Race to the Top Runs Into Brick Wall, Again

First some definitions of commonly used acronyms in the education reform debate.

WEAC – The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers’ union and the largest obstacle to innovative reform in the classrooms across the state.

RTTT– Race to the Top, the grant awarding contest for one-time federal education funds meant to spur innovation and reform in which Wisconsin finished 21st out of 46 applicants.

DPI – The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the Madison-based bureaucracy which administers federal and state education funds and whose superintendent is beholden to WEAC and is loathe to upset the status quo if it means upsetting WEAC.

CYA – Description of the new Education bill which will pass the Senate on Thursday and the Assembly sometime next week.

Now, a brief comment:

So, Wisconsin fared miserably in the RTTT’s round one, as we predicted.

In an obvious attempt at CYA, members of the education establishment are scrambling to pass a series of mostly cosmetic changes aimed at improving Wisconsin’s odds at winning funding in RTTT-Round 2.

WEAC is on board with these changes, thus raising the hopes of some who believe the biggest reason Wisconsin failed at RTTT was the tepid support of WEAC.

DPI is on board because the DPI Superintendent is given more authority to deal with schools who are in the lowest five percent of schools and who are in districts that DPI has designated for improvement for four years in a row.

However, the fast-tracked education proposal will do little to improve Wisconsin’s ability to obtain those funds. That is, if the federal DOE is true to the word of the POTUS.  Oops, missed those acronyms.

You see, President Obama announced RTTT in Wisconsin last year. In doing so he said:

“Now, before a state is even eligible to compete, they’ll have to take an important first step.  And this has caused some controversy in some places, but it shouldn’t be controversial.  Any state that has a so-called firewall law will have to remove them.  Now, here’s what a firewall law is:  It basically says that you can’t factor in the performance of students when you’re evaluating teachers.  That is not a good message in terms of accountability.  So we said, if you’ve got one of those laws, if you want to compete for these grants you got to get rid of that law.”

Indeed many of the reviewers of Wisconsin’s RTTT application mentioned Wisocnsin’s firewall.

How the plan will deal with compensating, promoting and retaining principals and teachers is not clear nor is information regarding the granting of tenure and full certification or removing ineffective principals and teachers,” read the official comment of a grant reviewer.

Clearly the reviewers were looking at how states tie teacher evaluation to the performance of their students. Wrote another:

“Partly because the application is vague about the nature of these evaluations and partly because the connection between evaluation and professional development appears so tenuous in this application, very limited credit can be given for the first element (D2iv.a.) of this criterion. The application does not address at all the use of evaluation results to compensate, promote or retain teachers and principals. There is no discussion of using evaluation results to make tenure or full certification decisions. There is no mention of how evaluation results might be used in removing ineffective teachers, nor what opportunities these teachers should be give to help them improve.”

Yet another reviewer’s comments:

As with other sections of the grant, these strategies include a timeline and persons responsible. How the plan will deal with compensating, promoting and retaining teachers and principals is not clear nor is information regarding the granting of tenure and/or full certification or removing ineffective principals and teachers.

Yet another:

Wisconsin currently has a system for measuring student growth for each individual student and currently has efforts underway to make that system more robust by including benchmark assessment data throughout the year. D2ii – Legislation has been passed (2009) to permit standardized exams to be use to evaluate teachers, however, the description of how student achievement data and increases (as defined by the notice) to develop and implement an evaluation system for teachers and principals that would meet the standards of this program is not as clear. (emphasis mine)

This new legislation does not break down that firewall.  Instead, it allows, actually mandates, that any teacher disciplinary or terminations relating to student performance be a condition subject to collective bargaining. (Remember, Obama may be President, but in Wisconsin education circles, WEAC is King.)

One final thought.

Also from Obama’s November speech:

“And we’ll encourage states to take a better approach when it comes to charter schools and other innovative public schools.  When these schools are performing poorly, they’ll be shut down.  But when innovative public schools are succeeding, they shouldn’t be stifled — they should be supported.”

As we noted on several occasions, Wisconsin (at the behest of WEAC and DPI) limits open enrollment in virtual charter schools. While the state’s application ignored this fact last time, the heat is on for them to not repeat that, to be polite, omission, this time.

From the Green Bay Press Gazette:

The governor needs to ensure that the state’s second-round application does not repeat the inaccurate statement about enrollment limits.

Better yet, the Legislature should repeal the cap so Wisconsin can proudly and truthfully say it supports education innovation.

To summarize: Wisconsin lawmakers may try to convince themselves that they’ve corrected the stumbling blocks to this RTTT funding. However, if the Administration is true to its word, the efforts this month on education reform in Wisconsin are merely motion, not progress. So it looks like WEAC and DPI’s best attempts at CYA won’t really improve their chances at winning a consolation prize in the RTTT.

By Brian Fraley
A MacIver Perspective