Andy Smarick

The teacher challenge

Race to the Top loss gives Mass. a chance to rise to new heights

By Andy Smarick
April 4, 2010

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WHEN MASSACHUSETTS lost out in the first round of federal Race to the Top awards, it came as a disappointment to the state’s leadership, especially given the passage of important education reform legislation earlier this year.

But the Bay State can also find encouragement and direction in the results. The federal government’s final scores on state applications indicate that Massachusetts served itself well with recent reforms but just didn’t go far enough — especially in the area of improving teaching. With the right response, Massachusetts may yet declare victory.

For years, the state has rightfully been proud of its K-12 schools. But a few troubling policies were standing in the way of continued improvement: The state allowed too many persistently failing schools to avoid meaningful change, and despite having a number of the nation’s finest charter schools, the state stubbornly capped their growth.

January’s legislation addressed both issues, and it made a major difference.

On the issue of improving struggling schools, Massachusetts scored near the top among finalists. It bested one of two eventual winners, Delaware, and nearly tied the other, Tennessee. On the issue of charter schooling, Massachusetts was outpaced by only a few states. Had the reform legislation not been passed, Massachusetts would’ve found itself far behind.

So how did the state still manage to place a discouraging 13th overall out of 16 finalists?

By coming in very last place in the application’s most important section: improving the teaching profession.

A number of other states, following the Obama administration’s guidelines, acted boldly on this front, overhauling teacher evaluation systems, toughening tenure rules, launching statewide performance pay programs, and removing chronically underperforming teachers from the classroom. In Delaware, teacher evaluations must be based on student performance and must inform compensation and promotion decisions; teachers cannot receive tenure if rated ineffective more than once. In Rhode Island, all teacher placements must be based on school need, not seniority, and districts may not allow any student to be taught by an ineffective teacher two years in a row.

On these issues, Massachusetts demurred, deciding instead to form a task force to study such matters; the grant application also proposes “statewide conversations” with stakeholders. In the few cases where the state proposed new initiatives, startlingly small portions of the state would have participated. A largely undefined pilot program to reform teacher personnel decisions would have been implemented in fewer than 1 percent of districts.

Federal reviewers subtracted points from Massachusetts in virtually every part of this section, from evaluations and compensation to teacher preparation programs and staffing needy schools. In fact, had the state merely maximized these points, it would have displaced Tennessee for the second winning spot.

The good news, then, is Massachusetts knows what must be done and victory is within reach. The challenge for state leaders is in summoning the courage and energy to take these steps before the second and final filing deadline, only 60 days away.

Massachusetts and many other states have long avoided such reforms because of political opposition. Countless individuals and numerous organizations, from unions to higher education institutions, have benefited by and grown accustomed to the current arrangements. But if we are to better serve our students, particularly the most disadvantaged, and elevate teaching to the ranks of truly esteemed professions, these changes are essential.

Fortunately, other states have blazed a trail for Massachusetts. Rhode Island crafted the second highest-scoring teacher quality provisions in the competition; these can serve as a model. The two winning states demonstrated that these bold reforms, if developed carefully, can generate broad support: In Delaware and Tennessee, all districts and virtually all unions signed on to their state’s plan.

Massachusetts has a stark choice and a golden opportunity. Because of the stiff competition, the state simply must address these issues if it is to have a realistic chance of securing one of these unprecedented grants. If it accepts this challenge, it is as well positioned as any state to win in the second round.

Hesitant state leaders should view these reforms as the last leg of a marathon. For 20 years, since its early leadership on accountability, Massachusetts has been running strong. With January’s reforms, it moved into the lead pack. Teacher reform is Heartbreak Hill, the final challenge that has stopped others in their tracks. If Massachusetts can push through, it will find at the finish line several hundred million dollars and a brighter future for its students.

Andy Smarick, a former US deputy assistant secretary of education, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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