Published Online: November 11, 2009
Updated: April 4, 2012

Rules Set for $4 Billion 'Race to Top' Contest

For a good shot at the $4 billion in grants from the federal Race to the Top Fund, states will need to make a persuasive case for their education reform agenda, demonstrate significant buy-in from local school districts, and develop plans to evaluate teachers and principals based on student performance, according to final regulations set for release Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education.

Those three factors will rank as the most important to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his staff as they weigh states’ applications based on more than 30 criteriaRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, including how friendly their charter school climates are and how well they use data to improve instruction.

At stake for states is a slice of the biggest single discretionary pool of education money in the economic-stimulus package passed by Congress in February—a $4.35 billion prize, of which $350 million has been pledged to help states develop common assessments as part of a separate nationwide effort.

Each winning state’s share of what’s left will depend on its population of children ages 5-17, according to nonbinding estimatesRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader provided by the department.

At the high end, the four biggest states—California, Florida, New York, and Texas—could get between $350 million and $700 million each. At the low end are the smallest student-population states, such as New Mexico, Delaware, and Vermont, which could get between $20 million and $75 million each.

To win funding, states will have to do much more than lift their charter school caps, or remove data firewalls between student and teacher data, said Mr. Duncan, who pushed those two issues in recent months to get states ready for the competition, which he has described as America’s education “moonshot.”

“This is not about getting in the game, this is about winning,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “There will be a lot more losers than winners.”

Many Revisions

The final regulations come after the department received 1,161 comments about the draft version during a 30-day comment period that ended in August, many criticizing the plan for being a one-size-fits-all approach to education reform.

The comments also included biting criticism from the national teachers’ unions, which objected to the emphasis on using student test scores in teacher-evaluation systems. ("Proposed 'Race to Top' Rules Seen as Prescriptive," Sept. 14, 2009.)

The department, however, largely stuck to its original approach, giving states a clear, detailed—though slightly revised—blueprint for how to win Race to the Top grants.

The top three criteria are “either the biggest indicators that ... you could really make a significant breakthrough, or the things we thought are the biggest levers for change,” said Joanne Weiss, the department’s director of Race to the Top.

In a nod to teachers’ union concerns, the final regulations make clear that student test scores should be just one component of a teacher- or principal-evaluation system. The regulations now require that such systems include multiple measures, including growth in student test scores.

“I think the department figured out a way to strike a balance between what is needed to get systemwide improvement for kids and schools, and how to measure that,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, who was generally encouraged by the final regulations.

The 3.2 million-member National Education Association, which was particularly harsh in its initial review of the comments, toned down its criticisms this time. President Dennis Van Roekel, in a statement, praised the department’s requirement for multiple measures of evaluating teachers as a “solid reaffirmation of our belief that a student, like a teacher, is more than a test score.” But, he said, “We are disappointed that the administration continues to focus so heavily on tying students’ test scores to individual teachers.”

Overall, though, support from state and local teachers’ unions will earn a small number of points for states as they demonstrate stakeholder buy-in. And while teacher- and principal-evaluation systems must be designed with “involvement” from teachers and principals, the regulations do not define how involved those parties must be.

Teacher quality looms large in the department’s thinking, as reflected in the number of points to be awarded for various education reform priorities under the 500-point scale that will be used to weigh states’ applications.

The single biggest, and thus most important, category for states is improving teacher and principal effectiveness, worth 138 points. To put that in perspective, it’s more important than improving data systems (47 points possible), and turning around the lowest-achieving schools (50 points possible), combined.

Reform Agenda

States’ reform agendas take on a more prominent role in the final regulations.

A new category requires each state to clearly articulate its education reform agenda and prove that it has the capacity to carry it out. This entire section, which also asks states to demonstrate local school district support and buy-in from state teachers’ unions, is worth the second-most points possible, just behind the category on teacher effectiveness.

“It became clear that a lot of states were treating [the criteria] as a checklist. There was no big picture,” Ms. Weiss said. “Now this is where they build their case.”

As to why the department is placing such a premium on local school district support, look no further than the statewide elections of 2010.

Next year, a number of governors and chief state school officers will be up for election—and a state’s governor, chief state school officer, and state school board president must all sign a Race to the Top application for it to be considered. Undoubtedly, grants will go to some states that will subsequently see a turnover in those high offices, and federal officials are concerned about continuity.

“This is not a governor’s plan, this is not a chief’s plan. We’re trying to reward systems, and systems are bigger than any one individual,” Mr. Duncan said in the interview. “You invest in the management team. This is not about investing in charismatic leaders.”

