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Education reform's 'Race to the Top' features some non-starters

By Kevin Huffman
Saturday, January 30, 2010; A15

In the brave new world of data-driven education reform, most states have learned how to talk the talk. Start with "global competitiveness," add in some "longitudinal data" and "transparency," garnish with "accountability" and serve.

But far fewer states are committed to more than the language of reform -- a reality made clear by the applications submitted last week to President Obama's Race to the Top grant program.

Race to the Top is the crown jewel of the Obama administration's education reform agenda and the largest-ever discretionary federal grant program for public schools. (In his State of the Union address this week, the president proposed adding an additional $1.4 billion to the pot of $4.35 billion.) The hope is that fiscally strapped states will make changes to ineffective policies and present comprehensive reform plans to be competitive for grants of up to $700 million. Indeed, Education Secretary Arne Duncan says that around a dozen states have changed laws or policies in response to the program thus far.

Still, now that applications are in, we can see that Race to the Top has some fast runners, some faux runners, some plodders and some states that never quite made it to the starting line. (Full disclosure: I gave unpaid advice to several states on their applications. Most of the 41 applications are now available on state Web sites, and I'm not rooting for any particular one.)

In Texas, where I taught for several years, Gov. Rick Perry (R) pulled the plug on the state's application, declaring, "We would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children's future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special-interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington."

The left can be as absurd as the right: New York put together a solid application with interesting proposals to alter the teacher certification process and experiment with merit-based pay. The legislature, though, needed to remove a cap on the number of charter schools. The cap stayed, and New York will lose the race this time around.

While the bumblers have made headlines, the heart of the administration's education agenda lies in the distinction between real and sham reform. Take New Jersey's Race to the Top application. The Garden State promises it will adopt new standards for students, change its data systems, provide teachers with computers for to-be-determined activities and convene a commission to devise a new teacher evaluation system.

But beyond all the promises, predicated on various commissions and boards miraculously completing complex political activities, there is little chance of reform trickling down to schools. The state asked school districts to sign on, but it gave them the option of signing on only to the pieces they liked. As a result, school district commitments to enact reform are a hodgepodge of assorted activities.

I'm picking on New Jersey not because it has the worst plan (it doesn't) but because it so perfectly embodies the old way of applying for federal education funding -- lots of promises and ideas; little chance of change on the ground.

By contrast, Louisiana submitted a clear, concise, actionable plan to reform a large swath of its public schools.

The beauty of Louisiana's reform model lies in its simplicity. The state has taken critical baseline steps, it proposes expanding projects that have shown promising results, and it has ensured that participating school districts will actually do the things that are in the application.

Louisiana already built and uses a data system that ties students' test scores to the teachers who taught them and to the universities and programs that trained the teachers. In its application, Louisiana proposes expanding the use of data and using test-score results to count for 50 percent of teacher evaluations and to help drive decisions of hiring, retaining, and promoting teachers and principals.

Louisiana's plan to take over and turn around low-performing schools isn't an esoteric policy concept. The state took over nearly 10 percent of its neediest schools, turning some into public charter schools and overhauling school leadership and faculty.

Mr. Duncan has been getting flak this week for calling Hurricane Katrina "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans," but he's right to praise the enormous progress there since 2005. New Orleans schools have seen significant growth in student achievement levels over the past three years, and the state has real lessons to apply to other struggling schools.

Most critically, the state is serious about enacting its plans. State Superintendent Paul Pastorek made participating school districts sign on to all of the requirements. This reduced participation far enough that only about half of the state's students would fall under the grant, a number that Pastorek finds reasonable. "We wanted people to know what they were getting themselves into," he told me. "We need 100 percent of the participants, 100 percent committed to the reforms."

The success of the Race to the Top program depends partially on the Education Department making smart choices with its grant awards and sending most states home empty-handed -- which Mr. Duncan has repeatedly promised to do.

For systemic change, though, local political leaders need to understand the difference between talk and action on education reform. Too many states are attempting to Amble to the Top with their reform plans. In April, a handful of states will walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars. The rest will have the chance to reapply for funding in June. That gives states five months to take a good hard look at the plans of their faster-moving peers -- and decide if they have the intestinal fortitude to join the race for real.

The writer, who is executive vice president of public affairs at Teach for America, won The Post's America's Next Great Pundit contest.

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