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Education Funding Opinion

Edu-Jargon Fun: Back to the RTT Apps

By Rick Hess — March 23, 2010 5 min read
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I eased up on Race to the Top (RTT) a bit last week, but the aftermath of Nancy Pelosi’s weekend healthcare porkfest has resurfaced all of the concerns I have previously raised (such as here and here) about the failure to concretize criteria for evaluation and review or to adequately insulate the judging and awarding from political appointees.

As Terry Ryan points out, emerging specifics about all the healthcare dealing that the administration did last week raise unnecessary and unfortunate questions about whether some of the $4.35 billion in taxpayer funds devoted to RTT may have helped buy votes for Obamacare. Since, as I’ve said before, I like the idea of federal dollars funding merit-based competitive grants, it would be a serious setback if a flawed program design dragged a potentially good idea into the mire.

In dealing with these concerns, Duncan would be more credible if he wasn’t accruing a reputation for talking a much bigger game than he plays. Even his most energetic cheerleaders thought naming 16 round 1 RTT finalists was a wimpy move, especially after Duncan told us repeatedly to ignore his big talk and “just watch” what he did. And that followed him knuckling under on earlier promises, such as promising to scrub the ED budget (goodbye UNESCO attaché and... well, that was the only trim he could find), that stimulus dollars would help drive reform, and that he’d find and go after states which misspent ARRA funds (still waiting).

In light of my concerns, I couldn’t resist going back (with the invaluable help of my crack research assistant Daniel Lautzenheiser and intern Claire Moore) and flagging some of the bon mots in the finalists’ applications that don’t jibe with all the hosannas I keep hearing as round 1 of RTT winds down. As I’ve noted before, most of the outlandish jargon and buzzwords are in response to the “best practice” priorities where big promises regarding professional development and learning communities are the coin of the realm. I do wish ED had focused more on encouraging measures that tore down anachronistic data “firewalls” and charter caps, and a lot less on prescribing practices, but such is life. (For those seeking a more holistic, serious, independent, and authoritative assessment of various state apps, I’d recommend checking out Andy Smarick’s terrific efforts on that score (for example, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Massachusetts).

More Than We Really Needed to Know About Titles for Reports Issued by a Consortium That Doesn’t Yet Exist: Pennsylvania promises to “create a state-level consortium... Research reports, policy briefs, data briefs, and school-by-school reports will be developed and disseminated to a diverse and broad audience. Possible titles include: College Ready: How Each High School’s Graduates Are Doing in College; Strategies for Increasing Access to Highly Effective Educators; Alone in the Crowd: Strategies for Reaching Students Before They Fall Through the Cracks; and Top 20 Effective Teacher Preparation Programs in Pennsylvania” (page 74-75).

Sentences That Say Nothing: Colorado promises to “build long-term capacity and incentives for change statewide, creating a rich knowledge management infrastructure and transforming its schools into communities that are constantly striving to improve, actively experimenting with new approaches, and leveraging knowledge transfer” (page 16).

Sentences That Say Nothing, 2: Kentucky explains that, “Using a network approach enables strong implementation with fidelity by facilitating local practice-sharing and collaboration, establishing mechanisms for continuous communication and follow-up...increasing access to expertise so that questions can be answered more quickly than if they were to be channeled through the Department, and increasing leadership opportunities throughout the education system” (page 81).

Sentences That Say Nothing, 3: Georgia explains that if it wins RTT funds, “The State will be better prepared to leverage improved policies, processes, and technologies in support of linking high quality teacher, student and assessment data to be used for teacher and administrator evaluation systems, professional development planning, evaluating and identifying effective instructional practices and using data at the classroom level to guide and inform instruction” (page 95).

Now THAT Sounds Like a Break from the Status Quo: Ohio promises to, “Facilitate local Reform Working Group dialog sessions across the state to engage all local stakeholders in meaningful local dialog to engender deeper understanding of education reform in Ohio” (page 191).

Could’ve Been a Grisham Opening, Until We Get to the “Human Capital” Thing: Tennessee’s apps invites readers in, “Imagine, for a moment, a new day that is coming for Tennessee’s children and families, teachers and principals, and the state’s economic future. It is a day when struggling schools, from the urban core of Memphis to the foothills of the Great Smoky mountains, will finally get the human capital - the great teachers and leaders - they need.” (page 10).

Most Frequent Use of “Learning Communities:" Colorado uses the phrase 47 times in its application, as when it promises to create “exemplary and sustainable learning communities that foster collaboration, knowledge sharing, and professional development among educators, students, and other key stakeholders” (page 11-12).

But That’s Nothing... Delaware uses the phrase “professional development” 149 times in its 235-page application--more than once every other page. Congratulations!

And That’s Not All... Delaware promises not just professional development but that it will provide “a coordinated approach to professional development by focusing on instructional leadership, data-driven instruction and decision-making, research-based best practices, and collaborative planning” (page 168).

Why These Things Can Get Even More Ungainly with a Second Look: I previously noted that New York’s overwrought use of “clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed” to describe their curriculum frameworks. Upon a closer look, it turns out that the NY grantwriters so loved that phrase that they used it at least four times in the app, including:

sequenced, spiraled, content-rich, detailed curriculum frameworks and formative, interim, and summative assessments fully aligned with those standards" (page 9)--this was my personal favorite "clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled curriculum guides" (page 79) "sequenced, spiraled, content-rich Pre-kindergarten-Grade 12 curriculum frameworks" (page 84) "sequenced, spiraled, content-rich curriculum frameworks that clearly identify the knowledge and skills required at each grade level" (page 87)

Some Grantwriter Heard About Feedback Loops in a PD Seminar: Florida promises to institute a “continuous improvement feedback loop for strategies and policy actions, with performance measures related to student achievement and supporting objectives to inform educators, administrators, the profession, and the public” (page 117).

And finally, Ain’t Kumbaya Grand? DC promises, “In an effort to increase stakeholder capacity to use and understand data, OSSE will hold community meetings with parents, other community members, and decision-makers to discuss the ways in which they can use data to make informed decisions, be better informed about the state of education within DC, and be active participants in their local school communities” (page 73).

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