Education Q&A

Grappling With Race to the Top Reforms

By Bryan Toporek — March 04, 2014 5 min read
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Back in March, the U.S. Department of Education selected Delaware as one of two first-round winners of the federal Race to the Top competition (along with Tennessee). Delaware was awarded a total of $119 million to carry out a far-reaching school-improvement plan that includes a major reworking of the state’s teacher evaluation system intended to tie more closely teachers’ advancement to student-achievement measures. The plan also mandates aggressive interventions in the state’s lowest-performing schools, and commits the state to hiring data coaches to work with teachers and development coaches to work with principals.

Recently, we spoke with Mary Cooke, the HR director of the Delaware Department of Education, about the effects that RTT will have on school human resources strategies and operations.

Mary Cooke, HR director of the Delaware Department of Education.

What type of staff positions have you had to create as a result of winning Race to the Top funding?

Here at the department, we are in the process of creating a Race to the Top Project Management Office. Our application did include the creation of 10 positions here at the [state] department [of education] to support the work that’s going to need to be done at the district level, implementing the various initiatives that were included in our plan. We’re in the process of advertising nine of those positions.

We’re in different places in the process, depending upon the position—but we’re in the process of creating what we call a “Performance Management Unit,” a “Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit,” and a “School Turnaround Unit,” and then there will be program managers within each of those units.

Can you talk specifically about the hiring process of the three unit leaders—the School Turnaround Unit, the Performance Management Unit, and the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit?

All three of those positions have been posted. We posted locally, but we also tried to advertise on a more national level for those positions. Internally, in terms of how the process works: Applications come in, and they’re reviewed to make sure they meet minimum qualifications. They then go through a screening process. For those three positions, the majority of the applicants will most likely go through a two-stage interview process, which will include the state Secretary of Education on the second level of the interview.

Before the interview, we’ll prepare interview questions that are relevant to the position. The same questions are asked of each candidate, and they can expect to answer questions about their qualifications; potentially, what about their background will make them an asset to our department and our Race to the Top reform efforts? They may be asked to define what they see to be the greatest challenge in implementing our reform efforts and how they would address that.

What will these unit leaders be expected to do in the coming years?

The broad answer to that question is that they will be expected to implement the reform efforts as outlined in our Race to the Top application. Our Race to the Top application, in our opinion, has a real focus on children, on achievement, and on an inherent fairness in our reforms as we move forward. So, the general answer is that they’ll be implementing those reform efforts both at the department and also at the district level. Our Race to the Top application process has been a continued collaboration with our stakeholders: That would be our districts, our school boards, certainly, the governor’s office.

One thing I should add is that the department provides our governor’s office with a weekly update, in terms of the establishment of the Project Management Office. So, both our governor and our secretary of education are very involved in this process and want to be kept well-informed.

In your RTT plan, you recommend tying teacher advancement to skills and performance, not seniority. Beyond tying test scores to evaluations, what other measures will you use to evaluate teacher effectiveness?

I think we’ll be looking potentially at classroom instruction. Again, it’s a difficult question to answer when we’re still staffing the Teacher Leader Effectiveness unit. I think one of the things that we’re looking for is that the individual who comes in as that leader brings in innovative, creative, bold ideas for us to get to where we hope to get to, which is to become the premiere education system in the country.

You also recommended introducing a statewide “Office of Innovation” to share best practices—how will you ensure that all schools in the state can stand to benefit from the new office?

I think one advantage for the state of Delaware is our size. As a result, we have constant and regular face-to-face contact with our districts: Whether it’s the secretary of education with our superintendents, who meet monthly; personnel directors, who meet monthly; or business managers, who meet monthly. And because of our size, we’re able to have not just electronic communications, but face-to-face communications. As a result, I think that really helps our ability to make sure that we maintain that continuous collaboration with all of our stakeholders—our parents, our districts, and our school boards.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge in the planning stages of RTT?

I can comment on that from a human resources perspective, and I would probably say it’s simply getting a Project Management Office of this scope and size up and running. You really want something like this to be in place tomorrow, so folks can start doing the work, so that the benefits can start flowing to the kids and all of our schools. It just takes a certain amount of time to move through the public processes we need to move through.

In general, how will the role of local, district human resources departments change under your RTT plan? Are there any reforms that you’ve recommended that could put new strains or responsibilities on HR departments?

I think it’s too soon to answer that question, but I can state that it’s the department’s commitment and our role to support the districts, so that to the least extent possible, they feel the strains that you’re referencing.

Will there potentially be changes to licensure and certification requirements? Maybe. And if there are, that could potentially affect local HR offices in making sure their teachers are appropriately licensed and certified. Will there be changes to the teacher evaluation system? Maybe. My hope is, though, that if there are changes, that maybe it actually takes some of the burdens off of the HR office. They’ll hopefully make the evaluation process more efficient.

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