Race to the Top funds require implementation of new core standards
By JANET REBEOR-DEXTER
By JANET REBEOR-DEXTER
As the U.S. government works to revamp legislation and state governments institute policies designed to help provide a better education for the nation’s students, local administrators, teachers and school boards are now working to “build an airplane in the sky” to try and meet those objectives.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), legislation designed to stimulate the economy, support job creation and invest in critical sectors, included $4.35 billion earmarked for education. The ARRA laid the foundation of education reform by supporting investments in “innovative strategies,” according to the summary of the law, that are most likely to lead to improved results for students, long-term gains in schools and school system capacity, and increased productivity and effectiveness.
The federal government created an application-based bidding process to dole out the $4.35 billion. In his roll-out of the Race to the Top (RTTT) fund on Nov. 4, 2009, President Barack Obama talked about the need to strengthen America’s education system.
“It’s time to stop just talking about education reform and start actually doing it. It’s time to make education America’s national mission,” the president said. “American prosperity has long rested on how well we educate our children. But this has never been more true than it is today. In the 21st century, when countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow, there is nothing that will determine the quality of our future as a nation and the lives our children will lead more than the kind of education that we provide them. Nothing is more important.”
The race was on.
As a competitive grant, RTTT funds were awarded to school districts with stipulations that schools achieve significant improvement in student outcomes, including gains in student achievement, improve high school graduation rates and ensure student preparation for success in higher education and careers. Each state’s application for RTTT funds laid the groundwork for that state’s reform in four core common education areas.
In New York state’s RTTT application, the State Education Department (SED) outlined those four specific reforms as: Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy; building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction; recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and turning around the state’s lowest achieving schools.
Former NYSED Commissioner David Steiner touted the reforms that he and his panel defined to get the fundamentals right. “Our application represents a truly comprehensive reform agenda — one that advances the bold changes needed to turn around failing schools, close the achievement gap and prepare all children to succeed in college and careers,” Steiner said on Aug. 24, 2010. “The Regents and I are confident that our success in Race to the Top will help lift the level of achievement for New York state’s more than 3 million students.
“The status quo is deeply unacceptable — New York state has historically led the nation through its educational standards and its Regents exams. Now, for the sake of all of our students, we must work with all of our colleagues in the field of education to do so once again,” Steiner concluded. With that, it was revealed that $696 million of federal grant money was awarded to New York state in RTTT funding.
This school year, the state’s common core learning standards are beginning to be implemented. “The reporting of state assessment results for 2011-12 will include performance mapped to both the existing New York state standards and the new New York state standards, inclusive of the common core,” Steiner said. “In school year 2012-13, classroom instruction is expected to be fully aligned to the new standards.” Although Steiner was replaced in May by current NYSED Commissioner John King, the state has not relaxed that timeline.
The local impact
So now drilling down to the local levels, the Oswego City School District was awarded $317,000 in RTTT funding. OCSD and all the other school districts statewide began to work their way through what is being described as “a moving target.” As they undertake the task of implementing the initiatives put in motion by RTTT, OCSD Superintendent Bill Crist, Director of Curriculum Cathy Chamberlain and other local administrators, like their counterparts across the state and the nation, are working through the process of discovery and evaluation. What programs will meet the guidelines? How much do they cost? Will they work?
Crist and Chamberlain both said that the reforms being talked about are important, but a lack of information — due mostly to the rate the SED is implementing the initiatives — is causing some confusion and thereby some fear within the community.
“I appreciate the opportunity to provide additional information and speak to RTTT and some of the implications that follow along with that,” Crist said. “It is something that, I don’t mind saying, is being met with opposition. I don’t think Oswego is necessarily unique to how it’s being accepted. … At the same time, when you listen to what the commissioner of education talks about in the rigor and the preparation for college and career-ready students, that it’s time we do reform education in New York state. So, how do we do that? And how do we do it as a community in this case? It is important that we have people on board with it, and they understand what’s at stake here.”
Calling the reforms “monumental,” Chamberlain said she is still working through the process of “unpacking” the data, but said she understands where the anxiety from teachers and the community comes from.
