An Admission of Federal Manipulation Through Race to the Top

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Arne Duncan’s former chief of staff pulls back the curtain on Race to the Top

Joanne Weiss was the director of the Race to the Top program at the U.S. Department of Education and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s chief of staff. She wrote an essay at Stanford Social Innovation Review that is enlightening in that we finally have a USDED official admit the truth about the federal role in foisting Common Core on to the states.

I encourage you to read the whole piece, but I’ll pull a few excerpts of interest.

Weiss acknowledges that budgetary challenges along with offering larger awards induced states to apply.

The competition took place during a time of profound budgetary challenge for state governments, so the large pot of funding that we had to offer was a significant inducement for states to compete.

This process is typically different than how federal grant making has been done before as she explains:

…we decided that winners would have to clear a very high bar, that they would be few in number, and that they would receive large grants. (In most cases, the grants were for hundreds of millions of dollars.) In a more typical federal competition program, a large number of states would each win a share of the available funding. The government, in other words, would spread that money around in a politically astute way. But because our goal was to enable meaningful educational improvement, we adopted an approach that channeled substantial funding to the worthiest applicants.

When you see “worthiest applicants” read those states whose priorities matched ours.

They leveraged the governors.

…we placed governors at the center of the application process. In doing so, we empowered a group of stakeholders who have a highly competitive spirit and invited them to use their political capital to drive change. We drew governors to the competition by offering them a well-funded vehicle for altering the life trajectories of children in their states.

Weiss acknowledges their criteria was too broad.

Our commitment to being systemic in scope and clear about expectations, yet also respectful of differences between states, was a key strength of the initiative. But it exposed points of vulnerability as well. In our push to be comprehensive, for instance, we ended up including more elements in the competition than most state agencies were able to address well. Although the outline of the competition was easy to explain, its final specifications were far from simple: States had to address 19 criteria, many of which included subcriteria. High-stakes policymaking is rife with pressures that bloat regulations. In hindsight, we know that we could have done a better job of formulating leaner, more focused rules.

Weiss touts that states who didn’t win a grant still followed through on their “blueprint.”  Perhaps that had something to do with having to adopt Common Core and join Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium or PARCC before they submitted a final application?

In applying for Race to the Top, participating states developed a statewide blueprint for improving education—something that many of them had previously lacked. For many stakeholders, moreover, the process of participating in the creation of their state’s reform plan deepened their commitment to that plan. In fact, even many states that did not win the competition proceeded with the reform efforts that they had laid out in their application.

The plan behind the grant was meant to diminish local control and serve the state agenda which in turn was informed by the federal agenda behind the grant.

The overall goal of the competition was to promote approaches to education reform that would be coherent, systemic, and statewide. Pursuing that goal required officials at the state level to play a lead role in creating and implementing their state’s education agenda. And it required educators at the school and district levels to participate in that process, to support their state’s agenda, and then to implement that agenda faithfully.

Weiss explains further.

To meet that challenge, we required each participating district to execute a binding memorandum of understanding (MOU) with its state. This MOU codified the commitments that the district and the state made to each other. Reviewers judged each district’s depth of commitment by the specific terms and conditions in its MOU and by the number of signatories on that document. (Ideally, the superintendent, the school board president, and the leader of the union or teachers’ association in each district would all sign the MOU.)

….The success of the process varied by state, but over time these MOUs—combined, in some cases, with states’ threats to withhold funding from districts—led to difficult but often productive engagement between state education agencies and local districts.

Tyranny by contract as a friend of mine likes to put it.

Catch this next excerpt as it’s pretty disconcerting.

…we forced alignment among the top three education leaders in each participating state—the governor, the chief state school officer, and the president of the state board of education—by requiring each of them to sign their state’s Race to the Top application. In doing so, they attested that their office fully supported the state’s reform proposal.

They forced alignment?  Indeed the Race to the Top application required signatures from all three officers.

Weiss acknowledged that the program drove education policy change at the state level before any grant was awarded.

One of the most surprising achievements of Race to the Top was its ability to drive significant change before the department awarded a single dollar to applicants. States changed laws related to education policy. They adopted new education standards. They joined national assessment consortia.

She then explained that three design features in the grant program spurred the change.

First they had to get rid of those pesky state laws that stood in the way before they were eligible to compete.

…we imposed an eligibility requirement. A state could not enter the competition if it had laws on the books that prohibited linking the evaluation of teachers and principals to the performance of their students. Several states changed their laws in order to earn the right to compete.

I remember Iowa ramrodding through poorly written charter school legislation just so they could have a seat at the trough.

They then also awarded points based on what states did before submitting their application… Clever right? Get states to work towards these reforms in order to be competitive.  This manipulative tactic also ensured that states not awarded a grant would continue to follow-through on some of these reforms.

