned.

Another point that of worry for her is the part of teachers in all of this. This has been a particularly contentious issue recently. The Administration has said many times that they want teacher input, but most teachers don’t feel like they are a part of the process. They don’t even feel much connection to the process, since it takes time for any of the new initiatives to take effect. Schools are still caught up in whether or not they will make AYP, pitting teachers against a system of punishment and blame. She said Brad Jupp pointed to the ability of unions to be the voices of teachers in all of this, but to her, in the current climate, that’s not feasible. Teachers join unions for protection from lawsuits, not as a place to voice their opinions. Perhaps that is the critical point that needs to be made. The unions have become powerful in many places because of their large membership, but there are so many teachers who are members that don’t even follow what their own unions are doing. If you thought national voter turnouts were terrible, you should see union voting. Rates of under 20% are not unusual.

One solution would be to create a grassroots movement to get teachers more involved in their unions. Young teachers with new ideas could actually participate and make a difference. I had a discussion with some others about this very thing. Within UTLA it literally only takes a handful of votes to get elected as a delegate in the House of Representatives. Get some people together and you can have your voice heard. While this grassroots approach has potential, I am a top-down kind of guy. I think to get things done quickly, people at the top need to make them happen. Perhaps instead of dealing with unions (which also leaves out all those who don’t belong to them), the administration should be looking to create ways for teachers to have input. Task forces and advisory committees could be formed and polls taken to see what teachers want. Why should it be so hard to find out what teachers think?

What do you think? How can teachers be heard better? Tonight, I’m off to a screening of “Waiting for Superman.” I’m sure you’ll hear all about it tomorrow.

I don’t get it…

In Federal on July 5, 2010 at 6:15 pm

I try to stay on top of education developments by subscribing to a wide range of publications. I’m up to reading about 20 blogs and newsfeeds to try to stay on top of things. While many of these publications seem to tow a similar line, I also subscribe to a few that are just out there sometimes. The one that stands out the most is Schools Matter. Often, I think a more apt name might be “Teachers Matter (more than students).” I can often understand the concern for teachers’ rights in the current political climate. A lot of people are worried about their jobs.

If you can’t tell by now, I generally disagree with the way that many put status-quo-teachers’ opinions over the needs of students. Please note that I specifically said status-quo teachers and not all teachers. Many teachers are progressive. I do not believe that teachers’ unions reflect the progressive attitudes that many teachers have. At a national convention of the National Educators’ Education Association this past Saturday, there were calls of defiance against Barack Obama and Arne Duncan. Notably, no White House representatives were invited for the first time in two years. NEA president, Dennis Van Roekel, said on Saturday,  “Today our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment I have ever experienced” and when referencing the Obama administration’s actions to date said, “This is not the change I hoped for.” I am willing to be that many if not most teachers do not feel the same way. The current administration has dumped over $100 million into education, most of that not even reform-based. Perhaps he forgets that last year over $90 million was given to states to keep teachers on payrolls. The problem is that those like Van Roekel equate pro-change with anti-educator. Believe me, I think that teachers are the single most important part of a classroom today. That is precisely why I believe that current policies of last-hired, first-fired in so many places are themselves anti-educator. Educators will not regain the trust of Americans until they are an elite profession. Until a district can get rid of a bad teacher without having to spend close to $300,000 and two years, there will be way too many bad teachers.

Hopefully, there won't be too many that get indoctrinizated.

And while there are some obvious reasons that many support the NEA and the AFT, I am more mystified by other things that come out of Schools Matter, often from Jim Horn. His post today exemplifies the backwards thinking that can come from trying to be against everything. Aside from the fact that, like most of his posts, this one just copied and pasted from other sources and no actual reasoning is supplied (he often just writes a few sentences of angry preface), it is supremely clear that Horn makes very little sense. Horn copied from a Press of Atlantic City article entitled, “Almost 3,000 New Jersey seniors have yet to graduate after failing tests” and renamed it “NJ Proficiency Test Blocks 3,000 from Diplomas.” I would look at the original article and lament the horrendous educations these students must have been given to have been allowed to pass enough classes to graduate, but not be able to pass a test, which is given in 10th grade and in all reality tests at about an 8th or 9th grade level. If a student can’t understand algebra, it’s not because of a test; it’s because they weren’t taught well enough. Horn of course thinks that the teaching must have been OK, so it’s got to be the test that was a failure. The real title of the article should be “NJ Proficiency Test Shows 13 Years of Poor Instruction Blocks 3,000 from Diplomas.” Until people like Horn stop claiming that the tests are civil rights problems and realize that the real problem is inadequate instruction that English Language Learners and students from urban schools receive, they just won’t get it.

