Race to the Top opens up to districts

California school districts will finally be able to seek Race to the Top money without interference and resistance from Gov. Jerry Brown and state officials.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Tuesday announced much anticipated draft criteria for a $400 million competition open to individual districts or groups of districts nationwide. That’s enough money to fund a projected 20 proposals for grants of $15 million to $25 million, Duncan said.

For districts and qualifying schools in California, this will be the last opportunity to pursue innovative ideas and school models they have not been able to develop in cash-strapped times. The three previous Race to the Top rounds have been open only to states, and California has been shut, although it was one of nine finalists in the second cycle and was all but guaranteed at least $49 million in round three. However, Brown declined to sign the application on behalf of seven districts that put it together, because he believed it would have obligated the state to enact statewide reforms he opposed. As a result, Duncan rejected the state’s application out of hand.

That hasn’t discouraged John Deasy, superintendent for Los Angeles Unified, one of the lead districts in the aborted last round. Deasy said Tuesday that the nation’s second largest district certainly will be applying for $25 million. LAUSD’s pilot schools, its new teacher evaluation system, and experiments in other schools are the kinds of reforms that Race to the Top is encouraging, he said.

Applications will be due in July; the awards will be announced in October, and money for the grants disbursed in December.

LAUSD and the other six Race to the Top districts formed the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, to continue their work implementing Common Core and teacher evaluation. They also have been encouraging federal education officials to open up Race to the Top to districts. Hilary McLean, director of communications for CORE, said that the superintendents remain intrigued at the possibility and will examine the criteria for applying either singly, as LAUSD intends to do, or collectively.

There will be a new twist. The top priority will be, Duncan said, “personalized student-focused learning” ­– approaches and programs directed to meeting individual student needs within and outside of the classroom. The Department of Education describes these on the Race to the Top website as “collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready.”

21st century technologies

One obvious applicant pool would be districts and charter schools with a widespread use of online and blended learning; the latter is a hybrid that combines classroom instruction and online learning. California has leaders in blended learning: Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education, along with districts (Los Altos School District) and charters (Summit Public Schools) working closely with Mountain View-based Khan Academy on technologies that track individual students’ progress and allow them to learn at their own pace.

Among large districts, Riverside Unified, with 43,000 students, is the farthest along in piloting online and blended learning. It also operates the Riverside Virtual School for 12,000 students in and outside the district. Principal David Haglund said that a Race to the Top grant would enable Riverside to take its individualized learning commitment to scale.

But Duncan said that new technologies are only one approach to break the “one size fits all mold.” Pointing to the Promise Neighborhoods model of community involvement in schools, Duncan said this could be done by bringing adult tutors into the schools and establishing partnerships with community groups, colleges, and health services to meet the academic, physical, and emotional needs of students. Oakland Unified’s ambitious Community Schools, Thriving Students initiative, which has established partnerships for school health clinics in some schools, with plans for a community STEM concentration in West Oakland, is one effort that could be taken to scale. Deasy said that pilot schools with home visitations and extended-day programs are examples of what the district might choose to expand with a grant. LAUSD hasn’t decided whether to target certain schools or concentrate on select grades.

Some of the proposed criteria and stipulations may disqualify some districts and give others pause:

  • District applications must serve at least 2,500 students (too large for some rural districts and charter school organizations but not in a consortia with others), with at least 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch subsidies;
  • Applicants must agree to priorities of previous rounds of Race to the Top. These include having a data system that links teachers to students and a commitment to employ a teacher evaluation system by 2014-15 that gives significant attention to growth in student achievement;
  • The superintendent, president of the school board, and head of the teachers union all must sign the application. In previous rounds, union leaders’ consent was not required but helped a state’s score.

United Teachers Los Angeles didn’t sign off on LAUSD’s previous applications. Deasy said he assumes that the union would not stand in the way of pursuing $25 million for the district.

Third time wasn’t a charm but now L.A. can win Race to the Top

Second chances don’t come around too often. Fourth chances? Almost never. But Los Angeles now has a remarkable opportunity to make up for California’s failures to win federal funds and to institute much-needed education reforms.

Three times in the last two years, California has competed in Race to the Top, the federal program that provides billions of dollars to states that promise to adopt bold education reforms. California has failed every round of the K-12 competition. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education dismissed the state’s proposal as incomplete because Gov. Jerry Brown refused to sign it.