…we decided to award points for accomplishments that occurred before a state had submitted its application. In designing the competition, we created two types of criteria for states to address. State Reform Conditions criteria applied to actions that a state had completed before filing its application. Reform Plan criteria, by contrast, pertained to steps that a state would take if it won the competition.

The State Reform Conditions criteria accounted for about half of all points that the competition would award. Our goal was to encourage each state to review its legal infrastructure for education and to rationalize that structure in a way that supported its new education agenda. Some states handled this task well; others simply added patches to their existing laws. To our surprise, meanwhile, many states also changed laws to help meet criteria related to their reform plan. To strengthen their credibility with reviewers, for example, some states updated their statutes regarding teacher and principal evaluation.

Race to the Top created a “treasure trove” of data to mine through.

We couldn’t keep up with the enormous load of data that the competition generated—and we learned that we didn’t have to. The public did it for us. State and local watchdogs kept their leaders honest by reviewing and publicly critiquing applications. Education experts provided analyses of competition data. And researchers will be mining this trove of information for years to come.

What a stunning admission of manipulation and coercion perpetrated by the U.S. Department of Education.  What is lacking in Weiss’ piece is mention of how unpopular this program actually was, and no mention of Congress’ push to ensure that future U.S. Secretaries of Education can ever use a grant program in this way again.

Christie Applied for RTTT Due to Difficult Fiscal Times

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Gov. Chris Christie speaking in Iowa.

An interesting admission from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie when he was being pressed by Laura Ingraham why he applied for a Race to the Top grant during his Q&A session at CPAC.

He first said it was teed up for him by former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine (I haven’t looked into whether the timeline meshes up, but that’s probably right) and then he said he basically applied becuase his state was cash strapped.

In New Jersey we’ve always been for the standards, for high standards, and we had standards before then.  My concern now as we travel toward implementation is not only the heavy foot of the federal government coming in, but it is not doing all that we need to have done in New Jersey.  We need to have local control – parents, teachers in those classrooms, they are the ones who should be helping us at the state level to set the standards.  So it was all teed up when I came in by Governor Corzine.  We signed on and tried to get funds through a really difficult fiscal time.

I wonder how many other governors would admit this now?

Senate GOP to Ditch Annual Testing?

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

Alyson Klein at Education Week reports that GOP Senate Aides are working on a Education and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill that would eliminate mandatory testing.

Senate GOP aides, who are hoping to get a bill reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act on the runway early in the new year, are getting started on legislation that looks very similar to a bill Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the incoming chairman of the Senate education committee, introduced last year….

But there would be one major change: an end to the federal mandate for annual testing, Republican Senate aides confirm.

Instead the bill would leave decisions about testing schedules up to states. Some would likely stick with annual assessments, while others would try out gradespan testing and still others would mix and match, GOP aides say.

Considering many Democrats would welcome a move like this it seems like this could get pushed through.  The question is what will President Obama do with it should this bill pass.

Race to the Top Loses All Funding in ‘Cromnibus’

Photo credit: UpstateNYer (CC-By-SA 3.0)

Photo credit: UpstateNYer (CC-By-SA 3.0)

Personally I’m not a fan of huge spending bills of any type.  That said, Valarie Strauss pointed out the silver lining for me, when she reported that Race to the Top lost all its funding in 2015.

In fiscal year 2014, Race to the Top was given $250 million, according to this legislation summary, for competitive awards to states to develop or grow early childhood programs for children from low- and moderate-income families.  Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal included $300 million for a proposed “Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity.” While Race to the Top gets no funding in the 2015 omnibus bill, the administration’s Preschool Development Grants program gets $250 million for 2015.

The House and Senate congressional summaries of education-related funding in the 2015 omnibus bill highlight different things. The Republican-led House notes that Race to the Top is being eliminated, while the Senate version doesn’t mention it. And while the Senate version notes the $250 million for Preschool Development Funds, the House version says that “the bill does not include the creation of a new account to fund preschool grants.”

Granted the damage from Race to the Top has already been done, and who knows how the Preschool Development funds will be distributed and decided, I am happy to see the funding gone.

Six States Receive Race to the Trough Early Learning Challenge Money

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The Associated Press reports that six states: Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont have won a combined $280 million in government grants in order to improve birth-to-five early learning programs.  These states must show “a willingness to carry out comprehensive improvements to programs focused on children from birth to age 5.”

Later today we’ll learn what each state promised to do in return for their slice of the federal grant.  Thirteen states were awarded this grant last year.

Two thoughts: 1. Making kindergarten more “rigorous” (stressful) due to the Common Core State Standards will be used as a push for eventually making pre-school compulsory.  I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s the road we’re headed down.  2.  It makes no sense for Governors, like Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, to distance themselves from the Common Core if they’re just going to getting into bed with the Feds for more money.

