Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=139303
Story Retrieval Date: 5/19/2013 7:16:12 AM CST
WASHINGTON—State officials are scrambling to win a federal competition that encourages education reform, but as they modify their education laws to get in line, high hurdles are forcing some of the states into a race from the bottom.
At stake is $4.35 billion in federal stimulus cash from the Department of Education. The Race to the Top Fund is only a small chunk, but states are finding it’s difficult to pass up the money.
Experts suggest Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is using Race to the Top as political leverage, positioning states for an upcoming revision to No Child Left Behind. Some states are perfectly positioned, experts said, but there’s a long road ahead for others.
“California will take whatever money it can get,” said Brian Edwards, a policy analyst for EdSource, a California education watchdog.
California was one of five states ranked least likely to compete for the money, according to a report released this August by the New Teacher Project. The group, which supports initiatives to train teachers and measure their performance, also rated Nevada, Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania as ineligible because state laws and revised stimulus requests disqualify them from the federal competition.
To qualify, states must show reformed education laws fitting four federal priorities: standardized curriculum; building new student data systems; linking teacher performance to test scores, and raising the number of charter schools.
In California, the biggest hang-up involves the use of test data to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness. State law prevents using students’ test scores to rate a teacher, except for the purposes of local school districts, where officials can monitor a student’s progress from year to year.
Secretary Duncan has several times called those laws a “firewall” that stall reform. He has suggested student test scores should be used to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness.
Duncan’s suggestion has met with fierce resistance from teachers and their unions, who argue that student scores should not be a sole factor in evaluating teachers.
Representatives for state and national teachers unions said test scores must be combined with other factors, such as observation by a principal, lesson planning forms and portfolios. They said they fear test data vary too much from year to year and build only a partial picture of a teacher’s performance.
“Just like we think a student is more than a number, we think a teacher is more than a test score,” said Robert Kim, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union.
The temptation of those federal dollars, though, is driving states to fall in line. Officials in many states are proposing changes that would better position them for a stake in that cash from Washington. But places like California and Wisconsin, where the barriers are higher, will need more time to prepare, experts said.
States can apply for the money later this year, though other states will wait for the second phase in late 2010. Most states are mobilizing now.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in late August proposed sweeping changes to state laws that would link test scores to teacher performance, lift charter school caps and provide more options for children in under-performing schools.
Given the state’s budget crisis, it’s hard to pass up additional federal money, said Edwards, the California policy analyst. Despite the best of intentions, it will take time to develop the best reforms, Edwards said. California has a long road ahead.
“Right now, some of those [reforms] are a dream in California,” Edwards said.