When Congress passed the stimulus package early last year, they included 54 billion dollars for education, 4.3 billion of which was to be distributed to the states who "won" the program, deemed "The Race to the Top" (RttT) in two phases, the first of which was to end in April 2010 and the second in September 2010. The program awards states points based on their adherence to 5 key reform areas, including 40 points attributed to the adoption of new nation-wide curriculum standards. These five key reform areas are: Designing and implementing rigorous standards and high-quality assessments, attracting and keeping great teachers and leaders in America's classrooms, supporting data systems that inform decisions and improve instruction, using innovation and effective approaches to turn-around struggling schools, and demonstrating and sustaining education reform.. The first four areas are simple enough to understand and predict the kind of reforms they entail. They are centered on the reform of current standards and the increase in achievement of students. The idea of "rigorous standards and high quality assessments" has led to the formation of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is endorsed as a way of meeting the requirement. As of August 14th, 2009 47 states had joined with the exception of Texas, South Carolina, and Alaska (this decision will cost these states 40 points in the RttT). The draft of Common Core Standards for K-12 students were released in March 2010 and outline the methods by which schools will increase student achievement in core curriculum and help students gain on international student achievement. Many of these methods are based on the idea that achievement should be based on results rather than means and the increase of literacy in all core subjects. Other implications of the first reform area deal with the ability of the state to provide resources for the new standards adopted and the willingness of universities and colleges to change admission criteria to fit the reforms done in high schools.
The increased availability of data to teachers, parents, students, administrators, colleges, and employers is hoped to improve instruction and heighten learning experiences for students. These reforms could include but are not limited to the creation of an electronic portfolio containing the test scores, performance records, and grades of each student and teacher as well as the amount of access to the system (with proper privacy settings) to researchers in order to quickly evaluate and replace failing systems. These reforms also focus on linking individual teachers and individual students regardless of their spatial proximity. In Delaware, a state discussed further later on, The Education Association placed a significant amount of value on the development of a data system that would track student performance from pre-school to college and/or career. The hope is for teachers and administrators to become aware of at-risk students before the student drops-out or becomes "unreachable".
The system will be created with a governance system in place to monitor information sharing to prevent abuse of the system and the mis-use of information by stakeholders.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hopes that a simple way to increase student achievement is in reforming the process of hiring and retention of talented teachers and administrators. A key issue in this reform area is the creation and availability of alternate teacher certification programs that do not have as rigorous course loads as traditional routes and the number of teachers being hired from these programs by school districts. Programs cataloging the effectiveness of teachers used for evaluation are also proposed. Many state educational associations, including the Michigan Education Association (MEA), feel that these requirements may interfere with union contracts and may lead to the introduction of merit pay, an issue that may cause serious concerns here in Michigan and in many other states in which powerful educational associations exist because the education associations could withhold support for the application.
Among the reforms included under the area of turning around failing schools are the very controversial ideas of increasing the availability of charter schools and the transference of funding power to a more central authority. The argument over charter schools has been taking place in Detroit Public Schools (DPS), a chronically failing school district, for many years. The charter schools are seen as one way of counteracting the years of terrible academic performance in DPS. In Michigan, the current charter school legislation allows for only a certain number of charter schools to be opened, so many people willing to open one are thwarted by the lack of flexibility shown by the state government on the issue (not to mention the incredibly high price tag of around $500,000). The hope is that by allowing more charter schools, many of which offer alternative education or subject based programs, will give parents and students more options concerning their education. Although concerned mainly which economics, DPS can also show us an example of the controversy: central control for failing schools. When Robert Bobb, emergency funding manager of DPS, took control over the district he very quickly implemented a plan that would not only alleviate the funding problems but also help increase performance in the district. These reforms are meant to keep DPS competitive with the charter and magnet schools as well as fix the budgetary problems plaguing DPS.
The last reform area on the RttT's agenda, concerning continued reform, is where things begin to become significantly murkier as to its implications. The official line concerning this area reads as follows,
"Demonstrating and sustaining education reform, by promoting collaborations between business leaders, educators, and other stakeholders to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps, and by expanding support for high-performing public charter schools, reinvigorating math and science education, and promoting other conditions favorable to innovation and reform."
This however is not a clear cut statement in the minds of RttT opponents. The term "stakeholders" is vague as to who it applies to, many feel this would give the national government more control over state sponsored education. "[P]romoting other favorable conditions" may also allow the federal government to stipulate practices in what was once a state government issue.