Governors that crow about a Federal encroachment into education should no longer apply for grants such as these that have strings attached.

16 States Plus DC Race to the Trough for Early Childhood Cash

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Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia are racing for the trough once again.  This time it’s for early childhood cash.  The applicants are: Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont.

This is the second round, the first round came in FY 2011.  Here are the “winners” of that particular competition:

  • California – $75,000,000 (California had to revise the amount they requested to a lower amount)
  • Delaware – $49,878,774
  • Maryland – $49,999,143
  • Massachusetts – $50,000,000
  • Minnesota – $44,858,313
  • North Carolina – $69,991,121
  • Ohio – $69,993,362
  • Rhode Island – $50,000,000
  • Washington – $60,000,000

There are five key areas of reform that this grant addresses:

  • Establishing Successful State Systems by building on the state’s existing strengths, ambitiously moving forward the state’s early learning and development agenda and carefully coordinating programs across agencies to ensure consistency and sustainability beyond the grant;
  • Defining High-Quality, Accountable Programs by creating a common tiered quality rating and improvement system that is used across the state to evaluate and improve program performance and to inform families about program quality;
  • Promoting Early Learning and Development Outcomes for Children to develop common standards within the state and assessments that measure child outcomes, address behavioral and health needs, as well as inform, engage and support families;
  • Supporting A Great Early Childhood Education Workforce by providing professional development, career advancement opportunities, appropriate compensation and a common set of standards for workforce knowledge and competencies; and
  • Measuring Outcomes and Progress so that data can be used to inform early learning instruction and services and to assess whether children are entering kindergarten ready to succeed in elementary school.

Grant awards last for four years and will range from $37.5 million up to $75 million.  So states are once again looking at selling their collective educational soul for the promise of federal cash.  Haven’t we learned?  This time preschoolers are the ones being impacted.

Photo credit: Woodley Wonder Works via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

371 Applications Received for District-Level Race to the Top

The U.S. Department of Education received 371 applications from 1189 school districts all racing to the trough to receive a slice of the $383 million pot.  Unlike last time the district-level Race to the Top required union officials to agree to the school district’s reform plan.  Which pretty much guarantees it’ll be worthless.

Jackie Zubrzycki pointed out that just because the union officials signed off it doesn’t mean the union members are happy.

A number of districts had trouble getting their unions to sign off on the Race to the Top proposals, which I wrote about for this week’s issue of Education Week. (You can find more details about those squabbles here.) Two California districts, Glendale and Los Angeles, submitted applications anyway. The requirement for union sign-off was new to this iteration of the competition, and may have been a lesson learned from previous federal grant programs, including Race to the Top: When unions don’t agree to grant requirements beforehand, programs sometimes don’t get implemented as intended.

In an interesting twist, in the Central Unified school district in California, the union’s president Gaye Lewis signed off on the district’s application—and then stepped down because the union’s members were upset with the decision.

Of course, some districts also didn’t apply for reasons unrelated to unions. Burlington, Vt., superintendent Jeanne Collins said that her district had simply decided that “jumping through the hoops” and spending time and money on the complicated application was not worth it. And some districts where there’s been notable district-union contention—Chicago, for example—did submit applications with union sign-off.

The Superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, Jonathan Raymond, gave a sharp critique of the program in a recent column.

I would argue that Race to the Top is hardly innovative – government using “carrot and stick” incentives to spur change is a centuries-old concept.  In fact, I would go a step further: Race to the Top’s heavy-handed, top-down mandates create division and derision within the public education community at precisely a time all sides should be coming together…

…Meanwhile, school districts that are making real, tangible strides to increase student learning are left behind in this “race.” In Sacramento City Unified, we are turning around seven low-performing schools (called Priority Schools) through research-proven strategies for raising student achievement. Six of the seven schools have shown dramatic increases in student achievement and dramatic improvements in school culture and climate. These strategies include relevant professional development for principals and teachers; collaborative teacher planning time; data analysis and inquiry; and building strong family and community engagement. With federal funding, we could take this pilot program to scale statewide. California districts could build on each other’s successes and the gains of districts across the country. This is exactly what federal dollars should be spent on.

Yet Race to the Top’s scripted approach effectively discounts these reforms because they do not fit into the neat categories created by the prescriptive program. Moreover, forcing school districts to compete for badly needed resources is like offering a starving man food but only if he agrees to whatever strings may be attached. This is certainly the choice that school districts like ours face in California.

Those are interesting objections.  He also objects to teacher evaluations being linked to assessments.  I’ve stated my opposition before and would like to reiterate that this program bypasses states.  Christel Swasey today reminded me that this program could push schools in states that rejected the Common Core, like Texas, to embrace the Common Core.  Federal involvement in education should be extremely limited (if not non-existent) and they should be dealing with states, not bypassing them to accomplish their goals.

