Out of the starting blocks

By the time nine states and the District of Columbia were awarded more than $3.3 billion for school reform in the U.S. Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” competition in August, Delaware and Tennessee had already been hard at work for six months. What early lessons did leaders in those two states learn that might make it easier for states that won in the second round?

Answering that question was the goal of a new case study written for the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media by June Kronholz, a longtime reporter and editor formerly with the Wall Street Journal. As former Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, who is deeply involved in his state’s RttT plan, told Kronholz: “Nobody wants to go through the learning curve twice.”

For the case study, titled “Out of the Starting Blocks: Delaware and Tennessee Begin Their Race to the Top,” Kronholz interviewed the governors and education secretaries of both states, as well as political, business, union and community leaders; superintendents; school-board members; and education consultants. Their observations—what they said were their states’ successes and challenges in getting RttT off the ground—were remarkably similar, whether the speaker was the education advisor to the governor or the teachers-union chief.

That suggests second-round winners may face the same concerns, however dissimilar they are in size, demographics or political leadership. Here’s Kronholz on five areas that these states should attend to:

Communications: Teachers, parents, school-board members, legislators, and business and community leaders, among other interest groups, need to understand RttT before they can be expected to support it. But RttT is policy-heavy, with no easy storyline. To reach each of these key audiences, states must craft distinct messages. But most state education departments lack the expertise and manpower to mount a complicated public-information campaign.

Capacity: RttT commits states to huge and technically challenging initiatives, but state education departments, school districts and unions don’t have the expertise or staff to meet RttT’s requirements or its tight timelines. Some of the work—especially around teacher evaluations—is new, with few successful models for states to study. Both Delaware and Tennessee turned to private companies, consultants and nonprofit organizations for help. Second-round winners will need to reach out to the same organizations, which may become overstretched in the process.

Organization: RttT involves new work that doesn’t fit easily into old state education-department structures, which are geared toward compliance rather than innovation. That means rethinking how state departments do their jobs and deciding how to manage both the day-to-day responsibilities for RttT programs and the long-term planning. Any reorganization can create morale problems and fan resistance among the very people charged with implementing RttT.

Scopes of Work: District-level reform plans are supposed to be written by superintendents, administrators and teachers, who must explain in their Scopes of Work how what they are planning to do will affect student outcomes and how they will measure their progress. But many local educators in Delaware and Tennessee said they lacked the expertise, the exposure to best practices and the time for such complicated plans. The districts are under pressure because RttT requires those Scopes of Work to be submitted to the federal government within 90 days after winning an award.

Sustainability: Public disenchantment, bureaucratic resistance and political turnover can stymie and potentially undo RttT reforms after initial excitement about the federal grant fades. Sustained reform requires that community groups hold a state’s feet to the education-reform fire.  More importantly, it requires a change in culture: Just as people expect clean water and safe roads, they must come to expect good schools for their children.