As a result, the Los Angeles Unified School District has gotten zero dollars from this program and implemented few of the reforms urged by President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Meanwhile, only 43 percent of our students are proficient in math, and only 52 percent graduate from high school on time.

But this month, thanks in large part to Mayor Villaraigosa’s push for another approach, the White House gave L.A. another chance. Duncan announced that Los Angeles Unified, as well as other large school districts, soon will be able to apply directly for Race to the Top funding, rather than rely on their states’ applications. In other words, L.A. doesn’t have to get tangled up in the state’s mess when crafting its reform plan.

This is a precious opportunity. A winning application would accomplish two very important things. First, it would secure millions of dollars for a school district in the midst of a financial crisis so extreme that thousands of teachers may be laid off and essential programs and resources eliminated. Second, it would finally empower the district to implement desperately needed policy changes, particularly ones that ensure effective teaching.

L.A. Superintendent John Deasy has touted precisely the reforms that Race to the Top judges are looking for in reviewing applications. Last summer, shortly after becoming superintendent, Deasy wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles  Times detailing the changes he wants to bring to LAUSD. Now is the time for him to turn words into action.

Deasy called for a “robust and meaningful evaluation system” that provides teachers with the feedback they need to grow and excel. Such a system would consider “multiple measures,” including student test scores, classroom observations by trained evaluators, parent and student feedback, and teachers’ contributions to their school communities. In the current system, a teacher’s evaluation is based on a single observation by the school principal, and 97 percent of teachers are rated “satisfactory.”

Deasy also urged a more sensible approach to granting tenure. Though state law requires that a tenure decision be made after two years, the superintendent has insisted on using thorough data and feedback in order to assess and support teachers as they approach the tenure mark. A higher bar for tenure should be accompanied by “a significant salary increase,” Deasy stated.

The superintendent has also come out strongly in favor of pay raises for teachers who demonstrate excellence in the classroom, particularly those who improve student achievement in low-performing schools. A better compensation system, after all, would likely entice strong teachers to remain at the schools where they are most needed.

These are the reforms Los Angeles needs. Not coincidentally, they are also the reforms found in past winning Race to the Top applications from states such as Tennessee and Florida.

Anyone who has worked closely with Deasy, as I have both during my time on the school board and afterward, has no doubt that he is committed to making these changes a reality. He continues to work with teachers on a pilot evaluation system that could eventually spread throughout the district.

But Deasy can’t do it alone. The truth is that, given the history of Race to the Top winners, a successful application will almost definitely require solid agreement between the district and the teachers union.

That’s where United Teachers Los Angeles comes in. Historically, UTLA has been wary of, if not outright opposed to, any challenges to the status quo. However, in December union leaders hashed out a bold new agreement with Deasy and district officials. While that agreement left many urgent policy problems unresolved, it proves that the union and district leaders can work together to fix what is broken.

Now, with Duncan inviting L.A. to apply for federal funding, it’s time for both sides to pick up where last year’s agreement left off. This is a historic opportunity for the students of Los Angeles. It would be tragic if the adults squandered it.

Yolie Flores, the president and chief executive officer of Communities for Teaching Excellence, was a member of the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education from 2007 to 2011.

California wins early learning grant

California has won a $52.6 million grant for early childhood education programs through the federal government’s Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge.  US Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius announced the nine winners of the $500 million competitive grant program at a White House press event this morning.

“It’s great for our state,” said Scott Moore,  senior policy advisor with Preschool California, which helped write California’s application. The state’s proposal was unique because it calls for locally-based programming rather than a large statewide grant.  Sixteen regional consortia in the state will share 85 percent of the funds and most of the decision making.

This is a “recognition that what California is poised to do is seen as cutting edge and leading in the nation in terms of providing, especially low income children and children starting to fall behind, the chance to catch up and the chance to be ready for school,” said Moore.

California was among nine states awarded grants;  35 states plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico applied.  The state had been seeking $100 million dollars, but a note on the U.S. Department of Education website says there wasn’t enough money to meet that request (see box at right).

Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge winners and grant amounts (source:  US Dept. of Education) click to enlarge
Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge winners and grant amounts (source: US Dept. of Education) click to enlarge

Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education, said the Department of Education will consult with the consortia members about how to proceed with less money.  The options range from reducing the number of regions in the consortia or keeping it at 16 and having each of them do a little less – perhaps working with fewer schools or not holding as many training sessions.  “I think it will still be a robust implementation,” said Burr.

