You walk into a classroom and the students aren't engaged. They're passing notes, they're not on the right page, they're not paying attention. The teacher is not calling on different students or allowing enough time for students to answer after she asks a question. Her lesson plans are disorganized. She's not stopping disruptive behavior. She's not starting class on time or she's ending too soon. She's not moving ahead students who have mastered the content. She's not helping students who are behind.
This is how Alexis Tibbetts, superintendent of Okaloosa County Schools in Florida, said she can spot a bad teacher-through simple classroom observation. And then, of course, there are test scores. A teacher's job is to help students learn, said Tibbetts: "That's your job-to increase student skills in reading, math, science." If students don't show gains in learning, then their teacher isn't doing the job.
When the Florida legislature was debating a bill that would reform teacher tenure law, Tibbetts told a state Senate committee about the difficulty of firing an incompetent teacher. It takes three years-from the time she noticed the teacher was having problems to the firing. First she had to set up an improvement team including two other teachers and a district official. Those teachers had to take time out of their schedules, which they would have used for class prep, to observe the struggling teacher, document what they saw, and meet with her once a month. The union has to agree that the teacher needs improvement. More meetings, more documentation for a full three years before the teacher goes. Meanwhile, every year this goes by, Tibbetts said, "These same teachers are teaching 140 kids. Every year you have to decide, would you want one of your kids to be in one of these people's classes?"
This question conflicted the Florida state government as it struggled to reform its laws to win a hefty federal education grant. That grant program, called Race to the Top (RTTT), is prompting states across the country to face such questions as they compete for a share of $4.35 billion.
The money from RTTT comes with a price. The application emphasizes that states adopt internationally benchmarked standards; build a data system that measures student success and gives educators ways to improve; work to find, train, keep, and reward effective educators; and aggressively turn around low-achieving schools. Some states poured thousands of hours and dozens of staff members into writing applications that were hundreds of pages long. But in Phase 1 of the competition, only Delaware and Tennessee received a cent for the effort. States had until June 1 to apply in Phase 2, and some states balked. Ten states opted out in Phase 1 and several states that lost in Phase 1 have decided not to reapply.
Some states don't apply because they don't think they can win. Others don't want to win at all. Indiana belongs in the first category, blaming unions for its first failed application. RTTT favors plans that have strong union support for reform, and reviewers criticized Indiana's application for lacking it.
In April, Indiana Department of Education Superintendent Tony Bennett and the Indiana State Teachers Union (ISTA) brawled over reapplying. Bennett requested union support for five proposals, two of which especially rankled union leaders: requiring 51 percent of teacher evaluations to be based on student growth data, and requiring the evaluation to be a part of hiring processes. Bennett also issued an ultimatum: If the union didn't unequivocally support these proposals, the state would not apply in Phase 2. He gave the ISTA one week to reply.
Six days later, ISTA president Nate Schnellenberger shot back that the ISTA could not support the proposals, that the application needed a major reworking instead of minor changes, and that it would be happy to collaborate in a "meaningful discussion." Bennett then invited Schnellenberger and Indiana Federation of Teachers president Rick Muir-without their staff-to meet with him in his office. He also invited the media.
Schnellenberger refused to come. In a letter he said the plan took an "adversarial tone . . . toward teachers" and that the union would not attend "a media event arranged for the purpose of strong-arming the ISTA." He later told me, "To me that's a media circus." Creating a winning application would take days, not hours, he said: "For [Bennett] not to recognize that tells me he wasn't really serious about doing that. He was just looking for a scapegoat."
Bennett then announced that Indiana was dropping out of the race because if it couldn't get union support, its application wouldn't succeed. Bennett told me, "The federal government is speaking directly to the need for states to engage in bold reforms. In order to make a case to get fed money and have bold reforms, one of two things has to be present. You either have to have a legislative framework in your state that affords you the opportunity to make those bold reforms, or in the absence of that you have to have tremendous union buy-in. If you have both you're in great shape. You need to have one or the other. We have neither."
