Last summer the US Department of Education announced that it would release $4.3 billion to states through competitive grants as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Known as Race to the Top, this program essentially is phase two of the federal stimulus monies for public education. There are strings attached to this money, as states applying for the monies must met a very defined set of eligibility and selection criteria. Some of these criteria must already be in place and the applying states must demonstrate they have reform plans in place. The four criteria areas are the following:
1. Standards and Assessments: States must design and implement a set of "internationally benchmarked common standards and assessments that build toward college and career readiness." Massachusetts' well-established Curriculum Frameworks and MCAS system as well as its participation in the national Common Core State Standards Initiative positions the state well in this area.
2. Data Systems to Support Instruction: States must design and implement a comprehensive data system that details student achievement data over time (showing growth, etc.), can communicate with higher education data systems, and can match individual students with teachers. Massachusetts has done a lot of work in this area by establishing the Educational Data Warehouse and its new Student Growth Percentile reporting, but the next step, starting in 2011, will be to match student achievement data (e.g., MCAS results) to individual teachers. This data, according to the RTTT Grant, must be made easily accessible to all stakeholders, including parents, teachers, students, principals, and all district and union leaders.
3. Great Teachers and Leaders: States must provide alternate routes to teacher certification, ones other than traditional teacher prep programs. They must also come up with a plan where teachers and principals are evaluated annually and differentiated by effectiveness, using student achievement data as at least one measure of effectiveness. Data on teacher and principal effectiveness should be used for the purposes of evaluation, compensation and promotion, granting of tenure, and dismissal. Teacher evaluation should be based upon distinct standards of performance and should utilize a multiple rating scale. Additionally, states must have plans in place to increase the number of highly effective teachers in high-need schools (e.g., urban districts) and in shortage subject areas (e.g., math and science). Finally, state plans should also use student data to drive teacher and principal supports such as professional development and common planning time.
4. Turning Around Struggling Schools: States must already have the legal authority to intervene in persistently low-performing schools or districts and also have a statutory framework that is supportive of high-quality charter schools (e.g., no cap on new charters, etc.). States must also develop a plan where superintendents/local educational agencies (LEAs) should have the authority to turn around the state's lowest 5% of schools by using one of three options: 1) reconstitution of the school's leadership and/or professional staff; 2) handover of the school to a charter school or other educational management organization; or 3) outright closing of the school.
There obviously is a lot new here in the RTTT requirements. As it is estimated that Massachusetts' share (if funded) of the RTTT funds is approximately $250 million over the next four years, the state has made some efforts to create plans to support the above reforms. Most notable is the Education Reform Act of 2009, which the MA Senate passsed on November 17 and the House will be debating starting next week (for a summary of this bill, click here). The bill is meant to strengthen the state's RTTT application, as it provides for more authority and autonomy for superintendents to intervene in in underperforming and chronically underperforming schools, lifts the cap on new charter schools, enabling school committees in underperforming districts to establish them, and allows communities to establish "innovation schools," which have increase autonomy and flexibility in all phases of operation. Seeing that the RTTT application is due to the feds by January 19, the bill in some form will likely pass in the House in the next two weeks.
Also to bolster the state's application, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has sent out a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to all 299 of the state's districts. The MOU states that the district is committed to implementing the four above reform areas of RTTT and will support the state's plans to implement the reforms. DESE is asking that each district's superintendent, school committee chair, and teachers' union president sign this MOU and return it by January 13. If a district does not return the MOU, then it will not be eligible for any of the Massachusetts RTTT funds.
It should be noted that 50% of the RTTT funds will be dispersed based upon how much Title I (which is based upon poverty) a district receives. This does not bode well for Mansfield, as our Title I funding is relatively minor.
So much of this represents change- and with that will come a great deal of controversy. I personally believe that there's a great deal of positive reforms in RTTT, such as increased use of data, requirement of benchmarked, teacher-generated assessments, annual evaluations based upon professional teaching standards, and the possibility of rewarding the best teachers through differentiated compensation. These ideas will no doubt cause great dialogue, and their merits should be debated. Educators may love or hate these reforms, but they are here to stay.
The reality of the situation is simple: RTTT has strings attached, and in the worst economic times since the Great Depression, most, if not all districts are cash strapped and need the RTTT funds. The reforms of RTTT are clearly the agenda of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration. They are not leaving us for anytime soon. The way I see it is that we can go "kicking and screaming," or hop on the train, so to speak. My hope is that educators can embrace many of these reforms and shape what they actually look in practice so that kids ultimately benefit.
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