Education Reform

Race to the Top...or Not

Back Commentary Nov 1, 2009 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

The Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are dangling a huge carrot in front of California: a share of a $4.3 billion fund to reform K-12 education. This so-called Race to the Top initiative is the single largest pot of discretionary dollars ever offered to states for such reforms.

Of course, there are caveats. States must compete for the funds based on their readiness to tackle four core reforms intended to drive student achievement and narrow existing gaps between the highest and lowest performing schools. They include adoption of common, internationally bench marked standards; better systems to track student achievement and link it to improved instruction; better methods to identify and reward effective teachers and principals; and reforms to turn around the â?¨lowest-performing schools.

States that can present comprehensive plans for all four reform areas will have the best chance of winning grants worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Where does cash-strapped California stand in this race to the top? Unfortunately, we’re nonstarters, disqualified from even applying because one requirement is the ability to link student achievement data to teachers and principals. In 2006, California teachers’ unions successfully lobbied for a law that “prohibits the state from linking student data to teacher data for the purpose of pay, promotion, sanction or personnel evaluation.”

This is absurd. Teachers can fairly argue that student scores on standardized tests should not be the only measure to evaluate their own performance. But such data certainly should play some role in measuring a teacher’s success, just as quantifiable results are the basis for measuring any other professional’s work.

California is also at a disadvantage because we cap the number of charter schools in our state. Such caps are prohibited in the Race to the Top guidelines, and rightly so. We should encourage competition between traditional and charter schools, encouraging innovation and allowing parents to choose the learning environment that best meets the needs of their children.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has wisely backed a bipartisan legislative package that eliminates both these barriers and initiates overdue reforms. The legislation would give California a fighting chance to gain sorely needed federal funding to make systemwide, interconnected reforms — not the piecemeal changes we’ve so often made in the past.

The proposed legislation would, among other things, allow open enrollment for students in the lowest-performing schools, give merit pay to teachers who take the toughest assignments, track individual student progress over time, and improve the accuracy and effectiveness of performance data on students, teachers and schools.

Lawmakers are still debating the package and some fear supporting it means backlash from powerful teachers’ unions. But this is no time for dragging feet or political cowardice. Applications for the first round of federal grants are due in December with funds disbursed in March. A second round of funding is planned for September 2010, but no one can predict how much will be available.

When he announced federal guidelines, Duncan singled out California and its need to reform schools that educate one-eighth of the nation’s K-12 population. His question: Is California going to lead the race to the top or lead the retreat?

Our answer should be clear. Stop debating and make our schools the best in the nation again by supporting this current legislation and winning those federal dollars.

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