Local school district support is so important that in the event of a tie in states’ scores, and if there isn’t enough money to fund all of them, then the strength of districts’ commitment is the tiebreaker.

Successive Rounds

The awards will be given out in two rounds, with the first applications due in mid-January. A second round of applications, for those who didn’t apply or win the first time, will be due June 1. The department must make all awards by Sept. 30, 2010.

About 125 judges will be selected from a pool of 1,400 applicants who will go through rigorous training and be supervised by department staff and other monitors to ensure the grades are being applied as evenly as possible.

For all of the complexity of the scoring rubric, the final awards process will be relatively simple. The scores of all of the applications will be ranked in order and will be funded in that order until the money is gone. Although Mr. Duncan will have the final say, Ms. Weiss said, he will have to make a strong case if he decides to deviate from the scores. The winning and losing applications, along with their scores, will be made public.

Based on the grading scale, it’s already clear that some states will start out at a disadvantage.

Texas and Alaska each will lose up to 40 points for not joining the Common Core State Standards Initiative led by the Washington-based National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers. ("States Slow Standards Work Amid 'Common Core' Push," Nov. 11, 2009.)

And 11 states stand to lose up to 32 points each for not having a charter-school law: Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.

The elimination of charter school caps, which had been a major part of Mr. Duncan’s speeches in recent months, plays a lesser role. In the regulations, the department acknowledges that not all caps are equal, and allows for states to get some points if they don’t have caps that severely inhibit charter school growth.

Among the other changes in the final regulations:

•States must have their applications approved for Phase 2 of the stimulus program’s State Fiscal Stabilization Fund to be eligible for Race to the Top awards.

•In order to earn all the points possible, states will have until Aug. 2, 2010, to adopt the Common Core standards in math and English/language arts that are being developed. (A survey by the National Governors Association showed that 25 states say it will take six months or longer to adopt the standards, which are not scheduled to be released in draft form until December.)

•States will not be able to use any of their Race to the Top award money to pay for costs related to their own individual state testing systems. (The department wants to support common assessments, not individual state test systems.)

•The department, after receiving criticism that not all states are good environments for charter schools, will now allow states without charter schools to make the case that they have other, autonomous, innovative public school options.

•The department, in response to criticism from advocates, removed references to using students with disabilities’ Individualized Education Program plans as a means to measure student achievement.

Aid to Districts

The regulations also clarify how the money will be distributed down to the district level.

According to the stimulus law, at least 50 percent of the funds must be directed to local school districts via the formula for Title I aid for disadvantaged students. The department has made clear that states only have to send money to districts that have agreed to participate in Race to the Top reforms. In addition, states will also be able to use their award money to help turn around persistently failing high schools. The other 50 percent of the money, states can use at their discretion.

Even with this ambitious education reform competition, and $4 billion in incentive money to hand out, some education advocates expected more from the competition.

Andy Smarick, who has been tracking the stimulus package as a distinguished visiting fellow with the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, noted that there was little emphasis in the final regulations as to how states spent the first round of their State Fiscal Stabilization Fund money. He said that’s especially troubling given that Secretary Duncan told states they should spend the money wisely or be at a competitive disadvantage for Race to the Top.

“If you don’t do national standards you lose 40 points, but if you’ve wasted $3 billion in stimulus money, you lose 5 points,” Mr. Smarick said, referring to the scoring rubric.

Amy Wilkins, of the Washington-based Education Trust, said the department’s single-minded focus on teacher effectiveness—based largely on student test scores—leaves out a large swath of teachers: those in the early grades, who teach untested subjects, and in high schools.

The department ignores other factors that contribute to teacher quality, such as experience, teachers’ college majors, scores on licensure exams, and certification status, said Ms. Wilkins, the vice president of government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of low-income and minority students.

However, Mr. Duncan has emphasized that the department must walk a fine line between being overly prescriptive, and setting broad goals. He has said that states must present ambitious plans that promise to dramatically change the trajectory of student achievement, or they “simply won’t win” a Race to the Top grant.

“The great promise was that Arne [Duncan] had the real opportunity for unfettered boldness,” Ms. Wilkins said, especially since the Race to the Top regulations didn’t have to be negotiated through Congress.

In addition, the award ranges based on population, and the clear-cut scoring rubric, leave “no incentive for states to be particularly bold,” she said.

“[The department] could have really demanded a lot in exchange for unprecedented money,” said Ms. Wilkins, who called Mr. Duncan’s description of the competition an overstatement. “It ain’t a moonshot.”

Vol. 29, Issue 12

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