Race To The Pot

No, not that pot. But rather the pot of money Duncan and the ARRA is dangling in our faces through the latest federal carrot and stick, Race To The Top. And I’m not kidding when I refer to it as Race To The Pot.

Here in New Jersey, the public online chatter has been fierce, fiery, frustrating, and ferocious. Then there were the comments made about the news reports. All of which amounts to folly and fury over making a major money grab which districts must decide to chase by January 14. In response to the state’s request for every district to consider and reach a decision about chasing the pot, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) has issued its official listing of reasons why it opposes New Jersey’s election to race to the pot.

For a few days now I have been reading New Jersey’s proposal. I read it over and over again trying to find the point of convincing; when I would realize that I might be wrong and they might be right. But I cannot find it – I cannot accept many of the conditions and ground rules for education reform that the state is advocating. That’s not to say I disagree with all of the state’s plans; indeed I support the common standards initiative, the furthering of ownership of schools by teachers and boards of education (not solely the principal or superintendent), and the push to modernize curricula and pedagogy. But some of what the Race To The Top proposal advocates is highly questionable – especially when you read the depth of literature and research about schooling, learning, teaching, and leading.

Some of the state’s vision for how education should be refromed are outlined as follows (you can read the NJ proposal in draft form here):

  • Provide collaborative time for teachers and school leaders to review and plan instruction based on real‐time student data and collectively review student work samples. Great idea… but since most schools are now cutting back on faculty (thus influencing teacher course load and class sizes) and because most schools already have a difficult time carving out time for teachers, this will be problematic.
  • Select and submit for review assessments, measures, or methodologies for attributing or calculating student growth for non‐tested grades and subjects. Here is the state’s answer to the question, “How can we hold non testable teachers accountable in evaluations and how can we assure that non-tested subject teachers have a shot at getting their merit pay bonus?” Basically their answer is, “Make a test, we’ll review it, and then you might get a shot at the bonus.”
  • Establish required policy changes (including, if required, modifications to the LEA collective bargaining agreements) to support and use the revised evaluation system. This is the NJEAs sticking point. Districts will have to redesign and re-negotiate contracts with the local union representation. The potential for damage to a district is great with this provision.
  • Modify school schedules to provide common planning time by grade level or subject area for lesson study, collective review of student work, and review of students’ formative assessment data. Again, I love this idea… but when a district cuts a budget, they cut staff. When you cut staff you increase teaching load and class size. This affects time. Modifying a schedule for planning time means cutting back in other areas. Remember, there is only so much that can be squeezed into an already packed 7-hour work day. I have managed to do this by reducing the number of duties in a teacher’s schedule and creating PLCs. But not all schools have that luxury.
  • Fund local data integration and training costs for the system through RTTT and other funds. Fund. That means pay for. That means adding an additional expense to the state’s budget. What “other funds”?
  • Fund maintenance of any locally implemented customizations through RTTT and other funds. This is in relation to technology expenses. By all accounts, we’re talking about funding techonlogy upgrades for districts. And you think the iPhone is expensive?
  • Allocate funds to expand access to high quality pre‐kindergarten programs for economically disadvantaged students who are not already being served. We in New Jersey know that we dodged a big bullet this school year when Gov. Corzine’s mandated Pre-K initiative for districts was derailed by the economic downturn. This provision of the RTTT proposal will fund Pre-K in the urban areas. Pre-K is expensive… and there’s only so much RTTT money to go around.
  • Implement 20% extended learning time according to state guidelines. This is in reference to failing school districts. Basically, this means moving to an extended school year, school day, or creating a year-round-education system. Again, not a bad idea. But think of the costs to upgrade facilties for summer use (if that’s part of the plan), the costs to increase teacher salary due to longer working days or an extended calendar. This might mean referendums or increasing local property taxes or increasing state aid to districts.

It’s seems clear to me that many of the state’s proposals in their grant application required utilizing RTTT funding in order to institute changes that, in the long run, must be sustained when the pot of money stops delivering. RTTT funds are only promised for four years. What then?

New Jersey tax payers are fuming over our cost of living. Yet, they are demanding that New Jersey get into the RTTT challenge and get the money (part of which encourages districts to implement teacher and administrator bonus pay for student performance – but they hate that we make “so much money”). But do the citizens understand that racing to and taking the pot of money now means promising to keep paying the money later when the funds run out?

Author: Michael Parent, Ed.D

Father, husband, school administrator in NJ. "Education cures poverty".

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