After all of this time and effort is spent only 15-25 grants will be awarded of $5-40 Million each.

Arne Duncan in a Second Obama Term

arne-duncan-300x225Over at EdWeek Michele McNeil wrote about five issues facing Education Secretary Arne Duncan going into a 2nd Obama term.  I wanted to highlight three of them:

First the strings that came along with the No Child Left Behind waivers…

Waivers: His crew has approved No Child Left Behind flexibility applications for 34 states plus the District of Columbia. These are incredibly complicated, evolving plans that are already creating controversy—and the hard work of implementation has barely gotten started. Virginia had to redo its school performance targets—after the feds had already approved the methodology behind the numbers—after a huge firestorm from civil rights groups. In several states, education advocates are loudly complaining about rules that allow states to set different school targets for different subgroups of at-risk kids. And on the national scene, many are growing alarmed at the small role graduation rates are playing in accountability system. What’s more, as new governors and state chiefs take the helm in waiver states—especially if they are from a different party than those who crafted the waiver plan—we can expect some states to start wanting to substantially change their plans. How agreeable with the U.S. Department of Education be? The first test case may be in Indiana, where Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was upset by Democrat Glenda Ritz, who has some very different ideas about K-12 education in the Hoosier State.

Then there is Race to the Top… was it effective.  In a word – no.

Race to the Top: The president’s signature education initiative will come to an end within the next two years—or at least the original iteration in which 11 states plus D.C. shared $4 billion. What will states have to show for all of this money? Did states actually do everything they said they would? Did the money move needle on not just policy, but also on student achievement? Or will it be too soon to tell? Either way, Race to the Top will face a lot of scrutiny during the president’s second term. (And actually, so will the School Improvement Grant program, which got supercharged as part of the 2009 economic-stimulus package. The same goes for the Investing in Innovation program. People will be asking the same questions of SIG and i3.)

Then the Common Core which we can now call ObamaCore.

Common core: Duncan will have to walk a fine line between supporting states as they implement common standards and tests, and, in the words of Checker Finn, not loving them to death. The campaign offered up some fiery rhetoric on the common core, particularly from Republicans who said the country is proceeding down a path toward a national curriculum. Some speculate that Bennett’s loss in Indiana was partly due to his support of common core

We need to roll our sleeves up as we’ve got work to do, and it will mainly come through pushing back at the state level.

Education Under a Second Obama Term

Alyson Klein asks what would a second Obama term look like for education?

Oh my… do we really have to go there?

She points out what the Obama campaign said a campaign brochure that was released on Tuesday:

  • Cutting tuition growth in half over the next ten years; recruiting and preparing at least 100,000 new math and science teachers;
  • A plan to “strengthen public schools in every community,” in part by expanding Race to the Top to school districts
  • Offering states waivers from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act;
  • Using community colleges as economic development engines.

Well he’s been pretty upfront.  In the debates, Mary Grabar pointed out at P.J. Media that “ObamaCore” has been one of the few accomplishments he’s been able to point to.

Race to the Top may have been the one domestic policy initiative that did not garner the universal ire of Republicans — indeed, it has many GOP supporters. They likely do not realize what a monster they have birthed by promising to follow federal Common Core curriculum guidelines (in math and English/language arts, so far) as part of the Race to the Top contest for $4.35 billion in stimulus funds.

A second Obama term will further erode state and local control over education.  Folks, he’s saying he’s going to double down on Race to the Top at the district level – just by pass the states all together – who needs them?   He wants to do this in every community.  When somebody reveals themselves for who they are – believe them.  He wants to continue with his process of NCLB waivers in return for additional mandates.

Oh goody!

Tom Latham: Bring Back Control and Power of Education to State and School Districts

latham-interviewI had the opportunity to recently interview Congressman Tom Latham (R-IA) for Caffeinated Thoughts.  He is running against Congressman Leonard Boswell (D-IA) in Iowa’s newly drawn 3rd Congressional District.  We had a chance to discuss Federal involvement in education.

“No Child Left Behind was an experiment with great intentions that hasn’t worked because of the way it was implemented.”  Latham said he was ok with Federal assistance for disabled children who received Title I, but was concerned about their breadth of involvement:

…to have the federal government try to dictate what curriculum is at that level and what they can or cannot do – local school districts get maybe 5 to 6 percent of their revenue from the federal government but about 70 to 80 percent of the regulations come from the federal government.  It is cumbersome to deal with.

I also asked him about District Race to the Top:

It dramatically expands the role of the Federal government.  They are going to be writing the grant applications based on what the rules that come out of Washington rather than what the needs are here at home, and that is of great concern…  I really think that we’ve got to bring the power and control back to the state and certainly the local school district.  That has been the strength of education in Iowa ever since they settled here in Iowa.  The first thing they did was build a church.  The second thing they did when they settled was build a school.