RTTT: Taking Sides

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NJEA gave us plenty of warning that it would advise its local bargaining units to toss N.J.’s Race To The Top application (here’s the full grant proposal) in the circular file. Back on November 7th, NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano reported at an NJEA Delegate Assembly meeting that “NJEA sent a letter stating we will not sign off on anything that uses standardized test scores to evaluate teachers in NJ.”

If nothing else, you can’t fault them on their consistency. The message from NJEA is clear: input (teaching) is unrelated to output (student performance). From its December newsletter: “both NEA and NJEA have made and will continue to make the case against merit pay” because “great teaching is as mysterious as it is magical; groups who attempt to define it for the purposes of merit pay are unlikely to reach consensus.”

NJEA’s rigid opposition to one of the primary criteria for Race To The Top eligibility is only one of N.J.’s problems in the national competition. Forget about the will he/won’t he capriciousness in the months leading up to the application. (See here.) Forget about the rushed application process. (For context, remember that N.J. unveiled its proposal to districts on January 5th, 9 days before MOU’s were due. Pennsylvania sent out complete proposals to superintendents and districts on December 9th.) Don’t forget, however, about the doubts of school boards and superintendents regarding sign-off.

Star-Ledger: “Many educators expressed cautious support for the ideas, but said they had much to think and talk about before deciding whether to sign.”

Philadelphia Inquirer:
Michael Moskalski, superintendent and principal of Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, called the state’s draft “comprehensive,” but said in an e-mail that he would rather see where the new governor stood on the proposal and then submit in the second round of applications in June.

“I have two weeks in which to discuss the draft with my association president and board of education and get their support,” wrote Moskalski, who attended yesterday’s meeting. “This is not enough time for careful consideration.”

The Record: “Before officially joining the application, Segall said he wants to make sure the cost of participating would not exceed the grant Englewood might receive. If teachers leave the classroom for professional development, for example, he has to pay substitutes. His district is reeling from a $4 million loss of integration aid from the state.

“We’re down 19 teachers and five administrators this year compared to last,” he said. “If participating requires us to expend a half-million dollars, we can’t.”

Certainly, N.J. is not the only state with lack of buy-in from union leadership. But resistance from LEA’s is more troubling. Chalk it up to municipal fragmentation, change-aversion, dread of confrontation with local bargaining units. Maybe it’s some bizarre form of sibling rivalry: half of the potential grant money goes to Title 1 districts, and our wealthier districts already resent their low-income relatives for getting so much attention (financial and otherwise) from the state. It would be helpful if there was some leadership to coalesce around, but the DOE is molting, our lobbying group, NJSBA, is confining its advocacy to posting the application on its website, Executive County Superintendents are silent, and district leadership is splintered into 600 pieces.

Here’s a call from the trenches: sign the MOU. At both a federal and state level, RTTT is evolving into a battle between those who believe in teacher accountability, improved data systems, and improving failing schools, and those who don’t. As union rhetoric escalates, the battle lines harden. Do local N.J. school boards and superintendents want to rally for public education’s continuing lack of accountability or do you want to raise the flag for academic achievement for all children? Which side are you on?

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  • Mike Parent, January 8, 2010 @ 9:57 pm Reply

    Much has been written about why states should sign on to the RTTT movement. But much has also been written about why we should be wary of such government incentive programs. Washington is notorious for giving coins in exchange for the purse.

    Andy Smarick from the American Enterprise Institute says it best when he notes that many MOUs will be Trojan Horses and when the money is received it may not be properly used. He writes, “”…we must guard against assuming that changes in state policy necessarily lead to real improvement—or even that changes in statute necessarily lead to meaningful changes in practice.”

    You have to at least appreciate that those of us in education are suspicious of government pinatas with all that has transpired since the passage of NCLB (the latest authorization of the ESEA). We have heard the promises of funding for reform… we have followed the guidelines (most NJ districts, anyway), we have made the investment, and a great majority NJ schools have made strides. To that end, I believe NCLB was effective – it required reform from the inside out.

    But RTTT is different. It is a grant program that promises money in exchange for severe reforms. Reforms, mind you, that may very well see the best of the teaching corps leave and make it very difficult to recruit new talent.

    And you surely know that proposing a free-market and reward system on a unionized profession will receive justified resistance. The NEA, UFT, and AFT have are expressly devoted to keeping a level playing field in education pay. It exists in higher education also – so this current debate and revolt in NJ is not unique nor should it be.

    Many teachers do not disagree with the current revisions to the NJ Curriculum Content Standards, or the multi-state shared standards initiative, or the demand for improving teacher training programs, or the need for modernizing the system of learning and education delivery, nor do they deny that American education has its issues. But they are union members – and like all unions, they will and should complain when a significant change in terms of employment are proposed to be changed. And this is the heart of NJEA's opposition.

    I urge all of faculty to read the RTTT proposal from Commissioner Davy. Likewise, I urge them to read all they can about both sides of the RTTT debate. But, like Mr. Smarick, I urge them to be cognizant of the history of Trojan Horses in federal education policy.

    That said, I enjoy reading this blog. I pass your writings on and will continue to read, regardless of my opposition to your views. Keep up the great writing.

  • Mike Parent, January 8, 2010 @ 10:13 pm Reply

    I forgot to mention the one sticking point for many NJ teachers. According to the NJ Proposal, the teacher evaluation system has to be based on student growth data. The problem is that a lot of teachers teach subjects not tested on the HSPA, AP, or IB exams. The NJEA, and I think rightly so, feel that’s not fair— to have some teachers held accountable and others left alone.

    Thus, the districts would have to develop some kind of quantifiable evaluation for all the teachers who teach subjects that aren’t tested, like: social studies, Spanish, Italian, German, French, Sign Language, physical education, art, CAD, technology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, calculus, statistics… do you see the problem? Because the superintendents, the teachers, and the NJEA do.

  • RDOwens, January 8, 2010 @ 11:49 pm Reply

    There are other reasons to oppose RTTT. Given that the federal government has no Constitutional role in education, we should not buy into any program it wants to enact.

    The $400 million it wants to give to NJ for education would be a lot more if it went directly to Trenton instead of D.C. first. D.C. takes its share and then has states jump through hoops to get money.

  • Mike Parent, January 9, 2010 @ 8:06 pm Reply

    I think you may need to re-read this Bergen Record article from December of 2009: http://www.njea.org/PDFs/RTTT_FuetschArticle.pdf

  • NJ Left Behind, January 10, 2010 @ 10:59 pm Reply

    Mike, much of the article you cite attributes NJ's successes to the Abbott funding formula. If we could afford to spend $20K per kid we'd be in fine shape. But we can't: just last year Corzine cut preschool programs and high-needs districts' aid. The Abbott era is over and, despite Darling-Hammond's praise of NJ's funding system, it's obsolete.

    That said, I really do appreciate your discussion of the “justified resistance” of unions to such significant changes. And thanks for reading.

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