From Guest Blogger Candice DePrang
President Barack Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled the guidelines for Race to the Top, a 4.3 billion dollar competitive grant program for states. The Department of Education wants to make certain that states not only create climates conducive to reform, but also craft long term plans for executing priorities highlighted by the Department. Within their plans, applicants must demonstrate a commitment to: implementing standards and assessments, improving teacher effectiveness, and achieving equity in teacher distribution, improving collection of use data, and supporting struggling schools.
Opening the process to the public, the Secretary has allowed commentators thirty days to submit feedback and suggest specific changes. The conversations stemming from this guidance, have been heated, “I can’t believe he only cited…” or “How can he expect…” The conference calls here can be heard through closed doors, and the blog responses are rife with criticism.
Arguably, the Secretary and his staff overlooked many other aspects that might reform education such as making traditional pathways to teaching and leadership more rigorous and selective, and ensuring that applications and innovation are based on research. Thus, thoughtful, specific language must be given back to the Department to refine these areas in order to maximize the effectiveness of the grants.
However, a few aspects of the Secretary’s approach stand out as novel, and should encourage, though not pacify, groups that find the guidance less than perfect.
1. The Secretary listens. His listening and learning tour illuminates incredible work in community colleges, charter schools, and other institutions around the country committed to improvement. In these forums he listens to needs, concerns, and questions, and solicits ideas. Race to the Top is a forum for those new ideas, and the guidance is open to the public, with requests from the Department for actual language alterations.
2. There is not one answer. The Department of Education’s four reform areas provide a missional focus and frame work for improvement, but improvement under the guidance is flexible, it's not the one-size-fits-all mentality. For example, administrations can retain great teachers through innovative methods, and can hire new teachers through varying avenues, as long as they do it. Additionally, there is no prescription for turning around struggling schools, only a mandate that we must try everything we know, and innovate where don't know so that the gap does not persist.
3. Collaboration is Key. Race to the Top guidance pushes states to work together to make assessments that align to national standards. Uniting a multitude of backgrounds and perspectives could produce an assessment that challenges students, engages their sense of inquiry, and provides qualitative data, too, with which to drive instruction in the classroom. Also, perhaps more significantly, states and districts must work together to craft proposals. The proposed priority for vertical alignment across P-20 also ensures that elementary, middle, high schools, and even higher-ed collaborate so students are successful at each stage.
When crafting No Child Left Behind, the previous White House staff closed the doors for commentary. Now, the Department of Education is willing to listen and change based on feedback. This is our opportunity to constructively propose ideas that we know work so national education policy takes an approach from the ground up.