$800 Million, $10 Billion: It’s All the Same

In Federal on July 1, 2010 at 2:24 pm

If you pay attention to education headlines, you know that Congress has been talking about whether to authorize money to stave off teacher firings. The initial motion was to add $23 billion to a war appropriations bill. When that failed, Rep. David Obey D. WI decided to attempt a new tactic. Instead of $23 billion, he’s now asking for $10 billion with some of the money coming from previous education authorizations: $100 million from “innovation and improvement” (Alyson Klein thinks that means charters), $200 million from the Teacher Incentive Fund, and $500 million from Race to the Top. So let’s see, if we add that together, that makes somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 million or 8% of what he’s proposing. He obviously can’t think that that small amount is enough of a concession to get others to sponsor a $10 billion bill. The only logical answer is that he doesn’t approve of the programs that he’s taking money from.

Perhaps this might shed some light. Ah. So he’s one of those democrats. The new proposal seems to have less to do with giving teachers extra money than it does to taking away from the Administration’s priorities. Stafford Palmieri has a pretty decent assessment of the situation. She points out that his plan is specifically to take away from reforms and give more to the status quo. I’m not sure how expects this one to get passed if the last one didn’t. Obviously, the ED is none too pleased. My good friend Jeff Robinson had an interview with Arne Duncan yesterday about it. Jeff asks him why he thinks extra money is needed when the last appropriations still haven’t been spent. Duncan says that it’s because the money is meant for use in the long-run, but isn’t the point that it’s needed now when the economy is down, not in the future?

The Ed Department Spokesman, Peter Cunningham’s quote probably sums this up the best: If Congress is determined to find offsets, we will help them do that, but these are not the right ones. It’s hard to imagine much support for the measure, especially since round two of RttT is in the books and states are just waiting to cash in.

Tuesdays with Arne: Duncan Keynotes Policy Forum… At DeVry!?

In Federal on May 12, 2010 at 12:49 am

You may have heard about the speech Robert Shireman, the Under Secretary of Education, gave a couple of weeks ago comparing for-profit colleges to Wall Street. In it, he talked about the expansion of Pell Grant subsidies in the last year and how much for-profit colleges have reaped from them:

Corinthian Colleges – 38% increase for first 3 quarters this year compared to last year for
a total of $800M
DeVry – a couple people here from DeVry? – 42% increase up to $1.7B
ITT – you guys here? A 44% increase up to $623M
Strayer – still here? Is that you? Well this one – 95% increase, may be something about
the quarters, but up to $414M
APEI – Wally here? And Russell? 94% increase up to $44M
Kaplan – they here? So this total is actually all the Washington Post owned entities, 33%
increase up to $909M, and again this is the first 3 quarters of the year so the totals for the
year are obviously more than that
Career Education Corporation – 29% increase up to $1B this first three quarters
EDMC – several folks here; a 16% increase, $1.1B
Capella – over there? 40% increase to $378M
And I think I’ve just got a couple of others: Grand Canyon – 55% increase to $260M
And University of phoenix – you there? – 9% increase but obviously that’s on a larger base. So probably that increase is as much as a lot of others’ total dollars, and that increase is $2.7b total
And Bridgepoint – you guys here? – 61% increase, $393M
I think those were all that I had numbers for, obviously I know that there’s a few others here as well.

This is what running a for-profit college must be like. Image rights owned by Newsweek.

He was the man, laying down the law. His speech was s0 successful that for-profit colleges’ stocks crashed afterward. Well, it seems as though Arne got a little worried that that speech went overboard. He decided to give the keynote speech at the DeVry Public Policy Forum. Yes, that’s the same DeVry with a 42% increase in Pell Grants from last year. While Shireman had the cajones to to come out against these money machines, Duncan believes his job is to be the politician instead, smoothing over any hurt feelings:

Let me be crystal clear: for-profit institutions play a vital role in training young people and adults for jobs. They are critical to helping America meet the President’s 2020 goal. They are helping us meet the explosive demand for skills that public institutions cannot always meet.