Minnesota also has neither. Only one in 10 unions signed on to Minnesota's RTTT plan, so the Education Department and Gov. Tim Pawlenty looked to the legislature to implement reform. They wanted the legislature to approve alternative teacher licensing routes and implement a statewide evaluation system for effective teachers. When I talked with Bill Walsh, director of communications for the Education Department, the House was balking. "It's pretty black and white. It's not a negotiation. It's an application for a grant," Walsh said. "You either meet the criteria or you don't." On May 19, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced that the state would not be applying. He blamed the legislature for getting "stuck in pit row" and failing to pass an education reform bill. He said teachers unions were "stopping any real reform."
Some states, though, are not applying because they think they are doing fine without federal help. "This program is not a 'race to the top.' It's a spring to the middle-to mediocrity," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry at a press conference in January. He called RTTT "a tangle of red tape . . . a legislative sleight of hand" and said that compliance costs would reach $3 billion for Texas. Education Commissioner Robert Scott said he was at first excited about some of the reforms required in the application. "Then we got this," he said, holding up the application and guidelines-two sheaves of paper-clipped papers, several inches thick. He said, "This grant application is essentially a Trojan horse-designed for us to take the money and then hand over our control." Virginia didn't apply for similar reasons. To be competitive for the grant, wrote Gov. Bob McDonnell, "We would have to lower our standards. This we cannot do."
Alaskan officials were also leery of adopting national standards. In Alaska and North Dakota, officials said the reforms just didn't work for their rural states-where some schools have as many students as you can count on a hand, and teacher recruitment is difficult.
North Dakota has an independent bent, said Wayne Sanstead, North Dakota's state superintendent: "We collaborate and work together but many times we don't look to the federal government to solve our problems." North Dakota has no charter schools (one of the reforms RTTT strongly favors), and Sanstead says the state doesn't want any. Some communities can't support a charter school since they have just a few students. "The thinking is that we'll do better operating in our own fashion," Sanstead said. Alaskan officials said the same.
Then there's also the fact that completing the application is time-consuming and expensive. Colorado, for example, spent 5,000 hours completing a failed application. Eric Fry, public information officer for the Alaska Department of Education, said Alaska would have to spend $1,000 a person to fly education experts into Anchorage and a total of $500,000 just to apply. "That's a huge amount of money for us," he said. "We have to ask our legislature just to get a few content specialists and they think twice about this. . . . Do we want to gamble $500,000 of the public's money on a grant we really thought we were unlikely to win?" The maximum amount Texas could win-$700 million-would run the Texas school system for just two days, said Scott.
Andy Smarick, deputy assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said to take some states' excuses with skepticism. He said states have a long history of claiming that citizens aren't demanding charter schools when the reality is that bad legislation discourages such schools-by giving insufficient funding or barring them from convenient facilities. Yes, Alaska has only 23 charter schools, but a Center for Education Reform ranking gives the state a "D" grade for its unwelcoming charter school laws. The RTTT application also allows for flexibility, Smarick said, so that rural states can implement reforms that work for them.
Most of the other states that didn't apply in Phase 1-Mississippi, Maine, Vermont, Nevada-said they wanted to pass reform first to strengthen their application. But reform has been sluggish. Maryland increased its teacher tenure wait from two years to three years-a mild move. Other states have made no moves at all. Vermont and Maine still have no charter school legislation and Vermont didn't apply in Phase 2. "It's not like they've gone on a binge of reform activity," said Smarick. "As a matter of fact, I can't point to any major activities that they did do."
Even if states do not get the money, some educators want to make sure reform does not fall by the wayside. Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and one of the few union leaders who did sign on to Minnesota's application, said she wants to keep talking: "I'm still really interested in having the conversations because if they're good ideas they can live beyond Race to the Top, even if at the end of the day they say, 'That's interesting, Mary Cathryn, but that's not an idea that will fit with Race to the Top.'. . . Whatever you do let's keep talking about the ways to better meet the needs of kids."
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