We've known for weeks that California wasn't going to get a dime in the first round of the federal Race to the Top education reform contest. We speculated about the reasons why. But we didn't know what the judges actually thought.
Yet on the heels of Monday's announcement that Tennessee and Delaware won the national contest, the U.S. Department of Education released the final state rankings and reviewers' comments on each state's application.
The results weren't pretty: California came in 27th out of 41 in the competition, scoring 336.8 out of 500 possible points. Our neighbor Arizona came in next to last with only 240.2 points. Delaware got 455 and Tennessee 444.
Each applicant was assessed in six major areas, which addressed a number of questions. How successful would the reform implementation be? What standards and assessments exist? What was the quality of the data systems and how would they used to support instruction? And could great teachers and leaders be produced and supported?
Below is only a thumbnail glance of the judges' comments. Generally, California's data collection system was found to be "lagging" and scored low, receiving only 17.4 of 47 points. But hands down, the one area that California consistently scored poorly with the judges was "articulating" and "securing commitment" for the state's "education reform agenda."
Here's what one reviewer, who only gave California 25 out of 65 possible points, said:
Unions are critical stakeholders in many of California's school districts. The application did not discuss the reasons for the low level of union engagement. It is not clear if unions are opposed to the Race to the Top initiative or if the State did not appropriately engage unions in the discussions surrounding district participation. The lack of union buy-in at this stage raises serious concerns about the ability of the State to implement the Race to the Top reforms...
The same reviewer questioned the state's financial oversight, if awarded the Race to the Top funds.
A major weakness of the application is that the State did not provide a clear management plan or organizational structure to oversee the activities and expenditures of funds. The applicant did not describe its management team or job descriptions and/or roles and responsibilities of key staff. It was not evident how the grant would be fiscally managed or audited. A management plan with clear lines of authority is critical given the potential magnitude of this award.
A different reviewer, who gave the state 19 out of 65 possible points on the issue of carrying out the reform agenda, had this to say:
California is most weak relative to this criteria in its marginal success at "securing LEA [public schools] commitment" and lack of evidence that the level of "LEA participation would translate into statewide impact." To California's credit, the facts of the situation are clearly shared. Unfortunately, too many doubts are raised by only 46.5% of LEA signing the MOUs...Overall, California falls short relative to the reasonable theory of change that a shared commitment to reform among superintendents, board presidents and union leaders - no matter how difficult to achieve - is essential to major changes in educational practices and student learning.
Several of the state's reform proposals earned 0 out of 5 points with yet another, reviewer:
While the narrative provides three examples of reforms (strengthening parent roles, waivers/flexibility and early childhood education), no evidence is provided that these reforms have increased student achievement or graduation rates, narrowed achievement gaps or resulted in other measurable outcomes.
The state's perceived strong area – its support of charter schools – garnered praise from nearly every judge. But some reviewers wanted more proof that the state's public schools were being equally encouraged to be creative. They also wanted more explanations about why some charters fail:
One of the few areas where the state falls short in the charter school review is a failure to explicate the typical reasons charter schools close in California. The proposal does not present evidence on how many charters closed due to quality problems - a factor important in the criteria...Lastly, the largest points (eight) were lost because the proposal does not indicate that California "enables LEAs to operate innovative, autonomous public schools other than charter schools.
The identities of the reviewers were not revealed. But the thrust of their criticisms could help the state's chances dramatically in the second round.
California Department of Education officials will undoubtedly have to focus on making the application less vague on many of the key points. And there's simply no way of getting around the need to secure more buy-in from unions and local educators. So there you have it.
Applications for round two of the competition are due June 1. The judges have spoken.