Deep and complex problems often beget innovation. So does desperation. Delaware’s Race to the top has a healthy dose of each as it seeks to radically change outcomes for our children. The reform mainstream would like us all to believe that our educational system is so corrupt, desperately broken, that we have no choice but to throw off the constraints of validated scientific evidence and venture into a slate of unproven reform models that serve to destabilize schools and students. This, they say, is innovation.
Well, we disagree. Educators have been encouraged to engage in this “innovation”, to cast off conventional wisdom, evidence, and guidance that at times comes directly from the United States Department of Education. We have embarked on a plethora of well-meaning reform programs to address issues such as longitudinal data tracking, teacher and leader effectiveness, standards and assessments, and persistently low achieving schools. Nearly 20 months into Delaware’s execution of our top scoring $119 million award winning RTTT application, we face an ongoing obligation as public officials to assess efficacy throughout implementation.
As school board members, and unpaid elected officials, we take an oath to uphold the laws of Delaware and the United States in general and the laws governing education in particular. In 2009 the American Reinvestment and Rehabilitation Act (ARRA), also known as the Stimulus Act, was passed in Washington DC. It created a special fund for the Race to the Top competitive grant along with countless pages of federal rules and guidance for these funds.
It is from within this guidance that we have identified a significant concern with implementing one vital and thoroughly vetted component of reform – Extended Learning Time (ELT). Specifically, the U.S. Department of Education (USED), in an odd anomaly of the reform mandates, actually offers credible and compelling evidence regarding ELT as a part of both Transformation and Turnaround strategies for fixing broken schools: ELT less than three hundred hours a year is ineffective. In fact, deploying Extended Learning time is required to secure the School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds that combine with the state portion of the $119 million Race to the Top to fund the Partnership Zone (PZ) run by the state Secretary of Education, Dr. Lillian Lowery.
In Christina we have deployed Extended Learning Time pursuant to that requirement. Our first two PZ schools are now in the implementation phase of reform while a third school is in the planning phase. We have extended the day by a mere one hour in Stubbs Elementary and 40 minutes in Glasgow High School, far below both the amount we agreed to do in our plan (for GHS) and less than half the amount recommended and supported by the U.S. Department of Education. Again, the USED guidance clearly vets the effectiveness of extended time at a minimum of 300 hours per year.
As Christina board members, we have already run into one very public dispute with our Governor over Race to the Top and the fidelity of its mandates. Last spring we attempted to correct course when we identified a potential error within our teacher commitment process to our PZ schools. The result was a war of words that did nothing to help our schools and acted to erode public trust in our district. In the end, we submitted to the Governor’s pressure despite deep and abiding concerns.
Why would we dare risk another run in with the state over this issue? This time, we have not. The ELT that Christina has implemented in our PZ schools has been approved by DDOE even though it fails to meet the threshold for efficacy. Why? Supposedly, there is simply not enough money to pay for this amount of extended time between state share of RTT and SIG.
Again, here we disagree. The funding does exist. We believe the allocation of the $59.5 million state share of RTTT money is misaligned. Could this funding be channeled away from the $8.3 million the state is investing in data coaches? Perhaps DOE should eliminate a recently created appointed position that exists solely to guide only one component of the state mandated five component teacher evaluation system? We’re fairly certain that competing RTTT priorities have taken money from this requirement and shifted it to others.
Perhaps this issue will be evaluated by our state’s RTTT created and funded School Turnaround unit, and we will either add the minutes (100/day) or drop the extended time requirement altogether. The research shows doing less than the three hundred hours per year is ineffectual. This is not an issue of anything must be better than nothing! The guidance is complete – 300 hours is the floor, the beginning of what must be implemented to ensure results.
Until this matter is given the proper consideration, we respectfully wish to inform all interested parties (parents, teachers, and taxpayers chief among them) in Delaware that we believe our tax dollars are not being spent wisely in this endeavor. Every penny we spend in providing extended learning time is a wasted penny if we do not provide 300 hours. We are very concerned for our students and their outcomes. Tossing aside USDOE guidance and vetted research because the mainstream reform movement insists we must do “something” is just disingenuous: various stakeholder groups have been applying reform pressure to our state for over a decade (Rodel, Vision 2015, Business Roundtable) to negligible effect (see 2011 NAEP scores).
John M. Young and Elizabeth Scheinberg are members of the Christina School Board.