The California plan calls for developing a tiered quality rating system to encourage early childhood programs to have quality teachers and quality instructional materials, and to make sure they’re aligned with the skills children will need when they enter kindergarten.

The grant almost didn’t make it to the federal government.  As we reported here, Gov. Jerry Brown waited until the eleventh hour to finalize the application and sign off on it.

In a statement released this morning, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said, “this grant will help more California children get good care and a good start at learning, which we know is key to their long-term success, at school and beyond.”

Duncan to State: No way on RTTT

(TOP-Ed writer Kathy Baron co-wrote this post.)

In another cockfight between California and Washington over education, the U.S. Department of Education has rejected California’s application – and only California’s application – in the third round of Race to the Top. The denial exasperated the seven California school districts that led the state’s effort and were counting on $49 million earmarked for California as critical to do the work they had committed to do.

In a statement Wednesday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst each criticized the federal government’s inflexibility in not accepting what they described as California’s “innovative” approach of giving control of the reforms to local school districts. Seven unified districts, including Los Angeles, Frenso, and Long Beach, formed a coalition known as CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, to compete for round three and work together on the reform.

Torlakson also said the federal government failed to scale back its expectations for Race to the Top reforms during this fiscal crisis. “I had hoped the federal Administration would be mindful of the financial emergency facing California’s schools and the severe constraints it has placed on state resources,” he said. (In the third round of RTTT, the federal government slashed the available funding from $3.4 billion to $200 million. For California, that reduced the potential award from as much as $700 million to $50 million.)

The federal government saw things differently. In a statement congratulating the other seven states in line for the money, federal officials said California “submitted an incomplete application.”

As we reported here on Tuesday, Kirst, Torlakson, and Gov. Brown, who is vacationing this week, submitted only a two-page letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan that indicated that the state was fine with just the seven districts undertaking the reforms.

What state officials didn’t do was submit and sign the official short application, which, the Department ruled Wednesday, disqualified California.

Failure to sign wasn’t simply an oversight; it reflected a fundamental disagreement about what California was asked to commit to. In the second round of RTTT, the state had agreed to four broad areas of reform:

  • Implementing Common Core standards;
  • Building data systems to measure student growth and success in order to improve instruction;
  • Recruiting, training, and rewarding effective teachers and principals;
  • Turning around the lowest-achieving schools.

In being asked to reaffirm these reforms for round three, the state and CORE districts had very different interpretations. The districts believed that nothing had changed; they remained committed to the four reform areas agreed to in the second round. All that Brown and the others had to do was simply acknowledge that the Legislature hadn’t passed any laws reversing the commitments made in round two.

“It was a unique application that only committed participating districts to reforms,” said Rick Miller, executive director of CORE, which represents the districts.

Brown and Torlakson objected to making any statewide commitments dealing with teacher effectiveness and how to treat failing schools. They also didn’t want to be tied to explicit reforms approved by Gov. Schwarzenegger in the second round application. One in particular, strongly opposed by the California Teachers Association, would have committed the CORE districts to linking standardized test scores to teacher evaluations.

State Board President Kirst agreed with that interpretation. “The issue is not what the districts committed to but what the state was committed to,” said Kirst. “The second round application was slippery in terms of what was committed; it mixed up state and local roles.”

Kirst, Torlaskson, and Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education, have had ongoing conversations with top federal education officials. As recently as this week Kirst spoke with Duncan and expressed his reservations.

The state’s interpretation baffled Fresno Unified Superintendent Mike Hanson, who said he thought the CORE districts had an understanding with the governor to submit the round three application. “I find it hard to believe that whatever gap existed in the end could not have been bridged by having representatives from Sacramento, D.C., and CORE sit down and talk it out,” said Hanson.

Fresno and the other six districts were going to use the federal money to prepare teachers to make the transition to Common Core and build local data systems to share information and their successes. They’ve been starting to do this work using some small foundation grants, but Hanson said the $49 million would have been “jet propulsion for us,” and the results would have been available for all districts in the state.

“We missed a big opportunity, probably the last opportunity” for a major federal grant, said Hanson.  “That money is now going to go to another state to help make those kids more competitive.”

