CAMDEN COUNTY, Mo. -- Camdenton R-III School District’s effort to obtain a Race to the Top grant has at least one board member and several teachers questioning whether the district is moving too quickly.
According to the application, the grant, offered by the U.S. Department of Education, would allow Camdenton R-III, Marshall and Knob Noster school districts to partner with State Fair Community College and the University of Central Missouri to build a facility to house some of Camdenton’s programs; it would provide personalized learning environments in the form of take-home laptops, iPads and tablet computers for all middle and high school students in the three districts; and it would allow the districts to integrate career planning systems and develop curriculum designed to focus on “real-world applications” of academic content in order to allow students pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and their parents to better plan for the future.
Although districts that apply are encouraged to include community members, teachers and principals in the planning process, some say that hasn’t happened.
Laura Martin, a member of the Camdenton R-III Board of Education, said when Superintendent Tim Hadfield first proposed the idea of the grant at their meeting on Oct. 8, a yellow flag went up.
Camdenton Schools had expressed interest in program to the U.S. Department of Education by Aug. 30, according to district officials.
“We had just gotten out from under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program so I was leery about rushing into something else offered by the federal government,” Martin said, adding that her concern quickly grew when she realized the board was being asked to approve the grant so it could be submitted by the deadline of Oct. 30. “It might be a great deal but I wanted to read our application and research the program before committing,” she said. “To me, this had undertones of Nancy Pelosi’s ‘sign-it-now, read-it-later’ handling of the health care law.”
Others apparently agreed. The board told the superintendent to continue pursuing the grant but decided to table the vote until the next meeting. That meeting, which is open to the public, is scheduled for 7:30 a.m., Oct. 23, and will include a presentation by Pat Gillman, the director of College and Career Readiness for State Fair, who took the lead on preparing the grant.
In the meantime, Martin said she set out to learn as much as possible about Race to the Top.
Martin said she discovered that little, if any, input had been requested from teachers or principals – something confirmed by teachers that asked not to be identified.
“We knew nothing about this,” one teacher said. “The grant states it will initiate ‘bold reforms’ in education. Wouldn’t you think the district would want to involve teachers in any dialogue that could change the future of education in our schools? To be truthful, instead of being excited about this, all the teachers are worried about their jobs – especially when they heard about the portion that discusses performance-based evaluations.”
Section C–2–a-iv begins: “A performance-based teacher evaluation system is critical to improving teaching thus improving student achievement and performance. Performance-based teacher evaluation is intended to assist administrators and teachers in creating a learning environment in which students acquire and apply knowledge and skills. This system supplies information and feedback regarding effective practice, offers a pathway for individual professional growth, allows a mechanism to nurture professional growth toward common goals and supports a learning community in which people are encouraged to improve and share insights in the profession.”
The narrative goes on to explain the primary purpose and importance of evaluations and concludes with the statement, “Failure to maintain this level of performance is grounds for non-renewal.”
However, Hadfield said that at the start of the 2012-13 school year when Missouri was granted a waiver that allowed them to opt out of NCLB districts, they were required to adopt new methods of evaluation to make sure students were getting the education they deserved.
“It’s easy to understand their concern but they are two separate issues,” he promised.
“The grant money is not linked to evaluations and teachers’ performance is not tied to the grant. Unfortunately, when you use certain buzz words, it always causes quite a stir. I wish we would have had more time to go in and explain and let the teachers ask questions. Unfortunately, we’ve been working with a very short time frame and that was one of the things we missed,” she said.
Martin had another take.
“I am aware that we already do performance-based evaluations. However, I am concerned about what additional requirements the teachers will be facing. Many states have unions come to the table on changes of this magnitude. They represent the interests of the teachers but Camdenton teachers do not have that sort of protection. So, unless we have had a great deal of local teacher input on this, I can't help but be nervous about what our teachers may be facing. Of necessity, digital personal learning environments will require a new way of teaching, and that leads to different ways of measuring teacher effectiveness. Maybe it's nothing new, but again, these are unanswered questions that require a lot of trust in the intentions of the federal government,” she said.