In the state of Michigan, in a political and economic hurricane, the issue about applying for RttT was one of the few both Republicans and Democrats in both houses could agree upon. The state's schools were in turmoil due to a heavily slumped economy and the migration of school age children and their families out of the state. Both sides felt that if the federal government was offering the funds, then the state should actively pursue over 400 million dollars in extra funding that could alleviate the strain being placed on schools. This does not mean there weren't opponents or certain issues that caused a few hang-ups in the process. The MEA was active in voicing its concerns over the implementation of alternative teacher certification and merit pay while Republicans in the House and Senate were concerned over the loss of control to the federal government.
Senate Bills 965, 981 and 982, sponsored by Senator Wayne Kuipers (R - Holland) head of the Senate Education Committee, allowed for different paths to teacher certification and support for low achieving schools while Senate Bills 925 and 926, sponsored by Senator Buzz Thomas (D-Detroit), allowed for more high-achieving charter schools. These bills (along with House bills 4787-4788 and 5596) were signed into law by Governor Jennifer Granholm on January 4th, 2010. In addition to the aforementioned reforms, the bills also raised the dropout age from 16 to 18, to be effective for the class of 2016. These reforms were passed only 15 days before the completed phase 1 application had to be submitted to the federal government.
Michigan's application is 182 pages long and includes a detailed plan concerning the current state of education and the plans for future reform and success. One major factor in the applications overall success or failure is the involvement of the state's LEAs or Local Education Agencies. LEA's can include but are not limited to the state's school districts, charter schools, magnet schools, and school administrators. These groups, the emphasis is mainly on the districts, are supposed to be supportive of and active participants in the state's reform agenda in order for the state to receive high marks in the first categories. This section is worth 80 points toward the state score. Michigan was able to muster 100% support on most issues in this category except in the collection of local union leaders (a mere 7.9%) and in the total number of LEAs and other applicable sources' participation in the program (between 89% and 94%). The application continues in this manner, breaking down each category and sub-category, citing information concerning that particular category, and analyzing this information.
All told, 40 states, the District of Columbia, and two territories applied for the Race to the Top and on March 4th, 2010 the top 16 applications were chosen as semi-finalists. The selection process was carried out by peer reviewers from each participating state. Each application was read and scored by 5 reviewers, the average of these 5 scores was recorded and the states were ranked according to this final score. The following 16 states were acknowledged as semi-finalists: Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina (who had eventually joined the Common Core Standards), and Tennessee. These 16 states presented their proposals to and participated in a Q&A session with the panel that scored them in the previous round. The knowledge gathered by the reviewers in these sessions assisted them in re-tooling the scores and ranking the semi-finalists a second time from highest to lowest score. Secretary Duncan selected the winners from this list as there was no set number of them allowed. Tennessee and Delaware were announced as the winners on March 29th, 2010. Delaware will be rewarded 100 million dollars and Tennessee will receive 400 million dollars. This leaves 3.4 billion dollars for the second phase of the RttT, applications for which are due June 1st, 2010.
To understand the difference between state applications, and why certain states were chosen over others, the Department of Education (DOE) has made available the panel reviews for all participants. Among these are South Dakota ("finished" 41st), Michigan ("finished" 21st), and Delaware ("finished" 1st for semi-finals, and "won" the Race to the Top). The difference in scores is immediately noticeable in Phase 1, Tier 1 scores. South Dakota managed only 25.8/125 points for the first category, Michigan received 75.8/125, and Delaware received 116.4/125. Remember, each score is the average of 5 panel reviewers and each reviewer gives an individual score so in some categories (particularly on the Michigan and South Dakota applications) there is a large discrepancy between the lowest score and the highest score. These discrepancies can vary in magnitude, i.e., in one particular category on South Dakota's application one reviewer awarded 10/10 points while another awarded 0 points. The result of this is a large gap between the lowest total points given and the highest total points given.
One section of the application where all 3 of the sample states lost a relatively large amount of points is in the sub-category dubbed "Improving teacher and principle effectiveness based on performance". It seems that many states were not fully committed to changing the process by which teachers and administrators are evaluated and the course of action taken following these evaluations. In a randomly selected group of 5 additional states, not one got within 10 points of the total 58 awarded in the category. Perhaps this sheds light on the preeminence of teachers unions in the states who applied. In the state of Michigan, the MEA has argued against the passage of legislation that would modify the current teacher hiring practices, advocate merit pay, and "attack" tenure. The MEA argues that none of these reforms are proven to increase student or teacher achievement and could hurt teachers currently employed. Delaware's Education Association, despite a rather lengthy strategy plan upon which the state's application was based, does not mention their advocation of merit pay and alternate teacher certification programs. In South Dakota the Education Association supports the usage of incentives to attract and retain teachers but does not support merit pay based on standardized test scores. Though it is difficult to measure the amount of impact any particular association has on the legislative processes in their states, in many states (including Michigan) it is a requirement for teachers to be a member of a union.
