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How Race to the Top Could Inform ESEA Reauthorization

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The federal Race to the Top initiative, while at times controversial, has been tremendously successful at spurring state education reforms. With a relatively modest outlay of money—$4 billion in a $600 billion industry—U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has dramatically reshaped education policy across the country.

In 2009 and 2010, in response to the Race to the Top, 28 states made educational reforms—more than triple the number making changes in 2007 and 2008—all for the chance to share in a pot of money that’s less than 1 percent of the industry’s expenditures. This is in addition to the countless news stories devoted to explaining why states were making changes, and the hours and hours of work that state, district, and teachers’ union leaders committed to the effort.

So what’s next?

President Barack Obama and Secretary Duncan have asked Congress to extend the Race to the Top with an additional $1 billion. Congressional leaders are already grumbling about the request. But even if it passes, it will still be a short-term effort, and, more importantly, simply extending the program ignores the real lesson it has taught: States will make slow progress on their own, but they will do more given the right incentives and flexibility.

I propose another alternative: Let the states figure it out for themselves.

This is an important lesson, and it should be reflected in the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA. The Obama administration has a bit of a timing problem, though. While it attempts to reauthorize the ESEA, it must simultaneously balance the impending “proficiency for all by 2014” requirement in the last version of the ESEA (the law known as No Child Left Behind) with the requirements for the Race to the Top competition and the Title I School Improvement Grant money. These federal reform efforts all share much in common, but there are also significant differences. The administration has laid out a smart, balanced blueprint to deal with some of these issues, but it leaves the details to Congress.

I propose another alternative: Let the states figure it out for themselves. At first blush, this may sound more punitive than the process is now, but bear with me.

NCLB is federal law. If nothing changes and Congress continues to wait on reauthorization, all that law’s current requirements stay in place. This means states must continue to test all students in grades 3-8, and once again in high school in math and reading as well as three separate times in science. They also must continue to disaggregate results by subgroup, offer school choice and free after-school tutoring, and label schools as in need of improvement, requiring corrective action or restructuring. And states will have to continue issuing public report cards on their districts and schools. The list goes on and on.

While states have not been fans of these requirements, they have followed them for the past eight years because they are federal law. Before the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, only 11 states followed minimal federal requirements asking states to draft standards, perform assessments aligned to those standards, and report disaggregated results on the assessments. It is important to understand that states will often choose the least-demanding route. But the Race to the Top provides a counterpoint, in that many states will aim higher if given the right encouragement and the flexibility to determine the details of implementation.

NCLB is currently playing out in the states in one of two ways. It’s scorned in some, such as Florida and Colorado, for being inferior to their own accountability system. But in most others, NCLB’s requirements are disliked because they are the only real accountability in place. This presents an opportunity.

The Race to the Top initiative has shown that states are more than willing to pursue education reform if there’s something in it for them. It has used a relatively small pot of money as a carrot, but what if the federal government could offer something more important to states, like freedom from some of NCLB’s burdensome rules?

Because the 2014 proficiency targets are rapidly approaching, and with them an increasing number of schools identified for improvement, Congress could make a grand bargain with states. If a state wanted to get out of these requirements, it would have to apply to the secretary of education, who would use an independent review panel, much as in the Race to the Top, to make decisions on state proposals. The state would be required to provide a detailed explanation of how it would hold schools and districts accountable for raising achievement levels and closing gaps between student subgroups. Each application for such an exclusion would have to include measures of student proficiency and growth to proficiency, and could not omit how the state intended to address long-standing performance gaps. States with common, college- and career-ready standards and assessments would be given greater preference, but a state outside that group like Texas, with its own strong standards and an accountability system to match, could also be eligible.

States would have flexibility in just how they went about these things. They could implement a statewide plan if they wanted to, or focus more closely on their lowest-performing schools. They could focus on school choice or on teacher quality. They could experiment with new high school accountability models. And, if its application won approval, the state could begin implementing its plan immediately. If it failed to win approval, all the requirements of NCLB would stay in place.

There are two main benefits to such a system. First, it would increase the buy-in from the states. It would offer them something real and tangible, and it would not be limited to any number of states or a finite amount of money. The federal government could approve all worthy applications and reject all others. In fact, this type of system would work best with a secretary willing to set a relatively high bar from the outset.

Second, no federal education reform has yet to account for a cycle of continuous improvement. The No Child Left Behind law required initial approval of state accountability plans but no real mechanism for changes. The Race to the Top is a one-time grant program that may or may not be extended by Congress. A review system would allow for regular improvements. A state would be eligible to update its accountability system every few years (say, every three or five years) to capture the best practices of its peers, improve on what’s working, and get rid of what’s not. The reviews would also afford the feds a regular chance to intervene if the state shirked its responsibility to help its students. Such a system would allow states to act as the laboratories of reform.

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