January 22nd, 2010

Race to the Top
Bonus Video - Joanne Weiss: Running the Race

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Race to the Top Director, Joanne Weiss, believes that win or lose, what really matters in this competition is how states play the game. But when the prize is a share of 4.35 billions dollars to improve schools, this age-old proverb takes on new meaning.

On January 19th, 40 states and D.C. submitted their applications to the Department of Education. In the applications states outline their plan to improve schools and present strategies on how they intend to enact Secretary Arne Duncan’s four core areas of reform; including more charter schools and tying student achievement data to teacher performance. Weiss gives us an inside look at what it takes to win this race.

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I am so glad that Joanne is highlighting that while the change is being incentivized at the top through RTT funds, it is completely dependent on what is happening at the local level to produce breakthrough results for kids. The changes will be driven by courageous leaders at the school and district level committed to leading the way. But they can’t do it alone. The tools, knowledge and linkages they need are not accessible. We need mechanisms for networking these leaders to one another and to the most promising ideas and innovations. How will they accomplish the task without this critical support?

At a forum in Boston several months ago, Joanne Weiss encountered the not-very-subtle alternative of using student portfolios, as more representative of student skills than tests. Her comment was to the effect, “If we don’t buy tests, what will we spend our money on?”

This kind of unsophisticated policy formulation is more appropriate to an assistant principal in a rural school than to someone charged with creating metrics and standards for all American education. It is more than shocking that the entire RTTT superstructure targets knowledge standards rather than skill and application standards for its evaluation, and that it still conflates assessment - which is rightly part of teaching - with evaluation. Finally, it is outrageous that media like Ed Week buys into the absurdity that “gain scores” of children have any direct relation to individual teacher quality.

Five years ago I studied the risks of “at risk” teens in a range of suburban Boston school districts. I discovered the fairly obvious malfeasance of one of those districts where 9th graders were routinely held back, to give them an extra year of test prep to make the district the “top gain score” in the state.

This kind of “assessment” is precisely that on which Ms. Weiss now plans to spend $350,000,000. Unless some fairly obvious metrics - age, number of years in school, grades, and other “pre-existing conditions” - are coordinated with test scores, the scores themselves are meaningless. Yet DOE does not propose to take these blind tests and induce meaning by wedding such a network of fairly easily available, generally “unobtrusive” measures. Like the Bushies before them, they intend to compare test scores in one year with those of another, and reward those who make the most gains. That is absurd, and really only rewards the cheat.

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