Brown consents to Race to Top

With Gov. Brown’s signature, but not full support, the seven districts that led the state’s pursuit of Race to the Top money will meet today’s deadline for applying for the third – and perhaps last – round of the program. They’re hoping that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his top deputies won’t hold the governor’s reservations – or contrariness – against them.

California’s share of at least $49 million of the $200 million total should be all but assured, because this stage of Race to the Top is reserved for nine state finalists from the last round and  is more of an award than a competition. However, Brown, who two years ago wrote Duncan sharply criticizing  Race to the Top’s approach of “top down, Washington driven standardization,” is declining to give all of the commitments for reforms that Duncan is requiring – even though districts, acting independently, not the state, would be doing the work. Brown’s position could jeopardize the districts’ eligibility. Update: Here is thetwo-page letter, very deftly worded, that the state sent to Duncan today stating the limit of the state’s compliance with the Race to the Top requirements.**

California could learn as soon as Wednesday, according to Sue Burr, executive director for the State Board of Education. If the state qualifies, then the districts would have until mid-December to submit a plan detailing what they’ll do. That plan, which State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson must sign as well, must also say how the districts will advance learning in  STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The seven unified districts, serving nearly 1 million children Los Angeles, San Francisco, Long Beach, Fresno, Sacramento City, Sanger, and Clovis – have formed the California Office to Reform Education to continue the cooperation they started in applying to Race to the Top last year, and are known as the CORE districts. But nearly 300 other districts and charter organizations signed on to the state’s application last time, too, and also could participate in the effort if they choose. So far, they haven’t been involved in the latest application.

Focus on Common Core, data

It’s taken weeks of negotiations and verbal jujitsu for the CORE districts to get to the point of possibly satisfying Brown’s reluctance and the feds’ demands. A letter that will go out today will detail the commitments, but according to Burr, CORE districts will agree to focus on two of the four broad areas of reform covered in the last round application: preparing for the implementation of the Common Core standards in math and English language arts and creating data sharing to enable the Race to the Top districts to collaborate.

What Brown won’t sign on to are the other two pledges:

  • That the state agrees to continue the four strategies for turning around failing schools, whose effectiveness he has questioned;
  • That the state will continue teacher and principal effectiveness strategies that include using evaluations incorporating student test data. The California Teachers Assn., a key Brown ally, staunchly opposes this.

The feds aren’t requiring that the CORE districts work on all four; to the contrary, because the third-round grants are less than a tenth the size – $49 million compared with potentially $700 million, had it won Round Two – California and other states have been directed  to narrow their scope. However, the feds still want the states to affirm their commitment to all reform areas.

California is distinct among the finalist states in that a district collaborative is driving the application. So CORE is hoping the feds will cut it some slack. Its position is that the districts are continuing to work on all reforms, including teacher evaluations. As far as they’re concerned, nothing has changed since Round Two, according to Hilary McLean, communications director for CORE .

“We’re excited to move forward,” she said. “Race to the Top will accelerate the work that the districts have committed to do.”

The benefits from Race to the Top, including their work creating a data bank of formative assessments for Common Core, will be available to all districts.

“It would be a travesty for California not to seek the money,” she said, since it’s California’s to lose.

Whatever the governor’s philosophical misgivings, it would have been odd for Brown not to give the OK. He and Torlakson have cited the lack of state money as the reason the state cannot meet the federal requirements for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. Preparing for Common Core is one of those unfunded costs (Torlakson put it at at least $600 million, a very high figure). Furthermore, Brown has questioned the value of state-based teacher and student databases, saying data systems should be designed locally with information useful to teachers. That’s what the CORE districts plan to do with some of the Race to the Top dollars.

The other eight finalists are Colorado, Louisiana, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arizona, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. South Carolina has said it won’t be applying, leaving its share of $12.25 million to be divvied up among California and the other states. The others likewise may be sharpening their knives, hoping California’s application is a turkey.

** Here is the key paragraph: “The state remains committed to adopting and implementing college and career-ready standards and high-quality assessments, improving the collection and use of data at the local level, increasing teacher effectiveness and equity in the distribution of effective teachers in a manner that is determined locally, and turning around the state’s lowest achieving schools. It cannot afford to implement these reforms statewide, though, nor can it compel Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to implement them. Numerous LEAs are prepared, however, to implement several of the reforms as described below as part of the Race to the Top Round Three application.”

Go for Race to the Top’s next round; all students would be winners

After 37 years in education policy, I can recognize a golden opportunity for our schools when I see one. California is staring at one right now, and it should take it.

