The Cost of Commitment


President Obama gave a speech at Wright Middle School in Madison today (text here) outlining his education reform initiative for the nation’s schools, called “Race to the Top,” sometimes referred to by some of his critics as the “Race off the Cliff.”

As Thomas Mertz has pointed out earlier, the amount of funds being discussed here for Wisconsin are relatively meager.

Make no mistake that this is cake, a treat, not life-sustaining bread.  The amount being discussed for Wisconsin is $80 million and this relative pittance would all be targeted for specific programs and when the $80 million is gone, Wisconsin would be stuck with more things that we can no longer afford.

So what type of reform would we be getting in this initiative, along with the modest dollars to come our way, and what would we be giving up in return? That was the crux of a letter sent yesterday by State Senator Mark Miller, chair of the Joint Committee on Finance, to Secretary Arne Duncan. He is worried like others in similar policy positions, that with all the current economic challenges out there blowing huge holes in states’ budgets across the country, that:

We do not have the fiscal resilience to sustain another long-term financial commitment based on the mere possibility that we may be awarded one-time federal dollars in the future. Once these proposed educational policy and fiscal changes are enacted into law, Wisconsin legislators and taxpayers will be responsible for the accompanying financial commitment regardless of the outcome of Wisconsin’s Race to the Top application. This promise to fund new requirements without the promise of federal dollars puts at risk other social safety net programs that rely on adequate state funding to operate.

He cited the example of costs associated with the implementation of a “Children’s Zone” in Wisconsin based upon a model developed for Harlem that could ultimately have ongoing costs to Wisconsin of more than $400 million. If you make such financial and policy commitments you must be able to have some good assurances that you can continue to pay for them. He likens the exercise in not knowing how the grant dollars will be allocated and for how long, to a gambler “trying to draw to an inside straight.”

The National Academy of Sciences recently issued a report offering recommendations on how to revise the funding guidelines and regulations of Obama/Duncan’s $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” grant program, and is well worth a read. Interestingly, the report all but neglects to mention charter schools, which are a major component of RTtT. You can read something I wrote on that subject the other day, here.

In a press release for the Academy’s study, they applauded the step of encouraging states to create systems of linking data on student achievement to teachers, since, as they noted, it is essential to conducting research about the best ways of evaluating teachers.

One way of evaluating teachers, currently the subject of intense interest and research, are value-added approaches, which typically compare a student’s scores going into a grade with his or her scores coming out of it, in order to assess how much “value” a year with a particular teacher added to the student’s educational experience.  The report expresses concern that the department’s proposed regulations place excessive emphasis on value-added approaches.  Too little research has been done on these methods’ validity to base high-stakes decisions about teachers on them.  A student’s scores may be affected by many factors other than a teacher — his or her motivation, for example, or the amount of parental support — and value-added techniques have not yet found a good way to account for these other elements.

The report also cautioned against the use of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal assessment instrument. While effective at monitoring broad trends, it will not be able to detect the type of specific effects of the targeted interventions that the RTtT hopes to fund. This infatuation with data can lead reformers, philanthropists (case in point, Bill Gates’ team up with RTtT-type initiatives) and bureaucrats to become unquestioning supporters of using test scores as indicators of real learning and teaching. As the study pointed out:

The choice of appropriate assessments for use in instructional improvement systems is critical. Because of the extensive focus on large-scale, high-stakes, summative tests, policy makers and educators sometimes mistakenly believe that such tests are appropriate to use to provide rapid feedback to guide instruction. This is not the case.

The report also urged caution when trying to apply such a blunt instrument towards making international comparisons.

We note that the difficulties that arise in comparing test results from different states apply even more strongly for comparing test results from different countries.

They conclude the report with a reiterated point, “careful evaluation of this spending should not be seen as optional; it is likely to be the only way that this substantial investment in educational innovation can have a lasting impact on the U.S. education system.”

And in another side note related to federal education financing, the Obama administration’s latest and most detailed information yet on the jobs created by the stimulus, noted that of the 640,239 jobs recipients claimed to have created or saved so far, more than half — 325,000 — were in education. Most were teachers’ jobs that states said were saved when stimulus money averted a need for layoffs.

Robert Godfrey

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Filed under "education finance", Accountability, AMPS, Arne Duncan, Best Practices, finance, Gimme Some Truth, National News, No Child Left Behind, Uncategorized, We Are Not Alone

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