Federal Money, Federal Guidelines; and Local Control?
So, in the Race to the Top sweepstakes (Round 2), Rhode Island has made the final 19, which is sorta like making the NHL or NBA playoffs where about half of the “regular season” competitors qualify. Some of the key components included in RI’s application include recent reforms like the passage of a school funding formula, the raising of the charter school cap, an increase in the teacher exam “cut” score, and the integration of Teach for America teachers into RI schools. Prospective reforms include the development of a new teacher evaluation system and formally adopting the Common Core national standards (Rhode Island has already signed off on the concept). The recent actions taken in Central Falls and Providence (and perhaps East Providence) probably also help make the case that the state is ready to tackle reform head on.
If Rhode Island should “win” the $75 million up for grabs, that money will go towards implementing some reforms and helping the educational infrastructure in the state. In other words, it’ll help pay for the development of a teacher evaluation system and a new bunch of state standards based on the national Common Core standards being formulated.
Concerns and debate about the Common Core are bubbling up. As Frederick Hess writes:
Fordham Institute honchos Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli argued last week in a thoughtful National Review Online column that the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) fueled an explosion of mediocre state standards, undermining accountability and reform. They see the Common Core as a remedy. University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene responded that there’s good reason to believe that the Common Core won’t deliver on its promises and that it will impose real costs.
That’s where it gets tricky, of course. A pile of money that can be used on potential good stuff is different than a pile of money spent on programs that missed the mark or didn’t get properly implemented, ie; No Child Left Behind. Hess thinks the points are all valid.
The Common Core standards are superior to those in place in most states, and transparency and market efficiency can benefit dramatically from a clear, rigorous national standard. Uniform standards and performance measures can help us test new educational techniques on a level playing field, so that we can deliver useful tools and techniques to more schools and students. These are all things that conservatives can embrace….But this “state-led” effort has been aggressively driven by the Obama administration, there’s a huge chance that it will dramatically boost federal control of K-12 schooling, that teachers’ unions and other status quo interests will make their influence felt, and that state and local control will be undermined.
However, a Common Core is just that–a “core” of educational standards, not the end-all, be-all. It is the baseline standard that should be met. It’s not the ceiling, it’s the floor. Unfortunately, getting people to shoot higher than above the minimum–whether their education bureaucrats or students–is always a challenge. And as Hess explains, while the big picture stuff is easy, it’s the all-important small stuff that gets short shrift because, well, it can be boring.
Past experience teaches that the odds aren’t great that states, funders, vendors, and the feds will maintain their stride when it comes to making the tedious, small-bore, and potentially costly–but critical–revisions to assessments, accountability, curricula, professional development, teacher education, and instructional materials….the aftermath [of No Child Left Behind] reminded us that grand political projects (conservative or liberal) tend to look best in the early days.
Follow-through and keeping the feedback loop flowing are critical towards implementing reform and maintaining reforms. Nothing is static; things change. If something fails, stop doing it. If it looks promising but may need some modifications, tweak it. If it works, do it more often and in more places. Easy to say, harder to do in today’s arthritic and stratified 20th century industrial age education system. But that’s the point of reform: to change what we’ve got into something better.
I have reservations about allowing the Federal government’s foot, ankle and possibly knee into the local education door. But I’m hopeful that Race to the Top will be an effective means to implement much needed reform (we can agree reform is “much needed”, right?). As Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out, just competing for the money has resulted in many states implementing reforms to be more competitive. That’s certainly been the case in Rhode Island.
Yet, simply winning the RTTT isn’t victory and piecemeal implementation won’t work. It will only be a success if the RTTT funds are used wisely in the implementation of systemic changes tailored to Rhode Island’s education system. It is possible to use federal money and abide by federal standards while also maintaining local control and setting our own educational priorities. Federal help only undermines local control if reformers view federal standards as the ultimate goal and not the jumping off point. Let’s hope Rhode Island’s education policy makers keep that in mind. Like I said, I’m hopeful (which is different than optimistic).