I am recommending and urging that both the School Committee and the GMEA sign the Race to the Top Memorandum of Understanding. While there remain many questions yet to be answered, it seems short-sighted not to fully engage as proactively with the state as we can on all fronts – fiscal as well as educational.
The chief concerns raised by RTTT critics is that this is somehow a device for the state to “take over” school districts. I would submit that the Ed Reform legislation is much more likely to be the catalyst for that possibility than this MOU.As you are aware, the district was determined to be underperforming in 2005 by the State Board of Education. According to Associate Commissioner Foisy, “as an already-identified underperforming district, G-M will be placed as a district at Level 4.” Great Falls Middle School was determined to be underperforming in 2006. The school will be re-examined according to the new quantitative criteria under the new accountability system. If the middle school does not meet those quantitative criteria, it would not be considered a Level 4 school. However, because of our existing district status, we are already considered a Level 4 district until we undergo another review.
The Office of Accountability is planning to conduct a comprehensive review of our district in May 2010 using the new district standards. According to Associate Commissioner Foisy, “The review will also require the review team to respond to a set of questions regarding your district’s progress in achieving the goals set out in your BESE-approved Turnaround Plan. The results of this review will impact your district’s status. G-M might remain at Level 4, could be moved to Level 3, or could be assigned the more serious accountability status of Level 5.”
At one of the DESE webinars I asked Deputy Commissioner Karla Baehr whether districts that were identified as Level 4 were going to have the provisions of the MOU implemented even if they didn’t sign, and she replied that this MOU was for districts to be able to participate in the funding that would come with the RTTT program. So in essence if we are determined to remain in Level 4 status by the DESE and the Ed Reform legislation is passed (which it is likely to do in some form), then we would be held accountable under the legislation whether we participated in the RTTT program or not. If we don’t sign the MOU, however, we would not be eligible for RTTT funds that would be available.
If we sign on to this initiative, Gill-Montague would see – at an absolute minimum – a 15% increase in its Title I funding – approximately $45,000. In addition, there would be Title I-g supplementary funds - at a minimum we would be guaranteed an additional 15% of our regular allocation to supplement current activities, which are already aligned with what the state is requesting as part of our Turnaround Plan. That could mean – at a minimum – an additional $90,000 a year for four years to help us continue our work to turn around our lower performing schools. We are already starting to make tremendous gains in many areas, and any extra help from the state or federal governments would make those gains more sustainable. There would also be the opportunity to apply for competitive grants to continue our efforts – those we can decide together if we have the capacity or the desire to participate in.
If we want to engage the state and have meaningful conversations with them, it is important to be at the table. We can’t impact the development of the initiatives outlined in the MOU or in the Reform legislation if we are not there. If we want to affect the outcome of the game then we need to be in it – cheering or criticizing from the sidelines isn’t going to benefit us either in the short or the long term.
I would much rather send the signal to the state that we want to work with them in good faith rather than be seen as obstructionists. The letters being sent out by the towns and the school district are all saying that we want to work proactively with the state and that we want to engage them as partners – what better way to send that message than to sign on to this RTTT initiative?
Signing this MOU is a signal of intent; that we intend to work with the State toward developing initiatives around the four core areas:
It does not say how those initiatives are to be implemented – only that those are the broad goals and parameters of the RTTT program. This RTTT program provides us with a unique opportunity to look at the delivery of education in a different way and to work with the State and Federal DOE in developing those methods of delivery.
Are there any iron-clad guarantees that we are going to like everything that is going to come out of this and that we are going to agree with the final product? No. However, if we are not at the table we are not going to have any impact on the outcomes at all.
To that end, there have also been assurances by the Secretary and Commissioner that we can back out of the program if we don’t like the outcomes. For example, if the pay for performance core area that is developed is not feasible for our district or not fiscally sustainable, then we do not have to continue and we will not be penalized. Again, according to Associate Commissioner Foisy, “…if for some reason the district concluded after one, two, or three years that participation in RTTT is no longer advisable, G-M can withdraw with no penalty (of course, G-M would not continue to receive its RTTT grant).” As was requested during the webinar by several superintendents, I have this assurance in writing.
With the ability for us to “escape” if we are unable or unwilling to sign on to some of the aspects of the RTTT Initiative after it has been fleshed out further, it would seem appropriate to engage the state in whatever way we can that will help us meet our goals for long-term sustainability, stabilizing enrollment, and achieving academic excellence. I respectfully request and recommend that the School Committee and the GMEA sign the Memorandum of Understanding.