Now, I’m a big fan of Duncan for the most part, but this makes less sense than his comment on NPR that he’s had “zero” public opposition to his policies. Mother Theresa didn’t have zero public opposition to her policies. At least in that case, I could give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s just saying he’s had good vibes from Joe on the street about what he’s doing. But by not only speaking at a for-profit public policy forum, but saying that those institutions are “vital”, Duncan completely undermines the message Shireman gave and backs down against the very businesses that are wasting tax-payer dollars.

I’m not going to sit here and say I’m morally opposed to people making money on education. I think whichever way we can educate students best should be pushed. However, these companies – and that’s what they are, not schools – are ONLY in it for the money. If they actually cared about educating students, they’d create environments that help students become successful, but they’re not. Without regulations that require them to provide quality services, they scam unsuspecting students into spending their money, along with the governments money, on a sham. Does it sound like I am being hyperbolic? I’m not. The purpose of a post-secondary institution is to give a marketable degree and skills they can use. Not only are the degrees these institutions provide not marketable, because they skimp on the skills, they don’t even give degrees to most of the students who enroll.

When I was a high school teacher, I posted some degree statistics for my students to be able to compare institutions. Ivy League schools have freshman retention rates of virtually 100%. All of them have above 95% of their students returning the next year. They all award degrees to over 90% of the students who enroll. Harvard’s 6-year graduation rate is 98%. If you go to Harvard, you will pretty much be guaranteed to graduate. I compared that to the state schools in Arizona (the state where I taught). Arizona State has one of the lowest freshman retention rates of a public four-year institution in the country – 79% and a 6-year gradutation rate of just 55% (only 27% in four years). However, those schools look like gods compared to for-profit schools. The prestigious DeVry University for which Mr. Duncan expressed  his admiration typically graduates less than 1/3 of the students who enroll. I suppose they’re the cream of the crop when compared to the University of Phoenix, whose Las Vegas campus had a 1% 4-year graduation rate recently. That is not a typo. OK, I’ll be fair – they had a whole 14% 6-year graduation rate. I suppose that’s better than their graduation rate for those who take their classes online.

My point is simple. If for-profit schools can’t bother to improve their practices to ensure that their students graduate, then why should the government give them money to keep them in business? You want to try to scam unsuspecting students? You should be shut down, not appeased. And Arne, learn from Rob. Be a man.

Link Chain

In Uncategorized on May 11, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Yesterday was  my birthday, so instead of writing a long opinion on something, I just compiled some links to some interesting articles from yesterday. I’ll have my weekly Tuesdays with Arne column later and tomorrow, I’ll give my thoughts on an LA Times article from yesterday about how Ed schools need to change to keep up with alternative certifications.

Revolutionary Colorado District Actually Pays Teachers What They’re Worth
While the state of Colorado has been in the news recently for trying to pass requirements that districts add in teacher effectiveness to their hiring and firing practices, Harrison School District Two is going one step further. They’re changing their pay to be completely based on effectiveness.

Massachusetts is Looking for the Best Teachers for the Worst Schools
The state of Massachusetts is aggressively trying to improve the teacher quality in some of its worst schools.

Duncan is a Little Too Confident in Himself
Some people seem confused about Arne Duncan saying he hasn’t seen any public opposition to what he’s doing. Maybe that’s because they think that politicians and bloggers are “the public.”

Is California Getting Some Help with RttT?

In California, Federal, LA on May 6, 2010 at 12:36 am

This article in the LA Times suggests that the state of California has recently been told by the federal DOE that it doesn’t need to get full participation from every district for Race to the Top as long as LAUSD (which has more students than half of the states in the US) takes part. There has been a lot of talk recently over whether it is better to have full buy-in from the districts, unions, etc. or to be bold. Duncan has had some frustration with this topic. There has been lots of speculation that because Delaware and Tennessee both had strong union support of their ideas, that was the way to go. However, Duncan has specifically said, “watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won’t win.” This points to an opening up of how the funding works. If it’s true that the strength of the proposal lies in how much reform there is, California has more incentive to target just a few districts that are willing to make greater strides than a large number of districts.

California probably figured it could win the race by shedding some weight.