For a summary of the grant requirements visit http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop-district/applicant.html
There’s confusion in other areas as well. Neither Martin nor the teachers interviewed understood why Camdenton’s Race to the Top program would be initiated district wide when it was supposed to focus on career preparation.
“For years, students have been using Missouri Connections – or something like it – to conduct a skills assessment and interest inventory based on what they’d like to do after graduation. They enter information about the lifestyle they want to lead, what they like to do – those types of things – to help them develop a career path. Then we’ve used another system to choose courses of study and sign up for classes, but the two systems weren’t connected so, for instance, if an eighth-grade student decided he wanted to attend Rolla to become an engineer, but then signed up for a math class that wasn’t going to provide the math prerequisites that he needed, it might have been wasted effort,” she said. “However, by linking those two systems, and then tying in a third that allows students and parents to access college information about what’s needed by a particular school for that career choice, we can help students stay on course. And although the program would initially include information just from State Fair and Central Missouri, eventually we will include information for other schools.
“Taking it down a level, let’s say a fifth-grader wants to be a scientist when he grows up. Using this program even at that level will show him or her how important it is to do well in math. In some cases, parents – and students – don’t think elementary school is all that important but if we can get the kids excited about a career and then help them stay excited enough to stay on top of their school work, everyone wins,” she said, adding that part of the program will also involve bringing the community into the school at all levels to talk about different career choices. “In the ‘old days,’ you could take classes to factories for field trips but because of liability issues, that’s no longer possible. We’re hoping to bring in videos of real jobs so even our young students can get excited about learning for the future.”
According to Martin, the personalized learning environment was also problematic.
Although Hadfield said providing technology for students has been a long-time dream of the district and using this grant to accomplish that goal just made sense, Martin said the board decided last May that it wasn’t ready to provide computers for students.
“And as far as I know, a motion has never been made and the board has never committed to adopting this ‘personalized learning environment.’ Yes, it would be great if we could get computers for all the students at no cost to the district, but we still have too many unanswered questions like what happens when they get lost, stolen or broken, because you know that’s going to happen. Would the district be required to replace them out of pocket? Are we going to purchase insurance, how much will that cost and again, will it come from the district’s pocket? And who is going to repair them when they break and who is going to be responsible for the programming end of it? We asked for our IT man to look into all of this and the general consensus was it would be very pricey – far beyond just the cost of the computers,” she said.
According to a study presented to the board last spring, the workload to support one-to-one technology would nearly double each year as more computers were added, requiring additional staff. In addition, supporting systems would have to be replaced as they wore out and licensing costs would greatly increase.
Martin said she also had concerns about the building project. Section G-14 of the Race to the Top – District Guidance and Frequently Asked Questions states, “An applicant may propose to use Race to the Top – District funds for modernization, renovation or repair projects to the extent that these projects are consistent with implementing its proposed Race to the Top-District Plan. As provided in section 14003 of the ARRA, an applicant may use funds under this section for construction. However, consistent with its May 11, 2009 guidance for the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund program, the Department discourages applicants from using Race to the Top-District funds for construction.”
“To me, that pretty clearly states they intend for school districts to use the money in other ways, so I’m not sure why they’re even including that on the application. What if they just line out that part of our request? Will portions of the grant be dependent upon that building?” she asked.
Martin said she was also concerned about signing an agreement that included two other school districts that she knew nothing about and was worried that by agreeing to the grant, the board would be relinquishing control. She also questioned the portion that addresses sustainability.
According to the application, a tax levy may be needed when the four-year grant runs out.
Hadfield confirmed that statement. However, both he and Gillman said they felt the community involvement would naturally create community support.
According to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), Congress allocated $383 million to the Race to the Top – District program, which is open to all school districts across the nation. These 4-year awards will range from $5 million to $40 million, depending on the population of students served through the plan. Camdenton reported an enrollment of 4,305 students – 2,262 from low-income families, 775 identified as “high-need” students, and 339 participating educators. Knob Noster reported an enrollment of 1,555 students, 638 of which are from low-income families, 200 of which are classified as “high-need” students and 142 participating educators. Numbers were not yet provided for Marshall but the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reports enrollment at 2,460.
The DOE is expecting to make 15 to 25 awards and will announce the winners by Dec. 31.