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"Race to the Top" Draws Support, Criticism, and Differing Interpretations at Legislative Hearing

By Jeff Hudson - August 28, 2009

Many of California’s most prominent leaders in the area of K-12 education – as well as representatives of several major interest groups – staked out their positions on the federal “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program in a hearing at the State Capitol on Wednesday.

And while most of the opinions expressed didn’t come as a major surprise, the hearing offered a quick, vivid cross section of the political landscape as the legislature moved into a special session to discuss California’s eligibility for what could be hundreds of millions of dollars in RTTT funds.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, California Secretary of Education Glen Thomas, and State Board of Education President Ted Mitchell all indicated support for RTTT – though in different ways.

O’Connell said the competitive grants under RTTT have “the potential to usher in a period of bold and far-reaching structural reform” and noted the program contains “the largest amount of money ever offered by the federal government to specifically focus on our ‘systems’ of education.”  He added that “any monies won in this competition will not be used to cover operational costs, restore lost funding, or supplement existing programs.”

Referring to RTTT’s plan to link student testing data to teacher performance reviews, O’Connell said “I agree with the administration that student outcomes should and must be part of an evaluation process.  But I only support it because RTTT is about systemic change, not piecemeal change. I would never, ever support any evaluation of our educators based solely on the California Standards Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program.  Our state assessments were not designed nor developed for that purpose, and using this single test would not provide an accurate evaluation of the work being done in our classrooms.”

Thomas, a Schwarzenegger appointee who serves as the Governor’s top education advisor, said “what’s at stake here is not just RTTT funds.  President Obama has clearly signaled” that the goals represented in RTTT (including school accountability, alternative pay schedules for teachers, and more) “will inform the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  California needs to address all these areas” because they will also be part of future legislation from the Obama Administration, Thomas suggested.

Thomas added that “The state is not the employer (of teachers). Local Education Agencies (LEAs) will bargain locally with agreements covering how the teacher evaluation system will be carried out.”

Thomas and Mitchell both asserted that, as Mitchell put it, “No one involved in these conversations supports a system that is mindlessly slaving to student performance data as measured by a single test.  We are all encouraged by the opportunity to move to a growth model, and steadfast in looking at teacher effectiveness holistically.”

Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara)  and Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) both raised a pointed question about linking teacher evaluation to student data.  Alquist asked, “Why would a really good teacher want to be a teacher in a really tough, low-performing school if the model for assessing that teacher and child doesn’t take into consideration all the factors that make for a difficult situation?”

Mitchell said “It would be foolish to have a one-size-fits-all system (for evaluation). No one at this table is talking about a ham-handed teacher evaluation system that says ‘Your students scored X on the STAR tests, so this is your salary.”

Representatives of teacher unions, who have long opposed linking teacher salaries to testing data, took a dim view of many of RTTT’s provisions.

Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers, compared RTTT to the widely-disliked No Child Left Behind program sponsored by President George W. Bush.

“We believe that the heavy hand in favor of charter schools in RTTT is misplaced,” Hittelman continued.  “Most (charter schools) do not do better than regular public schools, and many of them do worse.”

He added, “Firing or moving staff hasn’t been proven a successful solution. Closing a school has the devastating effect of disrupting communities and displacing children, disruptions that weigh most heavily on minority communities.”

Gregg Solkovits, secondary vice president with United Teachers Los Angeles, took a jab at Governor Schwarzenegger for identifying himself as a supporter of education because of his stance on RTTT.  “He (Schwarzenegger) just devastated California education” through billions of dollars in cuts to state funding for education, Solkovits said, adding that talking about several hundred million in RTTT funding is “a nice way to shift the focus.”

Patricia Rucker, legislative representative with the California Teachers Association, made a long statement that returned again and again to two words: “Slow down.”  Rucker suggested that several aspects of RTTT are built on a “flawed compilation of data points” and said RTT overlooks “factors that the teacher has no control over, like class size.”

“This administration is repeating the same past mistakes as No Child Left Behind,” Rucker suggested.

Responding to Rucker’s call to “slow down,” Sen. Gloria Romero said “This is a ‘Race to the Top.’ We’ve got to run. We want to be thoughtful, absolutely. But I think for us to say ‘Let’s wait’ is not the solution.”

Romero also referred several times to the action on Tuesday by the school board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which approved a plan that could turn over daily operation up to 250 LAUSD campuses to charter schools, outside operators, neighborhood consortiums – or even the LAUSD itself, if the district puts new educational plans in place.

Romero, who chaired Wednesday’s hearing, also made introductory remarks that will likely become part of her stump speech as a candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction in the June 2010 election. “The questions we ask, and the answers we provide today will set the tone for an entire generation of students,” Romero said.  “If we’re satisfied with status quo and feel no sense of urgency, we have no need to act.  I think this race to the top will reveal our California character—and the nation will be watching to see who we really are.”

Sherry Skelly Griffith, legislative advocate with the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA), spoke briefly at the hearing, saying “We are very interested in having the state apply for RTTT funding . . . it’s a tremendous opportunity to evolve our accountability and assessment and support system.”

The California School Boards Association (CSBA) has also issued a statement offering some support for the Governor’s proposals regarding RTTT.  “Local school governance leaders are pleased that the administration is joining us in support of a ‘growth model’ that recognizes schools that are making progress,” said Scott Plotkin, executive director of CSBA.  But Plotkin added “Using student performance data to help evaluate teachers and reward achievement in the classroom only makes sense if we go beyond just test scores to include the use of additional teacher performance measures.  Test scores and data alone cannot determine the effectiveness of a teacher and should be used only as part of a broader, multiple measures approach.”

Much discussion at Wednesday’s hearing focused on whether existing California law blocks the linking of student performance data and teacher evaluation.  Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) described the question as “much ado about nothing” and said he doesn’t see how federal Sec. of Education Arne Duncan could conclude that existing California law disqualifies the state for RTTT funds.  The matter comes down to an interpretation of a single paragraph in a bill Simitian wrote.

But an attorney for the legislature suggested that there is good reason to be concerned.  “If the (federal) Secretary of Education thinks it’s a barrier, then it’s a barrier,” said Deputy Legislative Counsel Amy Schweitzer.

Editor's Note: Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.