As encouraging as it is to see California in the running to win a Race to the Top grant for its schools, we can't help wondering how great a price the state will pay for the possibility of receiving as much as $700 million.
The U.S. Department of Education announced last week that California is one of 19 finalists in the second round of grant applications. Should it succeed — and the odds are decent, because officials say that more than half the finalists will receive grants — many of California's neediest schools will receive infusions of new money. Even so, we see this potential win as mixed news.
It's impossible not to celebrate the prospect of extra funding when the schools are in such bad straits. Only a third of students in California are represented by the state's application, but they are among the most disadvantaged — including those in the Los Angeles Unified School District — and thus the most in need of both reform initiatives and extra funding.
The worrisome part of the Race to the Top program is reflected in its very name — it is indeed a race to reform, quickly and dramatically, with inadequate attention to conducting pilot studies or discerning what research shows to work or not work in schools. California is among dozens of states that have scrambled to reinvent their education policies along the lines called for by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and we hope those changes won't prove counterproductive, especially because the grant, at its highest, would add up to less than 2% of what the state spends on public education in a year.
Potential problems are already becoming clear as the state Education Department begins to implement legislation that was hastily cobbled together last year during California's unsuccessful attempt to win a grant in the first round of funding. One element of that legislation, the so-called open enrollment provision, allows students at low-performing schools to transfer to schools in other districts, assuming they can find a spot in one. But the provision was so awkwardly worded that the list of low performers includes schools that score 800 out of 1,000 on the state's Academic Performance Index. An 800 is considered the goal for the state's public schools, yet the legislation is categorizing these high-scoring schools as inadequate. Not only does this stigmatize them, but it could set them up to lose students and the funding that comes with higher enrollment.
Similar paradoxes might plague the "parent trigger" provision. Parents at "low-performing schools," as measured by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, can petition to have their schools turned into charter schools or reconstituted with new administration and teaching staff. But under the California legislation, these schools can have an API of up to 799. In other words, they can be fine schools that fall barely short of the state's goal, yet the jobs of their principals and teachers can be at risk.
On a practical level, we'd like to think that parents would be happy enough with such highly rated schools that they wouldn't want to instigate a coup. But in that case, why include these schools in a measure intended to target those that need a kick in the pants? Fortunately, last-minute changes to the California legislation limited the number of parent-trigger schools to 75 statewide. There is merit to the idea of empowering parents to force change at truly abysmal schools, but the state is right to move slowly as this concept plays out.
At least California was more moderate than other states when it came to evaluating teachers. In response to Race to the Top's emphasis on rating teachers by how well their students do on standardized tests, some states have vowed to make test scores count for half or more of a teacher's evaluation. That's unreasonable. We agree that student scores should be part of the evaluation — improving test performance is, after all, part of what we ask teachers to do. But too many factors beyond a teacher's control can affect scores; at the same time, many teachers accomplish a great deal with their students that may not be reflected in test scores or that might show up in later years.
In California's grant application, the state promised that test scores would count for 30% of a teacher's evaluation. This might or might not end up being a valid number. More important, standardized tests should be revamped to be a more worthwhile measure of what students are learning — especially in California, where the tests cover broad but shallow stretches of knowledge. In addition, the state has not yet developed a strong teacher evaluation procedure that includes classroom observation by supervisors and peers. California and other states should bend to this task before attaching significant importance to test scores.