Upon the announcement of the finalists and winners of Phase 1 of the RttT, the analysis of short-comings began in states with the mind to apply for Phase 2. For Michigan, it appears the failure to reach the semi-finals was a result of three short-comings to some of the key principles of the RttT application. These short-comings include a lack of accountability for teachers and the development of a proper data system used to evaluate teacher performance based on student improvement. Secretary Duncan wants states to pass actual legislation creating these systems, not just promise to or plan to. A second problem was with teacher tenure, the greater accountability does not mean anything if the state does not reform its teacher tenure program. This lack of reform could be a result of the MEA's wish to leave the current tenure law unchanged. The third large discrepancy is in the involvement of higher-education institutions in the reforms concerning high school curriculum and data-sharing. Michigan did not meet this requirement because it did not work with state universities and colleges to inform them of what students were learning in high school. This information can be useful in that it can assist colleges in making a smoother transition from high school to college for their students. Reactions to Michigan missing the cut in phase 1 were a mixture of disappointment and the realization that the lessons learned in phase 1 will be vital to Michigan's chances in the second phase of the RttT. Michigan will have to regroup, re-analyze, and re-assess their application and subsequently pass the necessary legislation to make these reforms less theoretical and more practical. Oddly enough, immediately after hearing about the semi-final "loss", a state house panel voted against the bill containing the 25 million dollars necessary to enact the reforms passed in early January.
Phase 2 of the RttT will begin on June 1st, 2010 when phase 2 applications are due to the Department of Education for review. The only rule change for phase 2 is the changing of suggested budget limits into mandatory ones as a way to insure competiveness and fairness in the phase 2 competition. Because phase 1 only gave out 500 million dollars, phase 2 could hand out up to 3.4 billion dollars to states able to successfully reform their schools and complete their applications. Secretary Duncan, in his reflection on the first phase of the RttT, pointed out that the winners may not have been the boldest or had the largest buy-in of affected parties, but they had a mixture of bold reforms and buy-ins that showed they were most willing to change their systems for the rapidly changing world. He goes on to say that the whole point of the RttT is to have each state challenge itself and each other to become better, more efficient, and provide the best possible education to students nation-wide. It would be prudent for states to remember this as they prepare for phase 2.
Governor Granholm seems to think that applying for phase 2 is a no-brainer, that winning these funds will help improve schools. One concern for Granholm was the MEA's refusal to sign off on the application a concern responded to by Doug Pratt, a MEA spokesman,
"[W]e have to see what we're signing on to before we sign it, for starters. We wanted Michigan to be in the best possible position for Race to the Top money, but this was not a collaborative process." The DOE responded by pointing out the multiple invitations to stakeholder meetings and the variety of 11th hour changes that were made because of the MEA's wishes. Though some finalist states were able to be selected despite the lack of support from their education associations, it is clear that having the support of the MEA would be a huge boost to the application. One could even go so far as to say that should the MEA support Michigan's RttT application for phase 2, Michigan would make up the 36 points separating it from 16th place.
With 400+ million dollars on the line and an education system where school districts are struggling to employ teachers, it seems odd that the MEA would not support Michigan's RttT bid. The lack of support has not gone unnoticed as multiple news sources across the state noticed that Michigan's phase 1 chances may have been foiled by its own education association. Sources from the Detroit Free Press, The Lansing Journal, and The Mackinac Center are all putting the majority of blame on the lack of union support for the bill, something both Delaware and Tennessee had. In order for Michigan to be successful at claiming $400 million, it needs the support of its teachers and its unions. It is: the bottom line, plain and simple, clear as day, the clichés could go on forever.
For Michigan, phase 2 is an opportunity to change a system many view as a failure for the better. In a state with multiple low-achieving school districts, a vast variety of rural, suburban, and urban environments, and a changing economy, these choices will have a direct impact on the future of our state. Before Michigan jumps in too quickly, or finds its self in too deep, a quick look at the achievement of Michigan students over the last few years is necessary. MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) scores in the state have been on the rise these last few years with drastic increases occurring between 2005 and 2009. All age groups (3rd through 8th grades) are now over the 80% mark for proficiency, with every group except the fourth grade rising from 3-8% in the last four years. In math, 95% of 3rd graders tested proficient and despite a small decrease this year, 8th graders have been achieving higher than in 2005. A much more significant success for Michigan was the decrease in the achievement gap between white and minority students.
The gap in math achievement dropped 10% from 2005; the largest gap drop was between white and black students in 7th grade where it went from 41% to 25%. The gap between white and Hispanic students went from 27.1% to 12.3%. These figures show a definite increase in student performance in all areas tested over the last 5 years, no mean feat to say the least. The shrinking achievement gap points to an educational system helping all students improve and compete regardless of ethnicity or background.
