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Education Funding Opinion

RTT for Districts: Four Things I Don’t Love

By Rick Hess — May 29, 2012 3 min read
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Last week, I kvetched about the problems with RTT-District. I’ll just say a bit more today. There are four things that particularly struck me about this $400 million exercise:

1. ED anticipates giving out 15 to 20 grants, with amounts tied to district size. Big districts, serving 10,000 kids or more, can get all of $20-$25 million. Smaller districts are eligible for less. In a small urban like Washington, DC, or Newark, we’re talking about a total award equal to something like two to three percent of one year’s outlays. In the nation’s bigger districts, like Houston, Fairfax, Clark County, or Miami-Dade, award amounts will average about one percent or less of one year’s spending. To put this in perspective, the total RTT dollars promised are less than one-tenth of one percent of annual K-12 spending. And yet, applicants are expected to make substantial new--and likely costly--commitments with regards to “personalized learning environments,” teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, data systems, and standards and assessments.

2. So, what will districts need to do to receive these less-than-dazzling sums? ED is going to require that winning supplicants provide the necessary policies and systems to enable teachers to “truly differentiate instruction,” and “continuously focus on improving individual student achievement.” Teachers will also need to impart college- and career-readiness skills on their students in harmony with each student’s “personal passions” and individual learning pace. O-kay then. Shoot, wish we’d thought of this before.

3. Despite our earnest Secretary of Education’s jargon-laden, expansive rhetoric, the performance metrics reflect a pinched focus on the handful of things we know how to measure. Duncan said he’s seeking “personalized learning environments” that focus on “competency-based education” in order to promote “school[s] that meets the unique needs of our children.” Yet, ED specifies that performance will be demonstrated via six metrics: summative assessments, decreasing the achievement gaps, graduation rates, college enrollment rates, student attendance, and teacher attendance. These metrics are at odds with Duncan’s handsome verbiage. There’s no room for applicants to propose documenting performance in advanced science, world languages, the arts, history, student engagement, or much else. This limitation is a much bigger problem at the district than at the state level. State-level levers and measures are necessarily crude, since they’re writing rules that must be applied across scores or even hundreds of districts to hundreds or thousands of schools. But those same strictures need not apply at the district level. It’s unfortunate to see the feds telling purportedly “leading” districts to nonetheless lend an outsized, compliance-driven import to just these measures.

4. The U.S. Department of Education is now going to get into the business of telling local, elected bodies how to evaluate themselves. By 2014-15, districts will have to promise to implement evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account for school boards (along with every other breathing soul in a district). This is an especially novel innovation in democratic government--school boards are elected or appointed bodies who serve at the pleasure of their voters or an elected official. Perhaps the Department of Transportation will next start requiring city councils to be evaluated based on transit performance But the move is par for the course from a Department that has shown little disregard for pesky Constitutional constraints.

Now, if the exercise is so silly, you might think, “Surely, districts will steer clear. So there’s no harm.”

Not so fast. Winning this deal will be a hefty career boost for any superintendent and a great marketing device for CMOs. Superintendents will yearn to be able to note “RTT winner” on their resumes. Foundations, school board members, newspapers, mayors, and civic leaders will expect their distict to apply, and it’ll be a source of embarrassment for many that don’t.

So, no matter how distracting and misguided the exercise, no matter how much energy is wasted on grant-writing and meetings, and no matter how trivial the actual dollar amounts, we’re going to see scores or hundreds of applicants spending hundreds of hours leaping through the requisite hoops. And nobody is likely to complain publicly, because there’s no upside in ticking off ED or its allies.

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