Earlier this year U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the third phase in the Race to the Top competition. Race to the Top is a grant program born out of the stimulus legislation passed in 2009 to spark innovation and high performance in states. This latest round of applications will provide states like California, which applied for earlier rounds but did not ultimately win, with the opportunity to receive federal funding. California should apply for this third phase of funding.

In the last round of Race to the Top, California had a unique application that reflected our state’s size and diversity. California’s application focused on a handful of school districts – Clovis, Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Sanger, and San Francisco Unified – that came together to pioneer a new approach to improving student achievement. They outlined a plan to pool their resources and expertise to figure out and share best practice.

Despite the strength of the application, California lost out on these critical funds. However, those school districts decided to continue their efforts because they believed in the work they were doing on behalf of students. Now, based on the strength of its last Race to the Top Application, California is eligible to receive roughly $50 million to do a portion of the previous proposal. It is up to the state, in applying for this phase of the competition, to decide whether or not to help these districts access $50 million to advance their work on behalf of students.

How could $50 million to seven districts help all of California? One way would be by providing a focus on implementation of the Common Core – a state-led effort to adopt and implement standards that ensure, if met, students graduate prepared for college or the workforce. California as a whole is already participating in the Common Core effort. The $50 million in Race to the Top funds could be used to pilot use of new standards – from concept to classroom to new high-quality assessments – which is a critical element of ensuring these standards reach all students across the state.

The standards won’t mean much if they don’t reach every student in every classroom. The school districts that are the focus of California’s application are diverse in their size, geography, and student population. They represent 15 percent of California’s total student population – nearly one million students – and are representative of the state’s student demographic as a whole. If these school districts can succeed at implementing the standards in their schools, the rest of the state’s schools can get it right too.

California has the largest and one of the most racially and economically diverse student populations in the country. Common Core has the potential to fulfill students’ expectations that, with a diploma, they should be able to enter college or a job without remediation. These standards will also be on par with international standards. Students in California aren’t competing for jobs in their town, their state, or even the United States. They are competing with peers in countries all over the globe. If our students aren’t taught to the level and rigor of students in other countries, the jobs will go elsewhere.

I strongly believe that we are now in the midst of the most exciting and dynamic education reform environment in our nation’s history. The efforts of the seven Race to the Top districts grew out of their desire to advance their education systems and to improve student achievement. It is about partnership, collaboration, and sharing best practice so other school districts can figure out what will make sense for them. It’s about focusing on what is best for all students and engaging communities to help make the necessary changes. The third phase of Race to the Top can provide critical resources to facilitate their progress for students and for California as a whole.

The question is whether California can take this step forward and whether these leading districts can get the support they need to help that effort. The right choice in this matter is for the state to apply, be a strong partner, and support these districts in their effort.

U.S. Rep. George Miller is the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He has been on the committee for 37 years, his entire tenure in Congress. Miller is an original author of the No Child Left Behind Act. He is the leading voice in Congress on issues of early education, K-12 education, college accessibility and affordability, and child nutrition. Miller represents California’s seventh district, encompassing parts of Contra Costa and Solano counties.

Waivers, turnarounds and other examples of Obama’s “reforminess”

The Obama administration, acting while Congress was still dragging its feet on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has offered states an opportunity to be granted waivers from some of the more oppressive aspects of the current No Child Left Behind law. The tradeoffs for receiving a waiver include adopting college- and career-ready standards, developing teacher and principal evaluation systems using a variety of measures (including but not limited to student test scores), and “rigorous” programs to turn around the lowest-performing schools. This last is a bit redundant, as states receiving School Improvement Grants have had to adopt the “turnaround” strategies demanded in Race to the Top (RTTT):

  • Transformation model: Replace the principal, strengthen staffing, implement a re­search-based instructional program, provide extended learning time, and imple­ment new governance and flexibility.
  • Turnaround model: Replace the principal and rehire no more than 50 percent of the school staff, implement a research-based instructional program, provide ex­tended learning time, and implement a new governance structure.
  • Restart model: Convert or close and reopen the school under the management of an effective charter operator, charter management organization, or education management organization.
  • School closure model: Close the school and enroll students who attended it in other, higher-performing schools in the district. (A Blueprint for Reform, U.S. Department of Education)

The waiver language on evaluations is perceived by many to be code for using student test scores in teacher evaluations via value-added methodology (VAM), or some euphemism for VAM like Academic Growth over Time being unilaterally enacted in Los Angeles.

