Delaware ’s Race to the Top: Teachers Left Behind?

By Jane Weinkrantz

.4/14/2010

This week, Secretary Duncan announced the winners of the Race to the Top. Tennessee and Delaware won. Interestingly, the applications they submitted are online in their entirety. You can pack a lunch and while the hours away, reading sentences like “An educator will simply not be considered Effective if his/her students are not learning and an educator will not be considered Ineffective if his/her students are in fact learning.” (That was from page D-9 of Delaware ’s application.) But after too much of this, you’re not laughing until your sides hurt.  You’re wondering how all the time, money and energy spent emphasizing the worst aspects of education is going to redefine your profession and if you’ll still recognize it when you’re through.

 “Race to the Top” never sat well with me.  Personally, I’m not crazy about education becoming a competition for funding. Shouldn’t the goal be to improve education for all children, not pit states against one another for grant money?  NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi summed it up when he said, “We’ve gone from no child left behind to every child---except the ones who win---left behind.”

The White House Race to the Top Fact Sheet explains that states are awarded grant money based on “designing and implementing rigorous standards and high-quality assessments; attracting and keeping great teachers and leaders in America’s classrooms;”  “supporting data systems that inform decisions and improve instruction;” “using innovation and effective approaches to turn around struggling schools;” and “demonstrating and sustaining educational reform.” Lifting the cap on charter schools was a decided advantage. States whose teacher unions endorsed reforms were given preference as well.

My favorite goal is “attracting and keeping great teachers and leaders in America ’s classrooms.” The White House fact sheet describes this as “expanding effective support to teachers and principals; reforming and improving teacher preparation; revising teacher evaluation, compensation, and retention policies to encourage and reward effectiveness; and working to ensure that our most talented teachers are placed in the schools and subjects where they are needed the most.” RTTT requires that teacher evaluation be at least partially based on results of standardized tests, the cornerstone of the unintelligent and underfunded No Child Left Behind.  I’m not sure why great teachers would find that particularly attractive.

In standardized testing, Delaware uses value-added assessments which, according to the Center for Greater Philadelphia, work as follows: “Based on a review of students' test score gains from previous grades, researchers can predict the amount of growth those students are likely to make in a given year. Thus, value-added assessment can show whether particular students - those taking a certain algebra class, say - have made the expected amount of progress, have made less progress than expected, or have been stretched beyond what they could reasonably be expected to achieve. Using the same methods, one can look back over several years to measure the long-term impact that a particular teacher or school had on student achievement.”  While this is certainly superior to older methods of assessing student and school progress, I still wouldn’t feel comfortable with Delaware’s new plan that allows tenured teachers to be let go if they are rated as “ineffective”, based on student achievement data for two years.

Delaware ’s document promises “the State plans to implement a clear approach for measuring student growth by July 2011.” Teachers will be rated “Highly Effective,” “Effective”, “Needs Improvement,” and “Ineffective” with “Highly Effective” reserved for those whose students improve by more than a grade level in a year. Teachers will be evaluated based on five areas as outlined in the Charlotte Danielson system. (http://www.danielsongroup.org/theframeteach.htm) The areas are planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction, professional responsibilities and student improvement. Teachers who are “ineffective” for two years or combine “needs improvement” and “ineffective” over a period of three years must change by following an “improvement plan” or lose their jobs. “Highly Effective” teachers can become “Teacher Leaders” who will be used to mentor colleagues, “strengthen the culture of the school and to improve the quality of instruction.” They will also receive extra pay.

Extra pay turns up in a few different places in Delaware ’s application. There is merit pay, though it is not called that. There will be “differentiated compensation” for highly effective and effective teachers in vital disciplines or classes that are hard to staff. Also, effective teachers who volunteer to work in low performing schools will receive bonuses of up to $5000 and retention bonuses approximated to be between $8500 and $10,000 for staying at those schools.  This sounds like a powerful incentive to work in a high-needs school until you remember that if the high-needs school doesn’t start performing, 50 percent of the teachers and the principal can still be removed a la Central Falls , Rhode Island . A lot of teachers may think “Keep your incentive pay. I’ll stay in a school that is already performing.”

“Data driven” is one of the key terms in Delaware ’s new view of education. But, how to make sense of all this data and use it to influence teacher practices?

Thirty-five data coaches will be hired “to support the transition to data-driven instruction and the implementation of instructional improvement systems.” The coaches will “help teachers develop the technical skills to analyze data and the pedagogical skills to adjust instruction based on the data.” There will be one coach for every two hundred teachers. Delaware ’s proposal estimates that teachers will receive three 90-minute coaching sessions per month, including two facilitated sessions and one observation. The coaches, who are employed by third parties, will be assessed based on evaluations from teachers and administrators. Delaware ’s application even specifies that there will be “clear consequences for ineffective trainers.” Administrators will also be coached on how to evaluate teachers.

Why did Delaware ’s teachers’ union sign on to all this? Diane Donohue, president of the Delaware State Education Association told the Washington Post, “No one’s naïve…this is going to be very challenging work. Absolutely, we’re taking a risk.” Donohue agreed to the terms in order to be sure that teachers had some impact on the final proposal. Quoting NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, she said, “I’d rather be at the table than on the menu.” I’m not sure the two are mutually exclusive.

Some of the ideas in Delaware ’s RTTT application are very good. There are various paths to teacher certification and the state is going to foot the bill for its high school students to take the SAT.   I like the idea of paying teachers in high-needs schools more, but I’m not foolish enough to think that will be enough to turn around an impoverished and violent school district. RTTT’s goals seem dedicated to making teaching a sort of actuarial science in which student success is easily quantified and always the result of teachers alone.  Those of us who teach know how simple a view this is of a very complex profession.

One of the variables in student achievement is always parenting. Delaware ’s RTTT application is short on parental responsibility beyond the following sentence, “ Delaware also recognizes that school environments are not shaped by students and educators alone and will work to improve community and parental involvement in schools.” The details that follow are noticeably vague.

        Social studies teacher Thomas Leighty of Dover High School commented, “What really gets a lot of us is there’s nothing here about parents being accountable for lack of parental support, and student responsibility…this can’t be all my fault.”

Don’t bet on it.

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