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This discussion is part of the “On Background” show at PostTV

Just say no to RttT!


The following is a post written by local Sacramento parent and education activist Kate Lenox and appeared on the Sacramento Coalition to Save Public Education blog:

Restrictions on the Use of the Grant Mean the Money Can’t Help Restore Education Cuts

The US Dept. of Education has released its rules for districts applying to receive Race to the Top grants. They allow individual districts or a consortia of districts to apply directly to the federal government for the money, bypassing state education officials.  This is particularly significant in California, where the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, and Governor Jerry Brown took the state out of the running for the federal grant, citing the billions of dollars it would need to spend to meet the grant requirements and the program’s emphasis on standardized test scores to show student learning achievement.  The grants are for up to $25 million over four years.   Given the dire financial straits of most school districts, many may be tempted to apply.

The money can only be used for certain purposes–the focus being on individualizing instruction for students so that they graduate prepared for college and careers.  Districts don’t have to use the money to serve all their students. They could focus solely on low-performing schools, a particular group of low-performing schools or certain grade levels. Once again all this is to be “data driven” so each student’s progress must be tracked.

What hoops do districts have to jump through to receive this money?  Districts must meet the same four assurances that states had to meet when they applied: teacher quality; school turnarounds; improving “data quality” and enhancing standards and assessments. By the 2014-15, school year districts who apply for the grant must promise to put in place evaluation systems for teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards that incorporate students “outcomes”–meaning test scores.

There’s not much doubt that SCUSD’s Supt. Raymond will want to pursue this RTTT grant. The district could join a consortium of other districts. Raymond belongs to CORE, a group of California district Superintendents that are committed to pursuing federal education policy, even as the state of California has decided to go its own way. Twenty-five million dollars over four years is not a lot of money for a large urban district like Sacramento City Unified.  Since it can only be used for “individualized learning” the money would do nothing to help the chronic under funding of the district. It can’t go to prevent teacher layoffs. It won’t go to restore librarians or counselors. It won’t help keep music and the arts in our schools.  It can’t restore the lost days of instruction that teachers have agreed to cut in order to balance the budget, which could be as many as 10 days if Gov. Brown’s tax initiative fails.

If the district won a grant, the money might be used to benefit only some of the students in the district, such as those in SCUSD’s Priority Schools, but the evaluation system would be in effect for all teachers district wide. Sacramento City Unified and its teachers would have to agree to fundamentally change how teachers are assessed.  Moreover the district would have to have a data system in place to track each student from pre-K through post-secondary education that includes a link of student performance to their teachers. Such a system would cost money to develop—and many statistical and data experts question the efficacy of these systems in the first place.   That also opens the possibility of more dollars being spent on expensive consultants and not on the classroom. That requirement, along with the other “assurances” the district must make to win the $4 million a year grant for individualized learning, could actually end up costing the district more than that.

It seems that submitting an application for the RTTT grant could be a risky proposition for a district that is teetering on the brink of financial solvency.  SCUSD might be making promises it can’t afford to fulfill for a grant that will do nothing to help provide a quality education for all the students of the district.

Adding to my permanent record…


Recent feature on my former school site, featuring yours truly…


Render unto Caesar…


The Tribute of Money, Peter Paul Rubens
I’m not a Christian, but like many concerned with social justice issues, I find the Bible, especially the New Testament books related to the life of Jesus, an invaluable resource for handy quotes, and aphorisms.

Render unto Caesar is one of my favorite quotes when dealing with demanding bureaucracies/bureaucrats,  Kafkaesque requirements, or any of the other stupidity of modern day life. To me it suggests the most subtle form of passive resistance, a false compliance to “the man”, whoever that might be.

I see the putting forward of a statement in support of teacher evaluations based on student performance by my national union (NEA) as an attempt to “render under to Caesar”, without really giving the forces of  so-called education reform, and the federal education bureaucracy, what they want. They have agreed to this, but put a number conditions and caveats on the statement in the hopes that they will make it meaningless. This may work…

The early endorsement of Obama may be the better of our options in the long run. Of the two, the testing statement seems more appealing as it looks like compliance, while flipping the “bird” behind our backs. This has an intrinsic puckish appeal to for me. The early endorsement just looks like compliance borne of fear, and that is never a good place to negotiate from.
Image Source: The Tribute of Money, Peter Paul Rubens by Glenn Franco Simmons, on Flickr

Reform me!


For those of you who don’t know, the school I have been teaching at for the last three years is being reformed (posts on that here). I was asked to stay on as the computer lab teacher (the same position that I’ve had the last three years) by the new site administrator. So I am now part of a school reform movement that is being under-taken by my school and within the district among the lowest performing schools. I thought it might be illuminating to share some of what is going on, since it’s rare to hear about this process unless you’re a participant. Obviously, this will not be a “tell all”, but more a sharing of the general blue-print about what is going on.

No reform is complete without consultants, and trainings. I spent three weeks straight being trained. On the positive side, almost all of them were excellent, and of a much higher quality than I’ve experienced in the past. The only negative, that was a pretty large hunk of learning to digest. There is follow-up scheduled throughout the year (another positive).
Here is a precis of some of programs underway….

First up, Data Wise comes out of Richard Elmore’s work at Harvard University School of Education. The idea is that the staff works together collaboratively to analyze data and instruction, and make appropriate changes. It’s very similar to the PLC work that Bill Ferriter discusses on his Tempered Radical blog. I think this program holds a lot of potential, but it’s one of those things that is only as good as what your staff puts into the process. There seems to be good buy-in from my site staff, but I could see an effort like this coming up short elsewhere if a whole site was not behind the effort. For me, this is the exciting and scary part because it gives us responsibility, which means we’re responsible.

The trainings on Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning were like the anti-thesis of Ruby Payne. It was also like a trip down memory lane for me, because my teacher preparation at San Francisco State University was under-girded by a lot of what was then referred to as culturally diverse approaches. The program is based on two big ideas, that students are under-served by society and public education will do better if teacher has a positive, rather negative approach to their home culture. They also believe in teaching students explicit and systematic strategies of “code-switching” from their home language or vernacular (I prefer the term AAVE or African American Vernacular English myself) to standard and academic English. Their model is based on a program that started in Sweden to teach students who came from families using regional dialects (who on the whole did worse in school) standard Swedish. Having started my career in Oakland, CA (the “home” of Ebonics), I know, that this is a political football, but I also know from that experience that this approach has support from people who know what they are talking about, like linguist, so to put it bluntly, I’m down with this program and it’s consistent with my existing belief system.

Our reform program, interestingly enough, will be centered on student writing. Why is that interesting? Well, it’s not currently a tested subject. It used to be tested in fourth grade, but with budget cuts, they eliminated the test because it’s more expensive to grade than multiple-choice. The thinking behind using writing to improve student’s overall academics is that if the kids become better, more fluent, and happier writers, they will be better readers, etc. We’re using a program that the district has already been using for the last two years or so called Write Tools for expository writing. That training is now a little fuzzy in my mind (it was one of the earlier trainings), so I’m not going to say as much about it, except that I will be trying to “dovetail” the writing I assign students on blogs with the program.

School starts up after Labor Day on September 7, so wish me and my co-workers luck as we go into the new school year!

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