It is not unfair to suggest that the Obama waiver process is just a back-door effort to impose RTTT reform efforts onto the states, but this time without the attendant funding. It is clear from the administration’s rhetoric, both in the Blueprint and elsewhere, that they continue to perceive charter schools as the sine qua non reform for low school achievement. This in the face of research indicating otherwise. For example, charter school achievement was examined by one research group at the conservative, pro-charter Hoover Institution, CREDO, which did a massive study on charters and found only one in five outperformed regular public schools, while two in five did worse, and the remainder were no different than local public schools.

It can, in fact, be demonstrated that all of the reform and school turnaround strategies advocated by the federal Department of Education are contradicted by research. To explain this phenomenon let’s talk about the proposals in the context of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.” Truthiness is a “truth” based on gut feelings without regard for evidence, logic, or facts. In that sense, the “reforms” can be seen as one of many examples of educational “reforminess.”

Diane Ravitch began the deconstruction of reforminess with her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Ravitch was present for the “big bang” of recent “school reform,” traceable back to A Nation at Risk, when she was part of the conservative think tank cabal. Their “truths” were based on fantasies of market-based concepts of competition and choice, with pragmatic programs including test-based accountability, charter schools, and vouchers.  Much of this became the basis for NCLB and the unholy alliance of neo-liberal and conservative school reform efforts: that is to say, reforminess.

Ravitch’s epiphany came at a think tank meeting when, one after another, the testing gurus, the charter school proponents, and the voucher propagandists stood up to report on a decade’s worth of “progress.” But there wasn’t any. Ravitch realized that the fundamentals of neo-liberal/conservative reform were reforminess – based on gut feelings and intuition, and with no basis in evidence, logic, or facts. She examined the empirical research and all the beliefs were found wanting. Ravitch concluded that reforminess was not just resulting in little to no improved achievement; it was actually narrowing, damaging, and corrupting public education.

Enter the Obama administration, which inexplicably appointed Arne Duncan, with experience in neo-liberal private sector foundations but not a day as a teacher or school administrator, as Secretary of Education. He comes up with Race to the Top. If the fundamentals of NCLB were utter failures then the only solution was to double down with even more draconian reforminess: “turnaround” proposals including, but not limited to, shutting down schools, dismissing teachers and principals, turning public school management over to private sector charter operators – all based on his gut, but absolutely no empirical research.

It goes without saying that the other cornerstone of Duncan’s reforminess, teacher evaluations using student test scores, has been relentlessly debunked by education experts. The National Research Council asserts that we have no research base to support using student scores to evaluate teachers and, if we did, we still shouldn’t do it because of negative effects on instruction.

Obviously,  the main objective of reforminess is to draw attention away from the real illness ailing public education today: severe underfunding and extreme levels of childhood poverty. The billionaires continue to buy their education “reforms” through well-paid talking heads like recycled state legislators and failed school superintendents. That’s much cheaper for them than the actual solution:  restoring fair tax rates on the wealthy to fund education for all.

Reforminess, with all due respect to Stephen Colbert, is no laughing matter.

Gary Ravani taught middle school for more than 30 years in Petaluma. He served for 19 years as president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, is currently president of the California Federation of Teachers’ Early Childhood/K-12 Council, and is a vice president of the CFT. He chairs the CFT’s Education Issues Committee.

Brown shapes, signs RTTT entry

After keeping child education advocates and his own staff in suspense for months, Gov. Jerry Brown approved the state’s application to the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge on Wednesday – but not before shaping it in a way that will either turn off or intrigue federal officials and competition judges.

The Race to the Top scoring guidelines emphasize states’ policies to improve learning and development programs for young children. But, consistent with Brown’s philosophy of letting 1,000 local districts – or, in this case, 16 regional consortia – bloom in a state as big and diverse as California, the application calls for turning over key decisions and 85 percent of the federal money to county and local efforts.

