Stateline Story

School Reform Engine May Be Losing Momentum

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This has been a busy year for education reformers. Primed by billions in stimulus funding, states spent much of 2010 scrambling to complete ambitious school improvement plans outlined in detail in hundreds of pages of applications for federal " Race to the Top " funding. Many have adopted policies that are central to the Obama administration's education agenda, such as changing the ways teachers are evaluated, giving more latitude to charter schools, revising student tracking systems and putting an emphasis on turning around low-performing schools. As part of a separate but related effort, 41 states have adopted a standard math and English curriculum endorsed by federal officials.

But now, as the year ends, the reform enthusiasm seems to have cooled. Out of 46 applications received, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants to only 11 states and the District of Columbia. The looming end of stimulus money and other federal aid has state education officials anticipating cuts in state funding. And a new corps of lawmakers and governors swept into office Nov. 2 on a promise to limit federal involvement in state policy, a potential setback to the reform efforts. Last week, for instance, Alabama's Governor-elect Robert Bentley objected to the state school board's vote to adopt the common core curriculum. Bentley said he wanted the decision postponed until he had a chance to review the new standards.

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Photo courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Given the funding issues, state school officials across the country now are bracing for a pushback against some of the reforms even as they work to implement them. "If we look at what has happened in recent elections, if we look at the tone of the conversation, it will surprise me if there's not an increased response by some people who think this is a misplaced effort," says Utah state superintendent Larry Shumway. "There's a lot of hard work to be done and most of us are very under-resourced. That may play into the bounceback we're going to get."

Implementing the common curriculum, for example, will be expensive. State tests and textbooks will have to be replaced, and teachers will have to be trained on new materials. It remains to be seen whether states will be willing to spend large sums of money on these changes unless their fiscal situation improves. "It's one thing to write an application for federal funding," says Russ Whitehurst, an education specialist at the Brookings Institution, "and quite another thing to implement those reforms. Even without the election results of Nov. 2 most observers thought there was going to be a lot of slippage between the promises that were made and the reforms that were implemented."

Already, Ohio's incoming Republican governor, John Kasich, wants to undo an education funding law put in place by current Democratic Governor Ted Strickland, a move that Strickland says could jeopardize the state's $400 million Race to the Top grant. In Rhode Island, another Race to the Top winner, Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee has questioned doubling the number of charter schools in the state, an expansion that was part of Rhode Island's application.

In other states, including Arizona and New Hampshire, school officials have vowed to push for the reforms laid out in their Race to the Top applications even though they did not win any funding in the competition. But they could find themselves under pressure from the new political environment and tighter budgets. "We need to have a communal language," says Virginia Barry, education commissioner in New Hampshire, where Republicans gained control of both legislative chambers. "We need to listen to each other."  

Despite tight budgets and political differences, there could be common ground over some parts of the Obama administration's education reform agenda. Michigan lawmakers, for instance, will consider a bill introduced by a Republican state senator and a Democratic representative to reform teacher tenure and tie it more closely to student test scores. And new governors in Wisconsin and Florida have talked about tying teacher pay to the performance of their students, a central tenet of Race to the Top, over the objections of teachers' unions.

Efforts to reform teacher compensation have found a champion in Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded a program to study ways to measure teacher effectiveness in nine school districts and one charter school group. In a speech to the Council of Chief State School Officers here last week, Gates urged state education officials to pursue reform of school personnel systems despite the bad economy. Instead of rewarding seniority, he said, schools should reward good teaching.

"When you design a [personnel] system that is not rewarding performance," he said, "every element of it becomes ineffective."

Tags: Education