Race To The Top in New York: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

To get in the right mood, think Clint Eastwood as bounty hunter, spaghetti westerns, and the haunting theme music of Ennio Morricone. Think gun slinging outlaws, dusty deserts, tired horses, and poorly lit bars. There we go. Now we’re ready to talk about the biggest modern day reform agenda launched in New York state history, ie. Race to the Top (RTTT). One reminder, however. All significant change events carry with them good, bad and ugly elements, and so it goes with the New York State Board of Regents Reform Agenda-an agenda which has taken more than its fair share of heat. Here’s how I see the breakdown.

  • The good: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.
  • The bad: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.
  • The ugly: Career Teacher Ladder, Teacher Leadership, Common Core State Standards, Data-Driven Instruction, Evidence-Based Teacher and Principal Observations, Rigorous Assessments, and Student Learning Objectives.

Okay, that’s not fair. How can we have all these various RTTT deliverables categorized as good, bad and ugly together? Is there a way to differentiate the best RTTT has to offer from its worst elements? I’m biased, obviously, so I don’t dare venture too deeply down such a path. However, I think it’s fair to venture a little.

Common Core Standards are not good, they are great, and their adoption across the nation brought consistency and rigor to the 45 States in which they now exist. Rigor that was sorely needed to increase our students’ capacities to successfully compete in a flattened world. It’s hard work when a curriculum bar is suddenly raised, particularly when the rigor is two years higher than past curricula. Our students are now being asked to do 5th grade math in 3rd grade. To do 7th grade reading in 5th grade. Etc. Needless to say, there are serious growing pains with such a change in standards.

Data-Driven Instruction is not good, it’s essential. Many schools claim they’ve been doing it for years. Yes, end of year student assessment data have been analyzed and curricula changed in some schools. And yes, primary school teachers regularly use running records and other reading data to inform decisions. However, the widespread, purposeful actions of Assess, Analyze, and Act are done sparingly in our nation’s classrooms. Too much to do, a lack of professional development on how to do DDI, and other reasons compromise a truly data-driven instruction mindset.

Evidence-based observations of teachers AND PRINCIPALS are not good, they are desperately needed in all schools. Perhaps for the first time ever, all teachers and principals are being observed by lead evaluators trained to do such observations. And the observations conducted are based on analytic rubrics proven to be aligned with teaching and leadership standards. That’s fantastic! I remember years ago having observations done sparingly, and with checklists. There were no detailed descriptors built around reputable standards of teaching or leadership. Rather, they were primarily subjective evaluations (think judgments) of what good instruction or leadership looked like. That’s a dangerous proposition, particularly if the evaluator has unsound understandings or values.

There’s so much angst about Race to the Top, so let’s jump to the “ugly” elements. I will admit to being a fan of more rigorous state assessments, but there are obvious flaws in our present model that are blemishing the Regents Reform Agenda. The biggest issue is tying teacher and principal performance to student assessment data while the plane is still being built. Though the vast, vast majority of teachers are placing in the effective or highly effective APPR rankings, it is still exceedingly stressful to have one’s professional performance review partly contingent on how your students do on a new assessment based on new and much more rigorous standards. That’s very scary for many, and that is what adds the ugliness to the equation. Other “ugly” elements are just part of the change landscape. We will always have our “deniers” and “chicken little” types who prefer the comfortable status quo they’ve grown to love. However, most professionals within the field are working their best to make the necessary adjustments, and doing so successfully, though not without the periodic “hiccup” or “crash” such wide scale change brings.

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