Wednesday, April 14, 2010

RACING TO THE TOP, MASSACHUSETTS AND CONNECTICUT STUMBLE

“Race to the Top,” the U.S. Department of Education’s $4.35 billion competition, is half over, and Delaware and Tennessee are #1 and #2. In all, 41 states competed and 16 were finalists. Two useful case studies are Massachusetts, a finalist, which was 13th . and Connecticut, 25th.

Connecticut education spokesman Tom Murphy offered his understanding of why Connecticut did not rank higher. He said it lacked luster in science, technology, and math. He said it does not have a computerized system for tracking and sharing student-data statewide. But why does Washington want it? He said it lacks support from teachers’ unions and local boards of education. Small districts didn’t sign on because they feared costly reforms for small benefits.

Murphy is aiming to get their support for the final round. Support means they must sign an Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU), which commits them to support whatever changes Hartford and Washington undertake.

What is evident from the five peer reviews of the Connecticut RttT application is that its plans for education reforms have not been adopted. Unlike other states, it has not passed whatever laws are needed to effectuate them.

Support for states’ plans among the local school unions and “local education agencies” (town and district boards of education) are wanted by Washington. Connecticut has the support of the two chief union heads and 122 local school unions. Of what importance are the local unions? They “could look for ways to get around” their current contracts and devise means for circumventing education decisions. Such support is useful for influence and control by Washington.

Sherman was a solid C school in 3rd to 8th grade CMT tests last spring. Mass. in 2005 and in the NAEP tests given in 2007 and 2009 was the first state ever to be #1 in NAEP’s “Nation’s Report Card” in all four fields, reading, math, science, and writing. In 8th grade science it was first internationally in the 2008 TIMSS. Between 2002 and 2009 it even moved toward closing the gap between African-Americans and Hispanics, and whites.

“If you are a disadvantaged parent with a school-age child, Massachusetts is . . . the state to move to,” advised E.D. Hirsch, Jr., in 2008—but RttT does not care about schools already at the Top. It cares about lowest-achieving schools and trying to turn them around.

Perhaps the peer reviewers realized that Massachusetts' accomplishments diminished two years ago, when Governor Duval Patrick took control from the independent State Board of Education—John Silber, Abigail Thernstom and other scholars—who care about content, according to Pioneer Institute, a Boston think-tank. No longer do Massachusetts students have to pass the state test in U.S. history in order to graduate from high school.

Despite fierce opposition by teachers’ unions, superintendents, and school boards, charter-school authorization was won in Mass. and has spawned some of the best schools in the country, says the Pioneer Institute. Washington does care about charter schools, and states have changed their laws to promote charters. Illinois lifted a cap on them. West Virginia proposed a merit-pay system which includes student-achievement in its compensation calculations. Massachusetts made it easier for students in low-performing schools to switch to charters.

The Pioneer Institute attributes Massachusetts' low RttT score to the state's refusal to accept the new national standards (still in draft), believing its own are better. Massachusetts has another deficiency. It has few local union and school board “buy-ins.”

Education Secretary Duncan tells why the winners won: “[Both Delaware and Tennessee] have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools. They have written new laws to support their policies. . . .”

The Wall Street Journal wonders if bias played a role in selecting Delaware a winner, or is it “ just a coincidence that 10 of the 16 finalists, including politically important Ohio, have a Democratic governor? The eleventh, Washington, D.C., is also run by a Democrat.”

A peer reviewer remarks that Connecticut “has a solid plan” for improving teacher-effectiveness based on performance of students. It wants to compensate principals and teachers, especially the effective ones, but has no plan in place. It wants to get away from linking salaries to credits earned. It mentions an interest in removing ineffective teachers and principals but fails to include any performance measures. It is this inability to do anything beyond planning that cost Connecticut peer-reviewer support.

Connecticut’s lack of union support from the two largest unions in Hartford and New Haven “is troubling,” writes a peer reviewer.

Connecticut has gathered letters from 84 institutions including teachers’ unions and businesses and has “wary support from private colleges,” but “there were no letters from any of Connecticut’s tribes,” remarks a reviewer.

There are only 18 charter schools, which is only 1% of Conn.’s public schools. There are very few applicants, only seven in five years. The State is the sole authorizer. A peer reviewer thinks that a new law, if it passes, will improve the opportunity for future charters.

Would that be a good thing? Why, asks Texas Governor Perry, should one pass control to “unelected bureaucrats and special interests thousands of miles away in Washington?” Are they going to tell our kids what to read?

Connecticut is now feverishly working toward revising its application, but it should not be surprised and perhaps not disappointed if it again fails to be a winner.

By Natalie Sirkin
c2010
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