The scores could be an indication that what Michigan has been doing on its own has been successful and that further reform may not be necessary. These score increases have occurred despite the dreadful results from DPS on the Nation Assessment of Educational Progress exam. 69% of fourth-graders and 77% of eighth-graders tested below basic skill level on the test given to 18 urban school districts. In short, the drastic successes state-wide are not applicable to every school district in the state. It could also be argued that increased reform could raise achievement scores and lower achievement gaps even more and much faster than in the previous years and change the pattern of failure found in the city of Detroit and other urban, poverty-stricken districts.
In conclusion, Michigan has work to do for round 2. Michigan came close in the first phase because of a series of reforms that made Michigan competitive with other states with high-chances of winning. Michigan must find a way to get the MEA behind the reforms necessary to win, continue passing reforms that would better all schools, and most importantly provide a world class education to every student. This process will require that each stake-holder be an active participant willing to make concessions and compromises so that the final goal can be reached. Both the government and the unions must remember their purpose and mission are not to be self-serving, but to serve the people and the students. If no compromise can be made, if the phase 2 application contains the same fatal flaws as the phase 1 application, then the students attending Michigan public schools will suffer. The cycle of failures, almosts, nearly theres, kind ofs, and next times must end now. Michigan stumbled in the first leg of the race so it needs a large push forward to win the second leg of the Race to the Top.
A fact sheet concerning these principles can be found on the White House website. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/fact-sheet-race-top
The New Teacher Project analysis of Race to the Top and recommendations for applications. http://www.tntp.org/files/TNTP_InterpretingR2T_2009.pdf
The 62 page draft can be found at the Core Standards website http://www.corestandards.org/Files/K12ELAStandards.pdf
The full Delaware State Education Association strategy plan is available on the DSEA website. http://www.dsea.org/PDF/DoEStratPlanDec09.pdf
MEA legislative and political information website. http://www.mea.org/gov/092509_race_to_top.html
It's Time to end the Charter School Fight http://www.freep.com/article/20090911/COL10/909110389/1001/news
So You Want to Start a Charter School? Power point presentation pages 16-17 http://www.michigan.gov/mde/0,1607,7-140-6530_30334_40088---,00.html
Michigan Senate Education Committee website http://www.senate.michigan.gov/gop/readarticle.asp?id=2840&District=12
Crain's Detroit Business news website http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20100104/FREE/100109990#
The full application for Michigan and all other participating states can be found on the Department of Education's website. http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase1-applications/index.html
Department of Education press releases http://www2.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2010/03/03042010.html
Department of Education press release concerning Phase 1 winners. http://www2.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2010/03/03292010.html
This and following information gathered from Department of Education collection of state applications and scores http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase1-applications/index.html, rankings from http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase1-applications/score-summary.pdf
For South Dakota: a difference of 52 points, for Michigan: a difference of 40 points, and for Delaware a difference of only 18 points.
Figures taken from each state's score sheet http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase1-applications/score-sheets/delaware.pdf, http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase1-applications/score-sheets/michigan.pdf, http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase1-applications/score-sheets/south-dakota.pdf. Random state figures from application list on DOE website http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase1-applications/index.html
Editorial: Michigan's Race to the Top application must move beyond basics to win millions for education. http://detnews.com/article/20100318/OPINION01/3180340/Editorial-Michigan-s-Race-to-the-Top-application-must-move-beyond-basics-to-win-millions-for-education.
Michigan Misses Out on Race to the Top http://www.wwmt.com/articles/margin-1373425-michigan-bottom.html
Department of Education interim rules for phase 2 of Race to the Top http://www2.ed.gov/legislation/FedRegister/other/2010-2/040210a.html
Lessons from Phase 1 of Race to the Top http://www.ed.gov/blog/2010/04/lessons-from-phase-1-of-race-to-the-top/
Granholm pledges tough fight for round two of Race to the Top funds http://detnews.com/article/20100305/SCHOOLS/3050417/Granholm-pledges-tough-fight-for-round-two-of-Race-to-the-Top-funds
Figures taken from Michigan Department of Education. MEAP Reading and Math Scores Continue to Climb, Achievement Gap Narrows. http://www.michigan.gov/mde/0,1607,7-140--233315--,00.html
Detroit students notch lowest math scores in history of standardized test http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2009/12/detroit_students_notch_lowest.html
"The mission of the MEA is to ensure that the education of our students and the working environments of our members are of the highest quality." Actual MEA mission statement http://www.mea.org/about/aboutMEA.html