Round Two RTT Finalists: Some Cliff Notes from DE

Guest post courtesy of Paul Herdman, Rodel Foundation of Delaware

Right now, 18 “round-two” states and DC are prepping for their high stakes interviews. They’re probably also breathing a collective sigh of relief that their applications are out the door, attending to fires left burning while they were working on their proposals, and catching up on sleep.  Yet, with all this, there are other things that the finalists might want to add to their to-do lists prior to the RTTT announcement in a few weeks.

While the Rodel Foundation of Delaware is not directly engaged in the implementation of the state’s RTTT work, we are endeavoring to be as helpful as possible in our state.  I’m looking for your input, and offering a few observations from the sidelines that I hope will be helpful as other states think about what they should be doing before September.  I’ve captured them under the headings of Capacity, Communications, and Courage.

Capacity.  Implementing new standards, data systems, teacher evaluation systems, and strategies to turn around your failing schools will strain even the most capable state Department of Education.   This is a complex set of new tasks, so capacity is critical.  Simple example: Half of the money that goes to a state will go to the districts and charters.  Each of them will have 90 days to develop a “scope of work” on how to spend their funds.  Therefore, in a medium-sized state like Colorado, that means the state will need to negotiate more than 100 scopes of work involving tens of millions of dollars in very little time; incredibly tough to do well.  Bottom line, it would be good to begin thinking now about how to organize your current team and how you can build, borrow, or buy the staff you’ll need if you win.

Communications.  With all the implementation work on your plate, it could be easy to de-prioritize the importance of letting people know what RTTT will mean to them, whether they are in schools, or not.  But little else will be as critical.  Race to the Top provides a big check, and a lot of interests will be lining up to spend it.  But the commitments are clear, with very specific deliverables.  Tennessee SCORE has done a good job of laying out a platform for this with its “Expect More Achieve More” campaign.  This is an area where the private sector could partner with a state to develop a comprehensive communications’ plan – whether they win or not — with a website, speaker series, etc., before the announcement.

Courage.  Delivering on RTTT will be hard.  The plan may be set, and the money may be there, but implementation will require lots of changes in policy and practice.  And the average citizen isn’t going to see the benefits right away.  In fact, moves like raising standards and telling thousands of parents that their child isn’t as well prepared as they thought is going to be incredibly difficult.  The push back to policy makers will be significant.  So, real thought needs to be given to the work that will be needed to sustain and build political momentum for this work over time.  (Many of your states have advocacy groups associated with a national network known as PIE and could be a good resource.)

The nation’s schools are going through what MLK might have called a point of “creative tension.”  A point where people of good faith are openly debating and fighting about what they believe is in the best interests of children.  This is a good and necessary thing, and RTTT is a critical part of this movement.  Based on what I’ve seen, DE and TN are eager to share what’s working and what’s not with the next round of RTTT states and ultimately with the nation. We will begin that process this fall when DE and TN leaders will host the first of what we hope to be a series of forums for all the RTTT states to learn from (and lean on) one another as we begin to break new ground together.  What are the topics you want to see discussed among the states?  If you head a union, a school, or a foundation, what would you want to talk through with your peers to realize your state’s vision?

8 Replies to “Round Two RTT Finalists: Some Cliff Notes from DE”

  1. I would want them to discuss how they are going to help teachers to help students to increase learning. There is too much talk centered around the kids are failing and teachers are ineffective. Why not look at what can be done to help teachers to become more aware of social and cultural issues that we deal with in the school? How about training majority teachers how to deal with minority kids? How about looking at some of the reports out there that shows that traditional schooling is not working for urban kids?

  2. Mathgirl1: I think the phrase you use “deal with minority kids” is off target.
    How about helping teachers to systematically identify what cultural strengths families and students have and then explicitly incorporate them into the classroom curriculum? All families have strengths.
    How about helping administrators and teaching staff to understand the value of family engagement and what types of parent involvement is directly linked to boosting student achievement and development. Check out the Harvard Family Research Project Family Involvement Network of Educators to find out more (FINE).
    How about helping schools to come out of the mindset that they can close the gap and accelerate student success all alone without partnering with families and community?
    How about helping school people to understand the value of building positive and reciprocal relationships over time with students and their families so families feel welcome to share responsibility for student success?
    How about helping everyone working in a school to become more culturally responsive and proficient to the students who are attending their school and their families as a routine way of doing business?
    How about always asking the following question before any decision is made: Who is this benefiting? Who is being left out?
    How about helping school people to examine every single intersection with families (i.e., Back to School Nights, Parent Teacher Conferences) and find ways to add value, substance and reciprocity to those intersections?
    How about getting everyone on staff together and listing all of the things schools:
    1) do to build deep relationships with students and their families,
    2) do to link parent engagement efforts directly to student learning,
    3 do that are not related to #1 or #2 in anyway, but the school keeps doing it anyway just because that is the way they have always done it.
    –School people could examine all of the things listed for #3 above and either find ways to add value to the event or idea by adding deliberate elements that would serve to build relationships and/or link it to student learning, (preferably both) or eliminate it or reinvent it with something that does.

  3. Paul,

    Here’s my question: Why are Delaware’s local school boards being repeatedly left out of the RttT conversation? Delaware’s leaders didn’t reach out to the boards until it was time to sign the MOU. Few board members even knew that extensive planning was occuring in Dover last summer. Business leaders were engaged long before school boards were.