Andy Smarick isn’t so sure that the article is accurate, though. His contentions are that: 1. Any application would be game if this were true, as long as they meet the data requirements. 2. It doesn’t make sense that the Department of Ed would have given them specific advice, since they are not apt to do that. And 3. It’s the judges that do the scoring, not the Ed Department anyway.

I’m not so sure there’s as big of a problem as Smarick thinks. First of all, if you take a look at the Race to the Top FAQs, question A-4 says that

The State’s applications for funding under Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (Stabilization) program must be approved by the Department prior to the State being awarded a Race to the Top grant.

It doesn’t say anything about not being allowed to make sure your application is legitimate; in fact, it implies the opposite. While the DOE last year said that LAUSD couldn’t apply on its own separate from the state, they never said the state had to have all of its districts in the race for its own application. In fact, if you take a look at section K of the FAQs, it talks about the process for LEAs (local education agencies, usually districts) to sign up (emphasis added):

Participating LEAs must agree to implement all or significant portions of the State’s plan and must enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or other binding agreement with the State that specifies the scope of work that the LEA will implement. The expectation is that participating LEAs will implement significant aspects of the State’s plan…If the State is awarded a Race to the Top grant, its participating LEAs (including those that submitted too late to be included in the application) will have up to 90 days to complete final scopes of work (referred to as Exhibit II in the model MOU). At the conclusion of that period, States will notify LEAs of their final section 14006(c) subgrant.

The implication seems to be that there is no expectation that all districts will comply. There even seems to be an expectation that they won’t and that the funding is based on those that do, rather than what the whole state is doing. So perhaps, the LA Times article wasn’t wrong, so much as misleading. What probably happened is that those in charge of the state’s application asked if they could have a more limited scope, because the population of California is bigger than the 18 smallest states combined. I don’t think that there were necessarily any lengthy negotiations of what they could or could not do. California may have submitted a proposal that was then approved. The author of the Times article also seems a bit unfamiliar with what they’re writing about, making it seem as if the deal with the Department of Ed means that the portions about charter laws and other factors can be glossed over. If anything, with fewer districts, expect the state to have its application more in line with what Duncan et al. want with more loosening of charter laws and tying performance to pay for teachers. The scenario really appears to be a win-win. The districts that participate have a higher chance of winning and the Administration doesn’t have to spend as much money if California wins, while still getting their participation.

Also, can someone please tell Andy Smarick that there are three words that start with ‘t” in Race to the Top, not two?

Update 5/6: It looks like my hunch was right. Edweek says that there was no deal between California and the Department of Ed. Rather than having a deal where California didn’t have to ask any other districts to participate (which the article never actually says, btw), the idea is that there is not a requirement that there be a large number of LEAs participating. There never was in the first place, but there were probably some conversations with Duncan encouraging the state to apply and reassuring them it would be OK. You can read the DOE’s damage control here.

Tuesdays with Arne: And You Thought Mom Just Made Mac ‘n Cheese

In Federal on May 5, 2010 at 1:39 am

Although it’s technically Wednesday, I’m still awake, so I’m considering this my Duncan post for Tuesday. With all of the hullabaloo about teachers’ rights with tenure issues and training questions, one constituency seems to be forgotten in schooling: the parents. There seem to be two unproductive polar opposite views when it comes to improving the education of students. One view is that children can not learn more, because parents are responsible for a child’s upbringing. The other is the Teach For America view that a teacher can mold regardless of what is going on at home. However, there is a third mindset that needs to be instilled in our schooling system if we are ever to fully close the achievement gaps that exist. Schools need to be seen as places that interact with parents, not just students, so that a child’s education can be an integral part of their lives, rather than something that only happens from 7:30 to 2:30 each day. Luckily, my main man Arne has seen the light. Yesterday, May 3rd,  Duncan gave the keynote address at the first annual Mom Congress, a meeting of 51 moms from around the country, representing all 50 states plus DC. The event was held at Georgetown University and was sponsored by Parenting Magazine. I thought perhaps instead of going through the entire speech, I’d simply highlight some important things he said.

First of all, he began by telling a story of Obama asking the equivalent of the Secretary of Education in South Korea what his biggest challenge was and he said that parents are too demanding. He contrasted this with what he sees as the state of parents in the US:

Too many people say, “Schools are bad, but my school is good. Sorry to hear about the low math scores, but my Johnny is doing just fine.”

