Red Herrings and RTTT

Everyone from the Star-Ledger Editorial Board to 101.5 to Senator Steve Sweeney is atwitter over the fact that our Race To The Top application omitted financial data from 2008-2009. While we were supposed to explain if the percentage of our total state revenue devoted to education in 2009 was more or less than the percentage in 2008, our application reads (courtesy of the Star-Ledger),
In fiscal year 2011, despite huge budget strains, the Governor is proposing an increase in state revenue-based support for education by 2.2% ($238 million). As proposed, preschool-12 education spending as a percentage of the state budget will be 35.4%. Federal ARRA funding will not be available to school districts in FY 2011, but the Governor and the executive team remain committed to funding education even as state revenue-based support for most other areas of state spending has been cut. This demonstrates that, despite severe fiscal challenges, the leadership in the state of New Jersey remains committed to education.
“Huh?,” the RTTT reviewers said. Who's talking about 2011? We asked you about 2008-2009. Beep: wrong answer. Result: a total of 0.2 points out of 5.

So Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver calls the error a "stunning $400 million mistake." Sen. Sweeney’s spokeman wails, "These points should have been a gimme. This is like losing 200 points on the SAT because you didn’t write your name on the top sheet." The Star Ledger Editorial Board calls for a legislative investigation to discover whether “we lost because of fundamental incompetence at the Department of Education under Commissioner Bret Schundler,” adding, “ the failure to provide that information cost New Jersey five points on its application. And since we lost by only three points, it could have made the difference.” The Associated Press intones, “ Failure to follow directions may have prevented New Jersey from winning a $400 million federal education grant.”

Beep. Wrong answer. We didn’t lose Race To The Top because of a three point error. We lost because (data courtesy of NJ Spotlight):

1) Our data systems are antiquated and incapable of performing the analysis necessary to track student achievement and link teacher performance to student growth, a fundamental requirement of RTTT guidelines. NJ Spotlight explains, “As in the first round of the competition for more than $4 billion in funding, New Jersey’s weakest showing was in the student data systems that track test scores and other achievement information. The state earned only two-thirds of the available points in this category.” The ratings allow a total of 47 points for Data Systems To Support Instruction. We got 30.

2) We had no support from NJEA and minimal support from school boards and superintendents. The application allows a maximum of 125 points for State Success Factors, which includes categories like “Securing LEA commitment” and “Using broad stakeholder support.” Out of the 125 points we got 92.8.

3) We received relatively low credit (39 out of 55 points) in the General area, which includes “making educational funding a priority" and “Enabling LEA’s to operate other innovative, autonomous public schools.”

On the plus side, we did quite well in Standards and Assessments (69.2 out of 70 points), in large part because we adopted national standards. We also scored high in Great Teachers and Leaders (122.2 points out of 138), and Turning Around the Lowest-Achieving Schools (40 out of 50 points; guess the reviewers haven’t been following recent events in Trenton).

Look at it this way. We lost 10 points for not “fully implement[ing] a statewide longitudinal data system” (we only got 14 out of 24 points). We lost 6 points for not “using data to inform instruction” (12 out of 18 points. We lost 18 points (27 out of 45) for not “Securing LEA Commitment.” The three points for what may be a proof-reading mistake is not why we lost Race To The Top.

In fact, the bruhaha over the 3-pointer is a red herring, a distraction from New Jersey's struggle for educational reform in our low-performing schools. If it were only so easy as a cut-and-paste.