States Compete for Obama School Reform Funds

His Race to the Top program offers money to public schools that make changes to improve education.

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Racial desegregation. Mainstreaming of the handicapped. No Child Left Behind. At least three times in the past 60 years, the federal government has radically transformed public schools, with varied results. Here comes another attempt.

President Obama has launched an education initiative called Race to the Top. He has set aside at least $4.3 billion out of the $787 billion stimulus package for controversial education reforms he argues are needed to raise American students' dismal scores on international tests and improve their chances of succeeding in the global economy. "The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens," Obama says.

The Obama administration is offering potentially huge grants to states and schools that implement rigorous reforms. For students, his proposals could mean longer school days and years, dedicated to learning information required to meet national standards for each grade level. All high school seniors, for example, could be expected to solve problems such as "If there are 8 x 1012 hydrogen molecules in a volume of 4 x 104 cubic centimeters, what is the average number of hydrogen molecules per cubic centimeter?" (Answer: 2 x 108 hydrogen molecules per cubic centimeter.)

For school districts, the plan could mean the creation of databases that enable schools to track any particular student's test scores, attendance, and other information all the way from kindergarten through adulthood. That data would be used to shape everything from teachers' lesson plans to district or state labor force policies. Districts also would have to develop new ways to recruit and retain top teachers and principals, including tying pay to student performance.

Thousands of neighborhood schools already have adopted many of these sweeping changes, even though Obama hasn't yet distributed a penny of the Race to the Top grants. Recession-socked states such as California, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Louisiana are trying to improve their chances of winning some of the money by enacting laws permitting more charter schools and making teacher merit pay an option for school districts.

Also accelerating the reforms: the way Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, intends to hand out the funds. He plans to divvy up that $4 billion among the few states that win a competition to prove they will change their schools in ways the administration deems most likely to succeed. The states that propose the least aggressive reforms won't get any money from this fund. An additional $650 million will be awarded to a few lucky school districts and nonprofits that can convince the administration they've also found better ways to teach.

On top of that, $350 million will fund states and programs that develop common educational goals for each grade, as well as better tests to determine whether kids are meeting those standards and how well teachers are teaching.

Duncan insists that he won't bow to political pressure to make sure every state gets at least a little of the extra money and that he will fund only projects that provide evidence they will help students. But skeptics abound. Already, states with poor reform records are lobbying for exemptions. And many critics note that some of the administration's pet strategies, including merit pay, aren't backed by research.

Even those strategies that have been shown to improve learning work only if executed well. Requiring students to spend more hours in a rotten school could hurt more than help, after all. Doing more than splashy, superficial reforms often requires expensive and politically unpopular actions—flunking students who don't pass standardized tests, firing principals and teachers whose students don't perform well, and funneling extra tax dollars to low-income schools that need more help—that are difficult even in good economic times. "Clearly, [Race to the Top] is going to have a huge impact," says Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University whose Success for All teaching technique is one of the few reforms proven to raise elementary students' test scores. Whether the president's plan will work is still unclear, Slavin says.

Obama says he wants to improve four educational practices: data usage, student goals, teacher recruitment, and the approach to turning around troubled schools. A close look at each, however, reveals dramatic possibilities for good or for trouble.

Measuring Student Performance. Collecting student data and requiring evidence of results seem simple enough. Why should schools waste time and money on reforms that haven't been shown to help? Many schools already are crunching data to improve lesson plans. Every week, teachers at Graham Road Elementary School in Northern Virginia meet to plot on computers students' answers to each question on standardized quizzes given to the different classes in each grade level. There's so much detailed information that kindergarten teachers sometimes have to tape together 7 feet of paper spreadsheets for each child. Then, they arrange for tutoring for any student falling behind and draft lessons for larger groups with common problems.

Principal Molly Bensinger-Lacy says the tedious data crunching helps kids. Although more than 80 percent of her school's 400 students come from low-income minority families who don't speak English at home, more than 90 percent of the students are reading and calculating at grade level.

But gathering student data can create new problems, too. Thousands of parents in Palm Beach County, Fla., are protesting as expensive and time-wasteful their schools' new every-three-week tests designed to create data points for teachers.

The Obama administration's plan for permanent records that track a person from childhood through adulthood also raises fears of Big Brother. A recent Fordham University study of existing student databases found that many states violate federal privacy laws. For example, Fordham found that many states' student files went far beyond grades and test scores to include Social Security numbers, pregnancies, police records, and family wealth indicators.

Creating National Standards. National standards also seem sensible enough, given that the average high school senior is likely to have moved at least twice. Certainly, letting states choose their own passing grades for the No Child Left Behind initiative turned into a race to the bottom as some states apparently made their requirements easier so more students would pass.

National standards also appear to be garnering widespread support. Led by the National Governors Association, a "Common Core" of 48 states (Alaska and Texas are the holdouts) is drafting goals that every grade will be expected to meet. Setting a high bar for high school graduation helped raise Massachusetts students from slightly above average to worldbeaters, says Paul Reville, the Massachusetts secretary of education. The Bay State's fourth graders recently scored second in the world on standardized science tests, topping Russia, Taiwan, and other powerhouses.

High standards aren't a slam-dunk, however. Critics have complained that the governors' proposed standards aren't tough enough, are too tough, or are altogether wrong and should instead focus on harder-to-test but more important skills, such as critical thinking.