I thought that his concept of what parents should be doing in connection to their children’s educations were clear and make sense:

I want all parents to be real partners in their children’s educations… Parents can serve in at least one of three roles: partners in learning, advocates and advisors who push for better schools, and decision-makers who choose the best educational options for their children.

I would like for him to have talked a little more about the subject. These sound like wonderful ideas, but how do you get parents to do these things and what is ideal for how much they’re doing them? I would venture the assumption is that all parents should  the first area, but that the other two are a little more hazy. However, I liked the direction he went from there. He talked about what schools need to do in order for parents to feel like they have a stronger connection to the schools their children are in:

Schools should be places that honor and respect families, that meet parents on their own terms, and that may mean teachers giving out their cell phone numbers to field questions at night and calling back that single mom who missed the parent-teacher conference, because she had to work. Unfortunately, that mutual engagement and support is still missing for far too many of our nation’s schools… We have a long way to go before all schools support student learning and healthy growth, but parents aren’t off the hook here either in this partnership between schools and families.

It’s definitely a two-way street, but schools can only control one part of that street. With some work, they can get the other side working, too. Duncan also brought up the effects of the home environment on student learning. He pointed to a study by Kaiser that showed that adolescents spend 12 hours a day with media and that that number is even higher for African American and Hispanic children. This is compared to the 25 minutes a day students spend reading books. The kicker? Only 1/3 of parents in the study said they set any rules at all on how much their children could use the media. The results? Students who used media more were more likely to do worse in school, spend less time reading books, and got into more trouble. Coincidence? I think not.

We are never going to put the electronic genie back in the bottle, nor should we try, but parents can do better about setting limits on children’s use of electronic media and work towards using it more creatively to support student learning. There are extraordinary examples of using technology to engage children in their own learning, but more and more parents are realizing that media saturation and even addiction are real problems for their children.

We need to draw a line somewhere.

Being the Secretary of Education, Duncan brought it back out to what they need to be doing:

It is time for us to look in the mirror and not just out the window – and that includes us at the department of education… For 45 years, ever since the passing of the ESEA, the federal government has required or encouraged states,  districts, and schools, especially those with large numbers of low-income students, to promote parents’ involvement in students education.

I think this may be an area where Duncan sees a foothold into expanding the power of the federal government. If there are already provisions for these programs and they are so neglected, the DOE has a strong opportunity to have a lot of influence. However, as I’ve noted in other articles, one of the problems in policy these days is the lack of research into what works and parental involvement is no exception, as Duncan points out:

There is surprisingly little research on what works and what doesn’t in family engagement programs to accelerate student learning.

So the big question is, what should be done to improve the situation? Just like the other policies that have ruffled many feathers, the answer Duncan is providing is in money, since that’s what changes minds:

Our proposal [the Blueprint] allows family engagement to be included as one measure of success in teacher and principal evaluations… Today, we propose to double funding for parent engagement from one to two percent of  Title 1 dollars to bring that total to $270 million and at the same time in order to drive innovation. We will allow states to use another 1 percent of title 1 dollars, about $145 million, for grant programs that help support, incentivize, and help expand district-level, evidence-based parental involvement practices

I know, a lot to take in, but I think overall, the message is clear: we can’t just focus on what students are doing inside of the classroom. Students only spend 8 hours a day there for half of the days of the year. To improve education, we need to take into account all of the rest of the time in a student’s life.

Tuesdays with Arne: Is Race to the Top Arbitrary?

In Federal on April 27, 2010 at 2:53 pm

It seems like I have some learning to do in terms of keeping consistency. I have had a busy last week and finally have some time to commit to the blog. Fear not, though. I will make sure to mend my ways and adjust my scheduling. On to more knowledge!

There seem to be lots of people angry about education these days. Usually they are angry that others are running things a different way than they think things should be run. Charter schools or no charter schools? Teach For America or education schools? Pump lots of money in or let them suffer? OK, that one’s not what people actually think, but sometimes it seems that way.  One way to get lots of people angry is to throw around some money. Everyone always wants to say how money should be spent. Give incentives. Pay teachers more. Buy more technology. Any use of government funds is therefore at the top of the anger meter. Public funds are in part everyone’s money, so everyone seems to think they should have some say over it.

