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Race to the Top

Throughout C&J’s almost 10 years of work in education, we have seen many positive changes (as well as some stubborn “hangers on”). Most strikingly, we have witnessed a sea change in the last decade in how the federal government relates to states and school districts.

When we started our company in 2004, we were barely two years into implementation of NCLB. At that point, many states, districts, and schools were just beginning to discover the importance of seeing the data that would illustrate the achievement gap between students from different income levels and racial groups. Title I had experienced a substantial increase in funding and regulations were being rolled out. States were being called upon to fulfill many new roles. The coalitions in Congress and in the education and civil rights communities remained intact and in total support of the need to confront the issues of achievement gaps, resource allocation, and educator effectiveness.

A decade later, fueled by Race to the Top, the federal portfolio now includes a substantial number of competitive grants that allow states to choose whether or not to “compete for funding” tied to particular policies or reform strategies. And in some cases, the grants go directly to districts as opposed to through the State education agency as has been done traditionally.  Several states that were eager to comply with Race to the Top guidance are now revisiting decisions on everything from educator evaluation systems to Common Core State Standards, largely because most of the individuals who made the original state commitments are no longer in office. The seemingly simple path for districts to navigate has become a road filled with twists, turns, roadblocks, and detours.

While competitive grants have been a spur to states and districts as they moved to enact and implement the agenda of the Obama Administration, the way forward is filled with opportunities and challenges.

The opportunities are obvious: Federal grants (along with leadership from foundations and many states) have put college-ready standards and teacher and principal evaluation firmly on the agenda of most states and districts. These reforms, if implemented well, could play significant roles in improving the quality of education that is provided to students. The grants have also propelled a secondary wave of reform that includes a renewed focus on improving teacher preparation and professional development; helping principals become educational leaders; using data to drive decisions from what homework students should have each day to how resources are allocated across schools; and finding the best ways to use technology inside and outside of the classroom.

The challenges, however, are significant.  Through our work and readings, we have seen a number of issues of concern.  To offer just a few:

  1. Many schools and districts appear overwhelmed by the number of reforms heading their way.  In one district with which we work, principals were being given primary responsibility to implement the Common Core (training staff, identifying curriculum, managing instructional shifts) and PARCC assessments (ensuring school technology would allow students to take the tests). They were also gaining new authority over their school budgets and hiring staff as well as being trained to evaluate their teachers using the state process. In conversations, principals said that they appreciate the increasing autonomy but admitted to feeling spread too thin and unprepared for the new responsibilities. 
  2. Partly as a result of feeling overwhelmed, districts and schools begin to treat important reforms such as college-ready standards and teacher and principal evaluation as distinct exercises in compliance rather than tools to improve the quality of education they provide to students. 
  3. Because of their compliance orientation, schools and districts struggle to achieve coherence, defined as the alignment of systems, structures, resources, stakeholders, and culture to achieve clear goals.  Another district with which we work that is implementing teacher evaluations had not aligned this work with its very explicit and high-quality instructional framework. The district has viewed instructional improvement and professional development as distinct from what teachers should be held accountable for and what principals should be looking for from an evaluation standpoint.

Polices and programs evolve and change but the job of districts remains the same—giving every student the best possible education.   What we have seen over the years is that regardless of the policy fad of the moment, districts must ask themselves three questions:

  • What is our theory of action for improving the quality of education we provide to our students and for increasing student achievement? 
  • What do we need to do to ensure that our resources, systems, structures, culture, and stakeholders are aligned with that theory of action? 
  • How do we implement our strategies effectively while gauging their impact and making adjustments as necessary?

These are the types of questions that C&J has been asking districts and states for the past 10 years. We know that a clear and executable theory of action can be both the seat belt and road map districts need to safely navigate this bumpy, curvy road and ultimately, improve outcomes for all students.

Read other C&J Blog posts and learn about partners Christopher Cross and Scott Joftus and our Policy Development and School. District, and State System Improvement practice areas.


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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross and Scott Joftus