Wednesday, January 30, 2013

RTTT - My personal angst

The following thoughts were shared with the Illinois RTTT Networking Summit on October 24, 2012.  To be honest, I was a little surprised to be asked to address the IL-RTTT districts.  David Osta and Christi Chadwick have heard more than their fair share of criticism, critiques, and concerns from me.  I do respect their leadership in IL-RTTT and  I was honored to talk about Urbana School District #116’s Strategic Plan. 

One thing that I need to explain at the very start is that I detest the name "Race to the Top.” Because the very name implies the creation and replication of larger educational gaps than currently exist.  A “race” to the top implies winners and losers, and to be honest, we are seeing that with funding structures coming from the U.S. Department of Education.  This may seem to be a petty complaint, but in order to understand my critiques, you need to understand the lens through which I view the world.  Through the lens of equity and social justice I see the concept of Race to the Top as not just a disturbing title, but an attack on the purpose of public education in the United States.  Racing to the Top suggests that only the elite schools/ districts/ students/ communities/ will survive, and the rest will be subsumed or replaced with charters or choice or vouchers.  Not only does this mean that educational reforms will increase disparities, but that the reforms will actually create larger disparities than currently exist.  That is not why I became a teacher, that is not why I have become an administrator, and that is not why my own children attend public schools.   Charters, choice, and vouchers have not demonstrated any better educational outcomes for our students than strong public schools.  All of our efforts at reforming education in this country should be focused on improving educational opportunities for all students.

I am also wary of the money trail, and the "evidence" that is cited as the driving force behind the reforms.  Much of the evidence is based on "white papers" that have been written by foundations who have paid for the research, and often are not supported by research coming out of our top academic institutions.  Don't get me wrong, I am all for private foundations and corporations contributing to the success of public education.  I will never discourage Gates and others to invest huge sums of money in educational research, educational reform, or innovative practices.  In fact, I will applaud such philanthropy, and I will work hard to ensure that the students in my district benefit from it; however, I will cry foul if the purpose of the philanthropy is to undermine public education.

Given that context, and given the reality that we are all here [at the RTTT Networking Summit] due to the RTTT IL program, and given the financial reality that 90% of the RTTT districts in the room are not in it for the money, then why I am here?  Why am I here?  Why is my district in RTTT?

Three years ago, my superintendent and BOE started a strategic planning process that took us almost 18 months to complete.  It involved a broad base of stakeholders including parents, students, and community members.  The result was a strategic plan that set our course for the next five years.  It has ambitious goals and objectives, and strategies and action plans that would help us get there.  When RTTT came along there was very little reason for us to even take interest.  However, we did.  We brought together members of association and our administrative team to talk about what it could offer.  What I saw in RTTT was a strong alignment with the objectives and strategies from our strategic plan.  You see, our mission states that we will help our students develop skills, acquire knowledge, and build character to achieve their own personal greatness. To achieve that mission, we committed to increasing the rigor in our curriculum, to provide authentic feedback and student-centered learning, and to differentiate instruction in order to help students achieve their personal goals.  We created a three-year PD plan that moves us from formative assessment through differentiation and Understanding by Design.  We are committed to become a community of learners, and as such, use student data to drive our decisions.  When we started to look at the RTTT Indicators, we found that many of them directly aligned with where we were going with our strategic plan.  That alignment is one of the main reasons I am here. 

Another reason I am here is that I am from a district that prides itself in being committed to student learning.  We have done okay on the ISAT, not so well on the PSAE, but we have been recognized two of the last four years for increasing the percentage of FRL and students of color enrolled in, and successfully passing AP courses.  We offer 19 different AP courses; we are excited about the prospect of creating STEM pathways for our students.  In Urbana, we are surrounded by partners who support us in those efforts. For the past 15 years, Urbana has put ourselves on the front of curriculum and standards-aligned work.  Now that we are in the era of the Common Core State Standards, we want to be at the front again.  Right now, that is why I am here.  However, as I have told David, Christie, and my community, the minute that RTTT diverges from our Strategic Plan, or the minute we feel that we are being asked to move in a direction that is not in the best interest of our students, we will choose our Strategic Plan over RTTT.

I am often asked, what do we get by being part of RTTT? I am always honest in my answer. We don't get money. We do get quite a bit of extra work. Right now, I can't say we get a lot, except that we get to be part of the discussion.  We want to be part of the discussion about how technology will shape instruction and student assessment.  We want to be part of the discussion about meaningful parent engagement. We want to be part of the discussion about teacher evaluation. To be honest, I would much rather be an active participant in the discussion of RTTT and PERA implementation than to be someone sitting on the sidelines. We want to be leaders in doing what is best for our students, families and community.