Even believers like Reville worry that other states and schools won't do the expensive and politically unpopular work of enforcing high standards. By publishing embarrassing early results and refusing to graduate students who didn't pass state tests, Massachusetts "showed we meant it," Reville says. Massachusetts also poured billions of extra dollars into schools serving low-income and minority students to boost them up to the standards.

Teaching Teachers. There's no doubt that the teaching profession needs dramatic reform. Although a growing number of teacher training programs are trying to attract better applicants and provide more practical skills, "many, if not most" are doing a "mediocre job," says Secretary Duncan.

Working conditions also tend to drive away the ambitious and competent. The average annual teacher pay of $52,000 is about $5,000 less than the salary earned by the average holder of a bachelor's degree. With grading, class preparation, and meetings, teachers' workdays regularly exceed 11 hours. And a combination of strict union rules and poor management has guaranteed incompetent teachers lifetime jobs, leaving little incentive for teachers to improve to earn more money. No wonder 40 percent of teachers say they are disheartened, and 16 percent of teachers leave the profession every year.

All of this hurts the students who need the most help. Research shows that disadvantaged kids typically get the worst teachers—the least trained and the rejects from good schools.

The Obama administration wants to change that by encouraging alternative training programs such as Teach for America and improving the caliber of principals, who are responsible for selecting and training teachers. The administration also plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help districts link teacher compensation to student performance.

A glimpse of that future can be seen in the Tampa area. Teachers at Hillsborough County schools who earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (a nonprofit that has set higher hurdles for teacher's licenses than most states) and agree to teach in high-poverty schools get a bonus of $4,500. District officials want to attract nationally certified teachers because research has shown that their students tend to do better on standardized tests.

Teachers who earn top performance evaluations and work at schools where students' scores on annual tests show good gains against their previous year's scores can collect additional bonuses of up to 20 percent. Hillsborough County won teacher union approval of the merit pay bonuses in part because the money is tied to how much students learned in the year they spent with a particular teacher. Unions have fought more common merit pay programs that simply award bonuses to teachers whose students score well on tests, arguing that those systems unfairly penalize good teachers who work with lower-income students, who tend to score lower on standardized tests.

The bonuses helped lure dozens of nationally certified teachers into long-troubled schools. And many of those schools are turning around. Sulphur Springs Elementary in the Hillsborough district, for example, worked its way up from an F under Florida's school grading system to a B.

But Sharon Stewart, a Sulphur Springs teacher who gets the national certification bonus, believes most of the other merit bonuses hurt teachers and students. The extra money she received was like icing on a cake—nice, but not essential. More important, she says, was the way the training and self-analysis required for national certification made her a better teacher. Very few teachers in her school earned any of the district's other merit pay bonuses, which are awarded to the small percentage of teachers highly ranked by principal evaluations and student test scores. Stewart points out that many teachers contribute to each child's education. "If you have teachers competing with each other, you take away collaboration," she worries.

In fact, studies of teachers, who often choose the profession for idealistic reasons, show that pay alone isn't enough to raise the quality of teaching. Rob Meyer, director of the Value-Added Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says approaches like the Teacher Advancement Program, in which master teachers help others improve lessons, have "shown a lot of promise" in elementary schools (though not in high schools) in Chicago and in Louisiana. The only problem: Real improvements take money. "People tend to skimp on what it takes for genuine reforms, and people massively skimp on professional development," Meyer says.

Back at Sulphur Springs Elementary, the nationally certified teachers know that all too well. They used to get bonuses of up to $9,000 a year, but budget cuts swallowed up half.

Fixing Failing Schools. Perhaps the most ambitious goal of the Obama administration's reforms is turning around troubled schools. It's a gargantuan task. Thousands of "dropout factories" have already undergone several failed attempts at reform. But research on Duncan's strategies of closing failed schools and opening more charter schools (publicly funded but independently run) finds that, on average, they hurt students' achievement more often than they help.

Some studies, however, have identified a handful of turnaround and charter systems, such as Success for All, Green Dot, and the Knowledge Is Power Program, that seem to be consistently helping students. One secret of their success: They ruthlessly apply many different proven strategies, such as longer school days, high standards, and even school uniforms.

On a recent morning at the KIPP King high school in San Lorenzo, Calif., sophomore Pernell Rash Jr., 16, was in AP World History, learning about Matteo Ricci, the 16th-century Chinese-speaking Jesuit missionary who helped link Asia and Europe. Rash, whose struggles in ninth grade prompted him to consider leaving the school, is now on the honor roll.

KIPP schools aren't perfect. Many of them have high dropout and transfer rates. The KIPP King school is so small and new that it doesn't have many teams or athletic facilities. Rash has to travel to a gym for basketball practice. He doesn't have much free time. His eight-hour school days begin and end with a one-hour bus ride to his Oakland home. But Rash will stick it out. A cousin who left the KIPP school for a regular high school is done with classes at 2 every day and is bored, he says. Rash has his eye on a scholarship to Syracuse.

Meanwhile, KIPP managers are eyeing Race to the Top funding to expand their current nationwide network of 82 schools to at least 110 in the next two years. KIPP's success makes Rash's father wonder why other public schools, such as the Oakland, Calif., schools he attended, have been allowing generations to fail. If his schools had had such interesting classes, held him to such high standards, and provided lots of tutoring, he might have gone to college himself. "I think my life would have been tremendously different," he muses.

Fortunately for his son, some schools, at least, are changing for the better. The challenge now is to spread those real improvements beyond a few thousand lucky students.