Friday, September 10, 2010


Connecticut has once again been by-passed among states aspiring to win a share of the billions (from the stimulus package) available in Race To The Top. Don’t cry. Connecticut may be better off than the winners, though it could have used some of that money in the unfunded Connecticut pension plans (if miracles were possible).

Why, one may wonder, is the U.S. Department of Education (ED) so keen to have the Local Education Agencies and teachers’ unions promise their full cooperation? When the ED lays out its mandates, winning states will be in no position to object, in the event that the mandate would not be their preference. They will have to go along. We remember President Obama’s saying (perhaps when he was a candidate) that the government should have a hand in the education of infants and children from ages zero to five.

Already, ED has made its presence felt, even among the non-winning states. Connecticut was prepared to set up an Office of the Race to the Top, to carry out its goals laid out in its application.

Preparing to be a winner in the Race to the Top, Connecticut had “already convened one of its six strategy teams to investigate ways to finance continuation of the plan activities beyond the grant period based on public-private partnerships.”

One of Connecticut’s five application-reviewers remarks irrelevantly, “It is hard to see why such a small amount of the budget is allotted to turning around the lowest-performing schools especially since closing achievement gaps seems to be one of the key challenges for the state.” It’s like comparing oranges and apples. Trying to deal with both simultaneously is the road to total defeat though they share some problems..

Thus the question of what to do about the lowest-performing schools is already settled. ED has settled it. In its opinion, lowest-performing schools are not to be closed down. They are to be turned around, ED having determined that is the better way. Economist Eric A. Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, has found persuasive evidence that they should be shut down.

The applications are difficult to read and must have been difficult for the reviewers to grade. The task of converting quality assessments into numbers is nearly hopeless. When done, the numbers lack the precision which they pretend to supply.

The State was able to increase support of its application from local education union representatives and agents from 122 to166, but some union leaders still did not agree to cooperate, to the irritation of the reviewers. One was particularly dismayed when a union leader represented a large urban district.

The failure of Connecticut to win perhaps accounts for the very little publicity it received. One exception was The Wall Street Journal, which ran a long article in which it surmised there might be a bit of bias in selecting the winners. Three-fourths of the winning states have governors who are Democrats. In Phase I, ten of 16 winning states had Democrats as governors. In this, phase II, the winners are some three-fourths with Democrats as governors, plus the District of Columbia under Democrat administration. (Would New Jersey have had trouble in getting its high ranking officially recognized had its governor been a Democrat?)

In one of its prepayments to ED, “The state has already convened one of its six strategy teams to investigate ways to finance continuation of plan activities beyond the grant period based on public private partnerships.”

One laudable feature in the application is the attempt by ED to tie teacher pay to teacher achievement, as measured by test scores of the teacher’s students. Test scores are a measure of a student’s growth. A reviewer comments that Connecticut cannot yet measure teacher effectiveness because of its current inability to link teacher and student data. Connecticut will temporarily use “proxy-based” effectiveness measures like Praxis II cut scores.

If a teacher is found ineffective for two years in a row, he is in danger of being fired. When effective teachers are found, the plan is to distribute them equally among the lowest-performing schools.

What is it that ED wants? Is it control over local education and children’s minds and the culture of the society, as Gramsci and Alinski taught? Or is it improvement of the learning of American children? Many of the points in the application suggest the former.

Connecticut education officials worked very hard to fill out these applications but lost, and with the loss perhaps comes a gain. Connecticut can now enjoy the freedom of giving thought to how to improve learning, relatively free as it may be of Federal mandates.

Hartford, don’t be unhappy we did not win. The consolation prize may turn out to be more valuable. Winners are targets of Obama Mandates. Why else would ED insist on total support by unions of states’ application plans? Connecticut is free. Free to choose among the contributions of Hanushek and E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Free to do exactly what it wants, now that it does not have to cater to nameless reviewers and bureaucrats.

By Natalie Sirkin
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