“I think this is such an unprecedented change,” she said. “They have never at the state level attempted to make a change in the core curriculum at the same time making changes to assessments at the same time making changes to the teacher assessments that we will be using. They’re attacking three different areas at one time and there begins to be a little bit of fear. As the communication comes down, people are hearing different things and there becomes fear and anxiety about what this is going to look like.”
Echoing Crist, Chamberlain also said part of that anxiety is due to the fact that the state is moving so quickly. “As they are unfolding it, we are right behind them picking it up and then the teachers are right behind that,” she said. “It’s not like there was a year to plan. A lot of the information came down in July and August for us, so we hit the floor running. There wasn’t a lot of time for us to be able to prepare and plan out for a whole year to implement something this big. It’s kind of like building an airplane in the sky.”
RTTT’s three components
The RTTT initiative breaks down into three major components: the common core, the evaluative process and the collection of data.
For the common core — which deals directly with what is being taught and how, NYSED adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The standards were developed by teachers, school administrators and experts to provide the curriculum guides the states seek to prepare children for college and the workforce.
“The standards are informed by the highest, most effective models from states across the country and countries around the world, and provide teachers and parents with a common understanding of what students are expected to learn. Consistent standards will provide appropriate benchmarks for all students, regardless of where they live,” according to the www.corestandards.org website.
Designed to prepare all students for success in college and their careers, the core standards also include an agreement that no state would lower its standards — one of the problems that has occurred in New York state with the reduction of minimum test scores required by students to pass. “We need college and career-ready standards because even in high-performing states — students are graduating and passing all the required tests and still require remediation in their postsecondary work,” as stated in the core standards.
As of Nov. 4, New York was among 45 of the 50 states that had adopted the Common Core State Standards.
Chamberlain believes the common core standards are important to advancing education reform. It is here that the paradigm shift — a fundamental change in the way people think about education — occurs. “What I see is it’s not only just about changing what the students need to know and be able to do, it’s really a change in the way teachers need to teach,” Chamberlain said. “One of the things that they did, over the years teachers have said … that there is too much content to teach. It’s too broad and we’re not able to go deep enough because there’s not enough time. You teach something and you’re right on to something else. With new common core, the change here is that they really narrow down the focus at each grade level but they’re going deep. They want to be sure that the students — before they leave that grade level — really have mastered the foundation for that grade level before they move on the next grade level.”
To illustrate what that means to teachers and to students, Chamberlain offered the example of kindergarten and first-grade math. “There’s a lot of things that are being taken out. For example, kindergarten and first grade is mainly really focusing on addition and subtraction. They’ve taken the other pieces out,” Chamberlain said. “What they really want (teachers) to focus on are the shifts in mathematics. They want the teachers to go really deep and give kids opportunities to manipulate and have experience and play with mathematics so they understand it. It’s not a matter of just memorizing a formula and being able to do it on a test, but understanding why does that work. They need to let the kids have the opportunity to talk about why. When I do this formula for area, why does that work? And then they need to be able to write about it. The rigor is much higher, but the depth of understanding on the student’s level has to be much greater.”
In talking about the core curriculum and education reforms in general, Crist noted this is not coming from New York state. “This is a national initiative to be locally competitive with developing countries like China and India,” Crist said. “They just bury us in population so the mere averages of how many engineers they’re producing compared to the number of engineers we’re producing, all vying for the same jobs. It’s very important to make sure that we’re able to be competitive.”
Addressing the second component — the evaluative process of teachers and principals, Crist said, “And then when you look at the new … evaluation of both teachers and principals, and the accountability when you do that, I don’t think that any educator would think that they shouldn’t have some level of accountability for what they do in the daily work that they do.”
He added that at the same time, the general public has to understand that students are individuals. “We’re not creating widgets here. We’re working with children that, in and of themselves, are unique — each and every one of them. From how they prepared to come in to school that particular day to how they’re leaving to go home, to whatever they go home to. All of the preparation that takes place to get them ready for school and then allows them to be successful once they’re in school is different for every child,” Crist said.
While the Oswego teachers’ union and the board of education support RTTT, part two of this series relay what some of their members said about what they see as advantages and disadvantages of this new program.