The Promise of District Race to the Top Plans
Earlier this summer we set about the business of reading Race to the Top plans for all the state’s 19 districts. Over the next few years in Delaware, roughly $50 million dollars—about 40 percent of Race to the Top funds—will be distributed through the plans, so this is a big deal. We’ve been offering detailed commentary on specific plan items in a blog serieswhich I want to summarize here.
First, I want to recognize the administrators, board members, teachers, parents, and community members who spent close to a year writing and rewriting these plans—not an easy task. Not only did the plans have to align with state reform goals, they had to do so in a way that reflects the unique needs of each community.
The plans include several important new investments: concrete supports for helping students meet the new higher standards, stronger professional development for educators, straight forward strategies for helping students get ready for college and careers, and user-friendly data systems to help schools identify and share more effectively what’s working and what’s not.
Focusing on these areas is critical to our success. Because we’ve taken a big step in raising our standards by adopting what is known as the “Common Core,” it makes complete sense that districts are investing on average over 40 percent of their funds to transition to it. This will provide students increased access to more rigorous coursework. Districts also have developed teams to align existing and/or new curriculum and assessments to cover the Common Core, and, notably, the Brandywine School District is developing a Common Core-based report card so that parents, students and teachers can get on the same page about what is now expected.
Another promising theme is a focus on college and career preparation. Far from the college prep of years past, these programs dig a level deeper to accelerate critical thinking in students at a younger age, for example, plans by the Christina School District to include pre-AP coursework in middle school, or Colonial’s plans to offer college courses to high school students.
Districts also are beginning to make headway in figuring out how to use data systems and tools to improve student performance, for example, the use of Teachscape by the New Castle County Vo-Tech district. This panoramic video system is a new idea with potential, providing clear feedback for teachers about what is working in their classrooms. Rather than relying on a principal standing in the back of the room to capture insights on her clip board, best practices around classroom management, or how to teach reading, this information can be captured digitally and cataloged and shared. This not only can help improve the craft of the teacher being taped, but it also can accelerate the learning curve of the next generation of teachers, assuming all of the appropriate confidentiality provisions are taken.
To me, these are some of the big takeaways of what the plans did well. Areas in which I hoped to see districts break more ground include developing exciting new career paths for teachers, ideas for turning around our lowest performing schools (even if they aren’t in the Partnership Zone), and the redesign or creation of new school models and approaches.
First, supporting our teachers. If we know that they are the biggest in-school driver of student performance, then it only makes sense to raise the quality of instruction. There are different avenues through which to do this. Many districts are considering employing “mentor teachers” to actively coach teachers in the classroom, which is a good first step. However, it would be great to see discussions re-emerge around developing new career paths like the proposal that almost got off the ground in Brandywine a few years ago.
School turnaround remains an area of great need for thousands of children, and an amazing opportunity. Some of the first four Partnership Zone schools seem to be making headway and six more schools will be identified soon. This could be an opportunity to rethink what that community really needs, as the Seaford School District did when it introduced its New Tech model. Moreover, parents and students are demanding more options, whether it’s high performing charter schools like Newark Charter School or Kuumba Academy, or the introduction of unique schools and programs like the Conrad Schools of Science in Red Clay or the Evening Academy at Indian River High School. The bottom line is that parents want high quality options, so I hope our districts continue to think creatively about responding to that need over time. Moreover, we should think about the increasing sophistication of online learning that gives students the opportunity to learn new things at their own pace – whether it’s catch-up or college prep – as areas that should continue to grow.
So all in all, the plans look like they will help us move the reforms forward, yet there is still room to push harder. And, at the end of the day, these are just plans. It will be up to the districts and the communities they serve to ensure that every dollar spent not only goes to transforming the lives of our children, but does so in a way that can be sustained after the federal funding goes away.
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