“The heart of our plan is local control, where the effort to improve the quality of early learning can best be accomplished,” Brown explained,

Brown made the case in a letter to Secretaries Arne Duncan and Kathleen Sebelius for giving regional consortia the power to decide how the Race to the Top dollars will be spent.
Brown made the case in a letter to Secretaries Arne Duncan and Kathleen Sebelius for giving regional consortia the power to decide how the Race to the Top dollars will be spent.

in a letter to U.S. Dept. of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius accompanying the  225-page application. Each consortium “will decide how to distinguish levels of quality, will identify priorities for improvement, and will determine which specific ways it will improve quality. I believe that this approach will be much more successful that any one-fits-all mandate from the state capitol.”

Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education on Board President Michael Kirst’s behalf, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, an early supporter of this Race to the Top competition, also signed the application. California is eligible for as much as $100 million out of the $500 million pot of one-time money. The competition is expected to be crowded, with Florida and New York –  but not Texas – among the biggest states pursuing the maximum grants. (Note: California’s application is too big to upload for the blog, and it has not yet been posted on the state Department of Education website. Stay tuned.)

Scott Moore, senior policy advisor with Preschool California and the former executive of the state Early Learning Advisory Council, said that Brown has tried to “thread the needle” in satisfying the federal government’s requirements while not yielding on his own. The application “is not aligned with what the feds have outlined, but they could say, ‘Fund California and compare its approach to the other states.’ I can see both sides of this.”

California took the same tack in the second round of the K-12 Race to the Top, letting seven reform-minded districts write the application. The state became a semifinalist for that money, but Brown hasn’t decided whether to let the seven districts, which include Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Francisco Unified,  apply again later this year, citing his worry that the federal money might require future state commitments. He initially had the same fear about the preschool competition, but the application reaffirms his demand that “the choices made in this application avoid new spending commitments and focus on smart uses of one-time investments.”

The heart of the state’s application involves the implementation of a Quality Rating and Improvement System by the 16 regional consortia – county offices of education and First 5 commissions in 15 counties – covering 1.8 million young children, about two-thirds of the age group. QRIS is a method of evaluating individual early learning programs, based on the physical environment, the quality of instruction, the child/teacher ratio, the education and effectiveness of the teachers, and other factors. While some states may tie the ratings to levels of state funding – and gain points in the competition – California is not proposing to do so. The goal is to encourage preschools, especially those serving low-income students and English learners, to improve the level of their care on their own, through teacher trainings, purchase of high-quality materials, and adoption of the state’s Early Childhood Frameworks or standards for developing children’s readiness for school. Each consortium will decide how to spend its share of the money, up to $1 million or more each year for four years.

The application doesn’t focus on transitional kindergarten, a 2-year kindergarten program for the state’s 120,000 late-birthday four-year-olds that will be phased in starting next fall. But Sue Burr said that each consortium could choose to direct money toward materials and professional development for their local districts’ transitional kindergartens.

Voluntary information for CALPADS

As with the K-12 Race to the Top, this competition emphasizes the use of data. The federal government ideally wants every state to include data on preschool students into its statewide data system. But Brown, consistent with his view that data should serve local schools’ needs, not state accountability purposes, demanded limits. The state has developed a useful assessment tool, the Desired Results Developmental Profile, that measures a child’s developmental progress based on teacher observations. The consortia and local preschools may choose to enter the assessments on students into CALPADS, the statewide database, to give kindergarten teachers a heads-up on the development readiness of incoming students. But the application emphasizes that CALPADS data for young children will be done voluntarily and will not be used for accountability purposes.

California became an early-childhood education leader 13 years ago, when voters dedicated a 50-cent tax on cigarettes and tobacco products to create First 5 California, distributing $650 million per year to First 5 commissions in 58 counties. Burr said that Race to the Top will focus on improving the quality of early-learning programs, with the goal that every student will be ready for kindergarten.

Moore, of Preschool California, praised the State Board, the Department of Education and advocates for joining together on the application – but especially the staff of the Child Development Division. “They worked tremendously hard with time and policy constraints,” he said, “knowing it might all be for naught” if Brown chose not to move forward.

Down to wire on Race to Top

With applications due in Washington a week from tomorrow, Gov. Jerry Brown still hasn’t decided whether to let California apply for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. But, with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson four-square behind it, the state Department of Education is preparing an application on the assumption – or at least the hope – that Brown will sign on.

Race to the Tots, as I call it, is a $700 million competition in which California could snare as much as $100 million to expand the quantity and improve the quality of its preschool and early learning programs. Early education advocates have called on the state to use the potential money for two priorities:

  • To test a Quality Rating and Improvement System, a rubric to create consistency and uniformity in evaluating the effectiveness of – and potentially to differentiate funding for – preschool programs.
  • To develop the curriculum and teacher training for transitional kindergarten, an innovative two-year program for late-birthday 4-year-olds that California will phase in starting next fall.