Last week, The Washington Post‘s education blog, “The Answer Sheet,” ran an article entitled “Race to Top Winners Chosen Arbitrarily.” It was based on a report from the Economic Policy Institute which calls the Race to the Top “a muddled path to the finish line.” I have a hard time reading things that seem so categorical. As soon as a report comes out calling something fundamentally right or wrong, I become skeptical. However, the report has some strong analysis, despite its extreme conclusions. It has some important criticisms that should be corrected in future rounds of Race to the Top if it is to continue.

For those who don’t know, Race to the Top uses a 500-point rating system to determine the winners of hundreds of millions of dollars. The table at the bottom, which is shown in the report and comes from http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/pdf/E9-27426.pdf, shows what factors go into the process. As you can see, there are thirty different factors that the were used to determine grades. And that leads me to the first criticism – Peterson and Rothstein (neither of whom I’d like to point out are education policy analysts) say that the process is “needlessly complex.” The point out that there are lots of factors with varying weights. I’m not sure that this is much of a problem, since education is complex in itself. Better to have a large number of specific criteria than a few vague ones.

However, the importance of this claim becomes more apparent in conjunction with the fact that these criteria are not scientifically chosen. I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion. They state that the factors themselves seem to be arbitrary. Clearly the people running this are not just picking issues out of a hat. The report brings up a good point that even though the factors are somewhat based on policy preferences, even that does not quite hold water. Duncan’s “Blueprint,” which  gives proposals for allocations in the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) includes ideas for competitions in areas that are given no points in RttT. The report makes it seem as if this means that there is some incongruity – either Duncan thinks these are important issues or he doesn’t. But if he’s asking for money separately, does that necessarily mean there needs to be money directed at these areas twice?

In addition to the claim that the factors are arbitrary, the report says the weights themselves are arbitrary:

Is there scientific support for the “State Success Factors” being 90.6% as important as the “Great Teachers and Leaders”
factor? Should the “Great Teachers” maximum points be 140, or maybe 163, instead of 138?

Apparently they subscribe to the logical fallacy that I warned my my 10th graders against: a lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. In other words, just because these researchers don’t know reasons for there being varying weights does not mean there aren’t any reasons. It seems absurd to claim that there was no scientific basis for choosing these factors and these weights. They even point out that there was a time period for open comments from the public, some of which were accepted and others rejected (or as they claim “ignored”). The problem is that the reasoning was not given, not that there wasn’t reasoning.

The biggest problem with RttT’s system in my eyes that the report points out are the enormous scales used and the inconsistency in grading as a result. In my Master’s in Education program, we were warned against having grading scales that are too complex. There are usually only about three to five gradations that a normal person is able to distinguish between. Even getting up to seven starts to get hazy. What is the difference between scoring 42 or 43 points out of 50? That, I will agree, leads to arbitrariness. If the creators of the system want something to be worth 50 points, then differences in weighting need to occur, rather than a broad scale. Perhaps it should be out of five possible points and then multiplied by 10.  On top of the scale, it is clear that the factors themselves are not specific enough. The report points out that in one instance, Florida received scores of 25, 35, 38, 40, and 40 points from the five judges on the same criteria. The scores are then averaged. I don’t know about you but to me, for one person to think  that Florida should get 25 while two others think 40 means that someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. There needs to be consistency. The report suggests an olympic-style dropping of lowest and highest scores to account for outliers. This does not satisfy me. If there are extreme outliers, that points to a problem in the criterion itself. The graders need to have consensus and not just agree to disagree.

With all of these problems, and I will agree that there are a fair number, Peterson and Rothstein recommend that the government move toward a pass/fail system, rather than such a complex one that is sure to have many inconsistencies. However, this seems to be a step backwards. The whole point of Race to the Top is that there is a top that states are aiming for, not a bottom. To have a bare minimum that states need to achieve sets states’ aims at that minimum, rather than creating an education market of sorts in which the best state wins. With so much money riding, there certainly need to be improvements, but altering concept is not necessary in light of these particular problems.

