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What Teachers Need to Know About Race to the Top

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As states continue the scramble for education dollars this year, teachers may hear frequent references to a federal grant program called “Race to the Top.” What exactly does it mean for classroom educators?

The Race to the Top Fund, part of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package, is a $4.35 billion competitive grant program for states, administered by the U.S. Department of Education. It is designed to encourage states to make coordinated, large-scale education improvement efforts across a number of policy areas that the Education Department sees as key.

The Criteria

According to draft plans outlined by the department in July, there are 19 proposed criteria that states’ will be judged on when submitting reform plans for Race to the Top money. Central among them is the state’s use of student-achievement data for evaluating teachers and principals. Under the guidelines, if a state bars the use of student-achievement data in teacher-evaluation decisions—as California and New York currently do—the state would automatically be disqualified from the grant process.

On the whole, the list of criteria revolves around the four central reform areas: States must adopt internationally benchmarked standards; improve the recruitment, retention, and rewarding of educators; improve data collection; and turn around the lowest-performing schools.

Under the proposed guidelines, the Education Department would give extra weight to grant proposals that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math, known as the STEM subjects.

States with alternative-certification routes for teachers and principals, and merit-pay plans for educators, would also be given preference.

States would also be judged on whether they have statewide backing for their reform plan, including from teachers’ unions. A letter of endorsement from the state union would be considered evidence of such support.

Under the current schedule, proposed guidelines for the program would be finalized in October, and applications from states would be due in December. Awards would be made to successful states in March 2010, with a second wave of grants scheduled for the following September.

Defining Teacher Quality

As is clear from the criteria for approval, teachers in states that ultimately receive Race to the Top grants could see significant changes in their practic, ranging from curriculum reforms to new ways of using student data to plan instruction. But the biggest changes for teachers are expected to come from the program’s emphasis on revamping teacher-quality systems (via recruiting, retention, and compensation strategies) by integrating them, at least in part, with student-achievement data.

“Successful state proposals will plan to strengthen the entire ‘talent chain’—recruitment, preparation and credentialing, placement, induction, professional development, evaluation, advancement, and retention,” wrote Joanne Weiss, the Education Department’s director of Race to the Top, in a recent Education Week Commentary. “In particular, we want schools and districts to know which teachers are effective (as measured in significant measure by how their students are improving academically), and to ensure that local decision makers use this information to inform key decisions. …”

As Education Week Staff Writer Stephen Sawchuk reported in his analysis of the proposed guidelines, states “must commit to using their teacher-effectiveness data for everything from evaluating teachers to determining the type of professional development they get to making decisions about granting tenure and pursuing dismissals.”

Those reforms, however, have encountered opposition from teachers' unions, which have traditionally been leary of linking teacher evaluation to student-achievement data. The unions harbor particular concerns about the technical quality of the student tests that would be used to judge their members’ performance. They have also expressed concern about the validity of the value-added methodologies—systems that seek to determine the extent to which individual teachers are contributing to students’ academic performance. Both the National Educators Association and the American Federation of Teachers, as well as many state unions, have submitted comments on the Race to the Top guidelines to the Education Department.

How well the unions succeed in changing the Education Department’s position will be determined when the final guidelines are released in October.

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