And the (RTTT) Nominees are…

Posted on March 4, 2010

Not much time today to analyze, but I can’t pass up the opportunity for some quick comments on the Race to the Top Finalists announced today. The list is indeed a mixed bag (DC, CO, DE, DC, FL, GA, IL, KY, LA, MA, NY, NC, OH, PA, RI, SC, TN).

And yes, the list does include three of the most talked about early heavy favorites – and my favorites, of course – Louisiana, Tennessee and Illinois. (and there are many more comments on these states and their RTTT prospects throughout my earlier blog posts).

Here’s my rap sheet on these states in particular, and why I find it so completely absurd that simply a) removing caps on numbers of charter schools coupled with b) removing firewalls between teacher and student data are the primary criteria (or at least seem to be) for the big race.

It’s not just that some of these states have mildly problematic policies from a critical academic perspective. Rather, these three states in particular have compiled a record of education policies – both on the fiscal input end and on the outcome, standards and accountability end which are outright disgraceful.

The only thing going for Tennessee’s education system – beyond its data quality – is the fact that funding is relatively equitable within the state (compared to many states). But, that’s only because everyone has next to nothing! Tennessee currently maintains the least well-funded, overall, education system in the nation after correcting for costs associated with a) poverty, b) economies of scale and sparsity and c) regional competitive wage variation.

And not only is Tennessee dead last in overall funding, but it is also dead last in the rigor of its testing standards, when compared against NAEP proficiency standards. So, can the data really be that good if the standards are so low? if the proficiency rates on state assessments are so high even though the state ranks near the bottom on NAEP proficiency?

So, Tennessee spends little and expects little, but measures it well! In addition, Tennessee’s low spending appears to be largely a function of lack of effort, not lack of wealth. Tennessee is 4th lowest in the nation on the percent of gross state product spent on schools. Further Tennessee has the largest income gap between children not in the public schools and children in the public schools.

I’ve written more about Louisiana’s prospects in the past. Louisiana, like Tennessee, has mainly itself to blame for its low spending. Louisiana is 3rd lowest in the nation on the percent of GSP allocated to public schools. Coupled with that, Louisiana has the 3rd smallest share of 6 to 16 year olds in the public school system and the 3rd largest income gap between those in and not in the system. Louisiana’s own state testing standards are relatively average, but its NAEP outcomes are right there at the bottom (okay… 3rd from bottom across math and reading, grades 4 and 8 in 2007).

So, these two standout RTTT finalists are states that have pretty much chosen to throw their public education systems under the bus. Yet, they are somehow racing to the top!??

So, how does Illinois fit into this mess? Instead of throwing its entire system under the bus, Illinois has merely chosen to sacrifice the education of poor and minority children. Illinois maintains among the least equitable state school funding systems in the nation with among the largest funding gaps between wealthy and poor, minority and non-minority districts.  And, as it turns out, Illinois also has very low testing standards when mapped to NAEP standards.

Slides from recent presentation to National Urban League.

National Urban League Presentation