Colorado can’t win; that is lesson of the Race to the Top (R2T) competition. Actually the lesson is that states that can’t enforce compliance by schools are not going to win in national competitions. This means Western states where local control means something very different than in does east of the Mississippi will always be left out. (Hawaii is a singular case with a single statewide school district).
At the same time, Colorado districts have proved they can innovate with the best of them. Two Colorado districts (DPS and St. Vrain) won in the much more competitive Investment in Innovation (I3) competition where there were 49 winners out of over 1,600 applications.
It is not that Colorado lacks the ideas or the innovators at the state level, but when we can’t draw that straight line of authority from the Colorado Department of Education to classrooms, we won’t win…at least as long as the current top-down perspective on how education systems work prevails among education thinkers and leaders.
The problem is not just that the bureaucrats at the Department of Ed don’t get the West; the reviewers don’t get it either. The scores for both of our R2T applications showed wide variation among reviewers. This means Colorado’s tight-accountability, loose-compliance model is understood and supported by only some in the corps of evaluators. A significant number of education thinkers and leaders believe that top-down command and control is the way for states to get things done in school systems, regardless of how far that drifts from reality.
Colorado and the rest of the West will never win unless we can make the case that the tight-accountability, loose-compliance model can support innovation and improve student outcomes. This should not be a hard case to make.
The success of Colorado districts in the I3 competitions as well as the innovations from our charter school sector clearly show the benefit of being firm on outcomes but loose on means. The fact that the U.S. Department of Education continues to support charter schools while also pushing top-down models suggests there is (or at least should be) a debate in their own hallways on valid theories of action at the district and state level.
So what do we do next? There is plenty of work for everyone.
For our Washington representatives (that means you Sen. Bennet and DPS alum now Senior Advisor in the Department of Education Brad Jupp), repeat every day: “Local control is different in the West” and “Students are well served when schools and districts are allowed to innovate.” Equally important, if the reauthorization of NCLB moves towards more competitive grants, do not set up Colorado to compete with other states. Focus the competition between districts and schools, where we can win.
The research and journalism community must get better about explaining how local control looks in the West and that it is not a bad thing for kids. We all know that the words “local control” often are used to stall reform. But researchers need to highlight our successes throughout the state and show that with accountability for outcomes local control also can lead to innovation, creativity, and better outcomes for kids.
The foundation community should continue to support Colorado reform AND support those researchers, journalists and bloggers who can make the case to the nation that we are different from the East Coast and that our students are better off for it.
Finally, the education community must demonstrate that we can raise student achievement and close the achievement gap in Colorado. Our reform plate is full with new standards, teacher evaluation systems, and approaches toward low-performing schools. If we try to do too many things without enough resources, we are guaranteed to fail. We should slow down on teacher evaluation systems and focus on getting classroom fundamentals right by ensuring that teachers are implementing curricula that are aligned with our new standards.
AND we all should remember the core lesson from this: Stop trying to compete with other states. We can’t win.
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