The U.S. Department of Education has opened up President Obama’s "Race to the Top" program to large school districts. The federal program provides billions of dollars to states that promise to make bold education reforms. California has competed for – and failed to get – Race to the Top funds three times in the last two years. Governor Brown refused to sign the state’s last proposal, leaving individual districts with no hope of winning, because only states could apply. For L.A. Unified, a successful application could mean hundreds of millions of badly-needed dollars.
According to Superintendent John Deasy, guidelines for the application will be out within the month, but he suspects the administration will look for districts to improve reform around core curriculum and teacher evaluations like they did last year.
“They certainly are the controversial ones, but I would argue the necessary ones: A good, robust, meaningful performance appraisal, the teachers and principals; strong professional development, to help teachers to continue to improve their practice; ways to retain top performers and support them; and how to begin to help our students prepare for the new, common core curriculum,” he said.
Though California has failed to secure funds the last two years, Deasy said it was due to a lack of interest in the issue. “I think it was pretty clear that they were not interested in transforming teacher evaluation, administrator evaluation,” he said. “And ... there seems to be a lack of interest in using data systems in terms of strong decision making around that.”
Deasy went on to say that LAUSD is ahead in the competition.
“All three, by the way, are items that LAUSD are out in front of. If we just took the transformation reforms that we’ve launched this year, I think that would make an incredibly strong application.”
Deasy supports these kinds of reforms that have helped other states secure the money. But the United Teachers Los Angeles takes issue with aspects of his pilot programs, and to succeed, he’ll need to reach an agreement with the teachers’ union.
United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher said California made a wise decision not to apply for "Race to the Top," because the reform necessary to qualify are not worth the amount of money received.
“In order to qualify for even being considered in your state to receive those small grants, the state has had to make huge changes in all sorts of parts of the education code. It’s really a brilliant system in that it manages to get states to make huge changes in how they do business, give away a big amount of their autonomy, for the slight possibility that a small amount of money may be coming forward,” he said.
Fletcher said that changes to teacher evaluation need to be made, but what concerns him most is part of Deasy’s proposed reform, which includes using test scores to evaluate teachers.
“I’ve been with LAUSD for 29 years, and I have an unbroken string of perfect evaluations. And I may be a good teacher, but I suspect I’m not quite that good,” he admitted. “So are there places where we can revisit the system and make it a system that’s more responsive to teachers? Absolutely. ... But, attaching the kind of numerical system that we’re talking about, as if teacher could be reduced to the grade you see on a restaurant, A, B, or C, and be simplified down to that level, makes no sense.”
Deasy responded by saying test score data is a minority component of the whole evaluation, and maintained that receiving $10 million to help LAUSD continue to improve teaching and students is worth the reforms needed to apply.
“I get very concerned when I hear the phrase ... ‘We don’t want to reduce teachers to a letter grade,’ and, in the same breath, we don’t seem to have a problem doing that to students. I think that finding balance in this for both youth and adults is going to be critical, without having to forget about the fact that actually, they do need to learn, and we need to be accountable for it.”
Fletcher cited New York City's slight in the quest for "Race to the Top" funds, when they redid their teacher evaluation system to qualify for the grants. The teachers union and the district agreed that test scores would weigh no more than 40 percent in the evaluation, but that was forgotten when the state applied.
"Because of the requirements that 'Race to the Top' in the state of New York laid upon the system, if a teacher is perfect in every other way ... but if that one year, that teacher’s test score component does not meet the required level, even though it’s said it’s only 40 percent, that teacher has to be rated as ineffective regardless of the as other 60 percent," he explained.
Deasy agreed that New York City's move was a mistake, and hopes that Los Angeles can learn from the incident.
"I’m very much looking forward to the conversation where LAUSD can lead the nation and correct what I would call the unfortunate lessons learned from New York. We have an opportunity to lead in this country," he said.
Do district and union officials have what it takes to collaborate on a winning application? What’s in the way? What’s at stake? And what proposed reforms should be included to ensure LAUSD wins the desperately needed funds?
Warren Fletcher, President, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA)
Dr. John Deasy, Superintendent of LAUSD
Ama Nyamekye, Educators 4 Excellence: Los Angeles, a teacher-led education reform organization