Metric Weighting for Race to the Top Competition

Possible points Weight
A. State success Factors 125 25%
(A)(1) Articulating State’s education reform agenda and LEA’s participation in it 65 13
(i) Articulating comprehensive, coherent reform agenda 5 1
(ii) Securing LEA commitment 45 9
(iii) Translating LEA participation into statewide impact 15 3
(A)(2) Building strong statewide capacity to implement, scale up, and sustain proposed plans 30 6
(i) Ensuring the capacity to implement 20 4
(ii) Using broad stakeholder support 10 2
(A)(3) Demonstrating significant progress in raising achievement and closing gaps 30 6
(i) Making progress in each reform area 5 1
(ii) Improving student outcomes 25 5
B. Standards and Assessments 70 14
(B)(1) Developing and adopting common standards 40 8
(i) Participating in consortium developing high-quality standards 20 4
(ii) Adopting standards 20 4
(B)(2) Developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments 10 2
(B)(3) Supporting the transition to enhanced standards and high-quality assessments 20 4
C. Data systems to support Instruction 47 9
(C)(1) Fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system 24 5
(C)(2) Accessing and using state data 5 1
(C)(3) Using data to improve instruction 18 4
D. Great Teachers and Leaders 138 28
(D)(1) Providing high-quality pathways for aspiring teachers and principals 21 4
(D)(2) Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance 58 12
(i) Measuring student growth 5 1
(ii) Developing evaluation systems 15 3
(iii) Conducting annual evaluations 10 2
(iv) Using evaluations to inform key decisions 28 6
(D)(3) Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals 25 5
(i) Ensuring equitable distribution in high-poverty or high-minority schools 15 3
(ii) Ensuring equitable distribution in hard-to-staff subjects and specialty areas 10 2
(D)(4) Improving the effectiveness of teacher and principal preparation programs 14 3
(D)(5) Providing effective support to teachers and principals 20 4
E. Turning around the Lowest-achieving schools 50 10
(E)(1) Intervening in the lowest-achieving schools and LEAs 10 2
(E)(2) Turning around the lowest-achieving schools 40 8
(i) Identifying the persistently lowest-achieving schools 5 1
(ii) Turning around the persistently lowest-achieving schools 35 7
F. General 55 11
(F)(1) Making education funding a priority 10 2
(F)(2) Ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charter schools and other innovative schools 40 8
(F)(3) Demonstrating other significant reform conditions 5 1
Competitive Preference Priority 2: Emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) 15 3
Total 500 100%

Tuesdays with Arne

In Uncategorized on April 20, 2010 at 2:28 pm

For those of you who are NPR buffs, you may have heard Neil Conan’s interview of Arne Duncan yesterday on Talk of the Nation. If you haven’t, it’s a good listen (or read, if you prefer). I especially appreciate Conan’s pressing of inconsistencies. In particular, he starts out right away asking whether the “education bailout” would be tied to reform at all. Duncan tries to skirt around this a few times, but finally relents and says “no.” He claims that we need to give this money to save jobs, since so many districts are cutting teachers due to financial troubles, but at the same time keep pressing a reform agenda. Basically, we want to keep education alive, but still have that carrot to make it get better. This sounds great until you look at the numbers a la Andy Smarick. Raise your hand if you know how much the Race to the Top money is worth. Right, $4.35 billion dollars. It sounds like a lot of money, until you compare the other money coming from Congress to the states for education. The first big wallet opening was in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act  – a whopping $75 billion. On top of that, Duncan is pressing for this second bailout of an additional $23 billion. That’s $98 billion that is no-strings-attached. States and districts don’t have to change their policies a bit to load that into their pockets. Now how big does $4.35 billion sound? States may be offered a carrot, but it’s only after receiving a 5-course dinner.

My other big bone to pick with Duncan is his view on funding. He says that not only does most of the money for education come from the local level, it should. I can not even begin to think of how the person running our federal education plan can possibly really believe that. After he just gets through talking about how students right outside of Chicago have double the funding per student as those he presided over as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, he says that funding should come from the local level. Something does not compute here. Is he saying that it’s OK for those kids from rich families to have better funding for their schools? This seems preposterous to me. It’s one thing to say that educational decisions should come from the local level. I don’t personally agree with that, but I can understand where people are coming from when they say that. But to say that the bulk of funding should come from the local level? That makes absolutely no sense to me. I worked in a school in Arizona for two years that got less funding than another school in the exact same district, simply because money generated from income taxes was higher at that other school. The rich stay rich and the poor kids have to make due. Duncan talks about creating incentives for teachers to go into urban and poverty-stricken schools. How about at least allowing for some fair competition? If a failing school doesn’t have the resources to compete with a great one, why would a teacher want to go there? I hear lots of hope for change, but I’d like to see them put their money where their mouths are – and more than just 4% of the money.