As with all variations of Race to the Top, the state needs the signatures of Brown, Torlakson, and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. Only Torlakson has made his views known so far.

Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board, said that the final rules allowed more flexibility for the states to design their proposals, but the application is still prescriptive. Brown remains concerned that the Obama administration will require commitments from the state extending beyond when the funding runs out. If the state does move forward, California will give counties and regions with innovative early learning programs – Los Angeles, Fresno, and Santa Clara County, to name a few – latitude to serve their own residents, without interference from the state. The federal government should recognize California’s diversity, she said.

An application that satisfies Brown’s concerns, however, may not be strong in the eyes of the RTTT judges, who may want assurances that federal dollars will have a lasting effect and create statewide changes.

Burr said that in creating the RTTT application, the Department of Ed has been helped by members of the former Early Learning Advisory Council, which Brown eliminated in the current budget. As part of the competition application, California would have to agree to reestablish the advisory council in some form, Burr acknowledged.

California is also eligible, along with eight other states, to apply for the third round of the original Race to the Top competition. The seven districts that led the nearly successful second round have expressed interest in pursuing that opportunity, for about $50 million, through a nonprofit they formed, the California Office to Reform Education (CORE).

The application for that isn’t due until December, and final rules have yet to be set. Burr said that the Brown administration has similar concerns about making state commitments for money it doesn’t have. It hasnt signaled to the CORE districts whether they should start work on the application, Burr said.

No changes to Open Enrollment

For all its quirks and anomalies, the two-year-old Open Enrollment Act, which gives parents in low-performing schools the chance to transfer their children to a better school in another district, will remain unchanged. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill on Saturday that would have let a number of schools off the hook.

In his veto message for AB 47, Brown said that the changes would have cut the eligible schools from 1,000 to 150, which would “go too far and would undermine the intent of the original law.”

Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-Marin) sponsored the bill because some schools with an Academic Performance Index of close to 800 – the state’s definition of success – and a few above that target were ensnared on the list. As a result, confused families in what they assumed were good schools were sent letters saying they could pull their kids and transfer out.

AB 47 would have excluded schools with an API above 700 two years straight and schools whose scores jumped 50 points in a year. Low-performing charter schools, excluded under the law, would have been eligible.

In case you missed our reports yesterday on key bills that Brown vetoed (Darrell Steinberg’s SB 547) and signed (Dream Act) on Saturday, check our earlier coverage.

The Open Enrollment Act was passed hurriedly with the Parent Trigger in late 2009 as the Legislature’s effort to bolster the state’s application for the federal Race to the  Top competition. Open Enrollment was to include the lowest-performing 1,000 schools, roughly 10 percent. But it excluded a number of small schools and schools for at-risk students, and no more than 10 percent of any district’s schools could be on the list. As a result, some schools that normally would not be considered failing made the list.

No one knows whether the law actually has had much impact. It was in effect last year for the first time, and there are no statewide numbers. However, potential receiving districts were given leeway to opt out by citing an adverse financial impact from taking on any new students.

Advocates, led by the nonprofit EdVoice, see Open Enrollment as a major victory for school choice for low-income, minority parents, but it does not appear to have been used much so far.

AB 47’s 700 API cutoff probably would have excluded nearly all elementary schools, since the average API is now 808, and many middle schools, too.

Brown’s veto message noted that the State Board of Education has the authority to exempt high-achieving students, and it has; it granted waivers to 96 schools that requested them, according to an analysis of the Board.

The number of State Board exemptions and AB 47’s API cutoffs angered Republicans in the Senate, particularly Sen. Bob Huff, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus and an Open Enrollment proponent. Last month, when Huff threatened to delay the vote to confirm the appointment of State Board President Michael Kirst, two Senate aides I spoke with speculated that Huff might use the confirmation as a bargaining chip to defeat the bill.

The following week, Senate Republicans joined Democrats to confirm Kirst. Neither Brown nor Huff has said whether vetoing AB 47 was part of the deal.

As for the State Board’s exemption authority, Brown wrote in his message, “I expect the Board will thoughtfully exercise this authority and believe we should carefully review the implementation effects of the program before making significant changes.”