Arizona is among 18 states and the District of Columbia chosen to compete for a share of $3.4 billion. Finalists will present their proposals in coming weeks, with winners announced in September.
Of course, affairs were not always so rosy for the Grand Canyon State; we failed spectacularly in our first attempt, ranking second to last nationally. So what changed the second time around?
Brewer praised a new consultant who helped Arizona reach the group of finalists. Paul Koehler, a former education adviser to Gov. Janet Napolitano and a former Arizona Department of Education official, now directs the Policy Center at WestEd, a research non-profit with offices in Phoenix. Koehler coached Delaware’s governor and education chief when they successfully presented their Race to the Top application in Washington earlier this year. The other winning state was Tennessee.
Koehler said federal reviewers found several parts confusing in Arizona’s first application, including how the state would track the federal money.
“We came up with a management plan on how the state, the Arizona Department of Education and others would keep track of the grant,” he said.
The application focused on one clear goal: improve Arizona’s high-school graduation rate.
Koehler added that, unlike the first time, the state’s teachers union and the Arizona Education Association supported the latest application. During the first round, the National Education Association expressed concerns about the Race to the Top competition, and the AEA’s stance reflected that view. [emphasis mine]
The Obama administration’s latest multi-million dollar carrot is meant to get states to adopt a more competitive, STEM-centric, American hegemony perpetuating brand of education. And while there are arguments to be made against such back-handed federal coercion in and of itself, Arizona’s RTTT proposal is a mixed bag of sorts and warrants a few posts. First, the bad stuff.
The first thing that stands out about the proposal is its focus on the key “transition” years in which students take the AIMS test- grades 3, 8, and 10. This makes sense since AIMS scores and the high school graduation rate (which is directly linked to AIMS passage rates) are the metrics by which the efficacy of Arizona’s proposals will be measured. But wait! With new measures that would tie teacher and administrator compensation to test scores, what’s stopping administrators from just artificially increasing scores? Schools in Arizona, after all, have been doing just that for the past several years.
There’s another reason to suspect that the standards are sure to fall in the future: the improvements predicted by the AZ Department of Education in the proposal are wildly optimistic. Take 10th grade AIMS scores. In 2008, 68% of all students met or exceeded standards on the reading test, and 73% met or exceeded standards on the math assessment. According to Arizona’s plan, however, these numbers are projected to shoot up to 81% and 84%, respectively, by 2014 (Section A-11). If you take a gander at score progressions from 2003-2009 (Section A 68-69), however, it quickly becomes evident that the percentage of students meeting or exceeding standards on both math and reading has remained stagnant for students in 3rd, 8th, and 10th grades. Granted, the purpose of the RTTT money is to boost results, but the success of the proposal itself, as evidenced by Arizona’s newfound finalist status, is itself based on a high degree of confidence in the mechanisms we have in place. The confidence, according to the data we have, is misplaced, and it’s difficult to see how any of these targets will be achieved without a drastic drop off in standards.