Education
1:16 pm
Thu April 29, 2010

RI prepares for round two of Race to the Top

Providence – Teams from the state Department of Education are meeting this week to craft Rhode Island's second attempt at the federal Race to the Top competition. To win a grant, they must have a workable plan for raising student achievement and lowering the gap between urban and suburban students.

And this time they'd like to have teachers on board - the biggest loss of points in round one came from a lack of teacher support.

Marcia Reback is President of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, one of the state's two teachers unions. She says teachers didn't support round one because it had an anti-teacher tone - it tied annual evaluations to test scores and it called for the dismissal of teachers with two consecutive years of poor results. Reback says few teachers could endorse that, especially following the teacher firings in Central Falls.

"The fact that a Central Falls can exist is very disturbing to teachers," she said. "It's very hard to think about teachers signing onto Race to the Top while the situation in Central Falls is ongoing."

State officials have pledged to do things differently this time, and they've unveiled a process that is much more open to public participation. They invited school and teachers union leaders to help re-write the application.

During a recent session, Paula Jo Gaines from the State Department of Education asked two teachers to consider one of the most controversial parts of the application, which would link teacher pay to student test scores. Charleen Christy, a veteran teacher from Pawtucket, says it's not fair to use the state test known as the NECAP to measure teacher effectiveness.

"I mean let's be honest, we don't get those scores back where it makes a critical difference in your instruction," Christy said. "By the time you get them back that child is moving on to a different class and a different teacher."

But state officials and teachers do agree that test scores should be one of several factors. They also found some middle ground: both sides like the idea of rewarding an entire school faculty for improving scores, instead of just a single teacher. But this is an area where Rhode Island has to be careful, according to Charles Barone, of the group Democrats for Education Reform. Barone's been reviewing comments from the first round of Race to the Top applications.

"Rhode Island did extremely well on improving teacher and principal quality," Barone said. "It got the second highest score of any state of all the 41 that applied."

Barone believes Rhode Island has a good chance at round two, when 10 to 15 states are expected to get funding, but he doesn't recommend watering down the section on teacher quality.

"I would think if they tightened up their explanations of some things and were able to present their plan for charter schools and stuck with their robust plan on teacher and school leader quality," he said. "It's hard to see how they would not be a winner."

State officials expect the competition to be even stiffer in round two, since everyone has had time to analyze round one. And some areas of the proposal may be hard to improve, like the state's poor history of improvement or the fact that lawmakers are considering a mid-year cut for public schools. Here's Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist:

"There are ways that we can try to give a bigger picture, but yes its going to be a challenge," Gist said.

All of this makes winning over teachers even more important. Gist asked Providence Superintendent Tom Brady to tell other district leaders how he convinced Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith to support round one despite a history of lawsuits and discord.

Smith is one of just two union local presidents who signed on to round one. He says he felt it was the right thing for the 2,000 teachers he represents.

"The easy thing about not collaborating is to stand back and point out what's going wrong, and we're pretty good at that," he said. "But we weren't looking for that. We wanted to be at the table with our best ideas."

But not all union leaders share that view. Valerie Lawson heads the East Providence teacher's union.

"Obviously in Providence they were able to work some sort of agreement out," Lawson said. "And ultimately that's in everyone's best interest, we all would like that. But in some places it's going to be a little bit more difficult than others and that needs to be addressed."

Rhode Island has until June 1 to complete the round two application. And whether they win Race to the Top funds or not, state officials say tougher teacher evaluations and a greater focus on test scores are part of their plan to improve public education. For now, at least teachers, administrators and state officials are talking about how to make that change something everyone can live with.