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A Message for Common Standards in Race to Top Guidance?

The U.S. Department of Education's new guidance for states that won Race to the Top grants has a stern message for states that try to back away from their promises: Watering down your reforms could cost you.

The new RTT guidance addresses states' questions about how they can revise the plans they laid out in their applications for the money. The department's answers amount to a description of how far states can wander from their promises before they're seen as reneging.

The new guidance doesn't specifically mention or address the common standards. But as you might recall, all 12 of the RTT winners adopted them. They got points in their applications for doing so (as they did for embracing other reforms the department favors). So now that they've won money on those promises, the department wants to make sure that they're carried out.

The department told the RTT winners that they can amend their proposals, but amendments that constitute a "substantial change in activities" won't be looked upon kindly. Any change that isn't consistent with the Race to the Top "principles"—which include raising student achievement and graduation rates and boosting college and work readiness—won't be approved, the guidance says. Those that wander too far from their key goals will be subject to "enforcement actions."

For common-standards watchers, this stuff is pertinent because questions have hovered about the sincerity of states' commitments to the new learning goals. If they embraced them mainly to make their RTT applications look good, would they roll back if they didn't win? (A recent study actually found that the chance of winning RTT money wasn't among states' top three reasons for adopting the standards.) Especially after November's midterm elections swept lots of new faces into edu-offices everywhere, some wondered, would states change direction?

This new guidance sends a clear signal that the 12 RTT winners have tons to lose—right smack in their bank accounts—if they throw the common standards—or any of their other promised reforms—overboard. (There has been some saber-rattling here and there about changing direction on the common standards, but no action yet.)

But even for states that didn't win the cash, there are other factors that might militate against a major ship-jumping trend.

One is the political challenge of rolling back promises made in the name of improving education (unless, of course, you could become a folk hero in your state by undoing adoption of standards perceived to be sub-par, or a big fat federal intrusion, or any other Awful Force).

Another is those assessment consortia. Remember them? Only 12 states won Race to the Top money, but 45 states and the District of Columbia are participating in consortia to design new assessments for the common standards. Those consortia have $360 million in federal money to do that work. And a condition of being in the consortia is that you adopt the common standards. So un-adopting them would mean un-participating in the assessment consortia.

The interconnected effects here will make it all the more interesting to see what states do, especially in lean fiscal times, about the common standards and tests.

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