    I was a huge mistake for Delaware to minimize the role of our local boards and is symbolic of a persistent and pervasive attitude told these locally elected leaders. It’s even evident in your own writing: “If you head a union, a school, or a foundation, what would you want to talk through with your peers to realize your state’s vision?” How about: if you’re a school board member elected to represent the parents and tax payers of your district, what would you want to talk through?

    If the state can’t reach out to engage boards, start incorporating their ideas and addressing their concerns, RttT is sure to be a failure. Take the Partnership Zone: August is to be the month that our schools are assigned to the Partnership Zone, assignment that is based on the 2008-09 school year test data. Why then was the 2009-10 testing data embargoed from school boards until mid July? It is one thing to embargo data from the public until it is verified; it’s entirely something else for the state’s secretary of education to issue an edict to superintendents preventing them sharing the embargoed data with their employer, their local school board. These school boards should be part of the process instead they will be left holding the bag when RttT fails with demands to continue programming when the seed funds run out.

    There appears to be a systemic approach to neutralizing the power of school boards while increasing their responsibility. Should our schools fail to acheive under RttT, regulations adopted in the wake of the DE application can lead to state takeovers of our schools and even the dissolution of those elected school boards. And what’s most concerning is that the models of turnaround for RttT are without peer reviewed research or comprehensive evidence of success. So what works? Smaller classes and more teachers. That’s what the research shows! RttT does not provide that! Instead DE skims 50% of RttT money from the top to grow its Department of Education administration.

    So now we all wait. RttT payments have not come to Delaware although they were start in July. The federal disbursement is already a month late. The Partnership Zone schools are soon to be named, without any consideration for the gains made by some schools during the 09-10 school year. And while the state’s trending showed decreased DSTP scores, my district has persistently low achieving schools, identified as Tier 1 for reform, that made great successes this year. However, those successes will stagnate because of de facto Turnaround. Principals leading change have been re-assigned to other schools so that the schools would be eligible for SIG monies which then spurred the teachers to suburban flight through the voluntary transfer process. And in the end, rumor has it that only 2 of the 11 schools who applied for SIG won it and the state department of education will have to reopen the application process.

    What’s the takeaway: You speak of communication, but Delaware’s leadership continues to make decision in a vacuum while ignoring a great resource, their school boards and vicariously, their tax payers and parents. How can we lead when we are not even welcome at the table?

  4. All, thanks for the comments. Elizabeth, I tend to agree that school boards are not engaged in the statewide conversation as much as they could/should be. That said, on 9/29, Vision 2015 will have a breakout session on the role of school boards at our annual forum, so I hope you attend. (Keep an eye on for more details.)

    Further, if your district has a school or two selected for the Partnership Zone, I’d welcome a conversation to discuss your ideas for how the community wants to redesign the school.

  5. Is that the conference hosted by UD and featuring Joel Klein as Keynote speaker specifically designed to create energy behind the absolutely 100% unproven reform methodologies espoused by RTTT and SIG?

    I received an invitation to be a special guest of President Harker’s to this party of policy wonks changing Delaware’s public education to private education while disenfranchising our communities, all with zero research based proof:

    It is truly sad how school boards have been completely marginalized by bankers and businessmen who have visited massive unemployment and poverty upon the very communities they now claim to have the magic bullet to solve their educational woes…..

    I know the robotic response to this is to suggest I am in favor of the status quo. Newsflash: unending unproven reform IS the status quo. Have you ever met a child who thrives on constant change and a school characterized by changing leaders and teachers in massive quantities? Yeah, me neither. Maybe that’s why these strategies do not work.

    insane if you ask me…..

  6. You people talk about staff development to help teachers learn how to deal with impoverished populations. Great, if you want teachers and schools to be your only defense against poverty.

    How about you think of how we might ameliorate the poverty as opposed to working with it?

    Poverty is the disease. Crappy schools are merely a symptom.

  7. Whoa, Paul thinks it is appropriate for the Chamber of Commerce (Vision 2014) to tell Delaware what the role of the school boards will be. Some Hubis. UNREAL.

  8. John, I appreciate the frustration you express about “constant change” and there is some validity to that claim. Our public schools often churn through new ideas without deep, thoughtful implementation.

    However, your claim about the research base for Vision 2015 is simply untrue.

    I don’t think you were living in the state in 2005 when a collection of public and private leaders — that did include the business community — but also included union, community, school board, district, and state-level representatives engaged hundreds of educators and other stakeholders in an in-depth analysis of what was working in DE and internationally.

    We talked to students in detention centers and advanced placement, about 40% of the principals, etc. more than a thousand people in all. We also looked at the top performing nations around the world and not only produced issue briefs (go to the “Vision” section of to read them), but we took educators from around Delaware to see high performing school systems so they could make up their own minds.

    So, you might disagree with the core recommendations of Vision 2015 — world class standards; early childhood education; great teachers and leaders; innovation and accountability; and fair and flexible funding — but to claim that it is not based on sound research couldn’t be further from the truth.

    Moreover, just as you are tired of the “robotic response” about the status quo, I am tired of the presumption that anyone who is not in the system has nothing to add. As a publicly elected official, you should engage the community, not dismiss those engaged in trying to build partnerships that could benefit our students.

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