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An Early Read on the Race to Top Winners

By Sean Cavanagh — August 24, 2010 4 min read
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The results are in, and the list of Race to the Top winners in Round Two includes an eclectic mix of 10 states that had put together very different kinds of applications in their funding bids for the $3.4 billion in remaining federal funds.

The winners in this second and final round announced by the U.S. Department of Education today: the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island. They join first-round winners Delaware and Tennessee.

A few common threads among the 10 victorious Round Two applicants include their promises to take bold approaches to turning around low-performing schools, and in evaluating teachers.

One winner, Florida, which will receive up to $700 million, has pledged to expand its system of differentiated accountability to set new, more rigorous deadlines and expectations for the restructuring of struggling schools. Schools that fail to make progress under their initial turnaround options are required to switch to a different turnaround option, a process that continues until schools either succeed or close.

New York, another populous state among the winners and also recipient of up to $700 million, plans to expand its “partnership zones” for turnaround schools; these zones will include clusters of restructured and charter schools which will use the central district office for services, but have separate scheduling, curriculum and staffing controls in exchange for agreeing to make dramatic improvements within two years.

Other winners are notable for having taken steps to revamp how teachers are evaluated. The District of Columbia, which will receive up to $75 million, submitted a plan that includes the use of its much-scrutinized IMPACT evaluation system, which evaluates teachers on student academic progress and other factors. Rhode Island’s bid, for up to $75 million, was substantially the same as its proposal in Round One: It includes measures of student achievement in teacher evaluations; and it will not allow districts to assign a student to a teacher deemed ineffective two years in a row.

Several notable finalists were left off the winner’s list: California and Colorado, as well as Arizona, which had greatly improved its score from the first go-around. Colorado lawmakers had revamped their state’s laws on teacher evaluation since Round One, ensuring that half of an educator’s rating will be based on student performance and that ineffective teachers could be dismissed more easily.

But my colleague Stephen Sawchuk notes that Colorado’s level of union buy-in dropped significantly from the first round—the reviewers didn’t look favorably on that disconnect in Round One.

[UPDATE: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a conference call with reporters this afternoon, praised Colorado as a “national leader” in adopting innovative education policy.

“I was very, very sorry, quite frankly, we weren’t able to fund them,” he said. He had similar sympathy for California, but said there just wasn’t enough money this year to fund all the worthy proposals.

The administration has asked Congress to devote an additional $1.35 billion to continue Race to the Top next year.]

As many readers know, the Race to the Top competition was created by Congress in 2009 as part of the $787 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the federal economic-stimulus program. The Obama administration established a competition among states to secure a piece of the $4 billion in funding intended to spark innovation and changes in everything from how teachers and principals are evaluated to how schools are organized and how they use data.

The Education Department judged states applications on more than 30 criteria. States could secure points by adopting common standards; revamping their data systems; improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on measuring student growth and other factors; turning around low-performing schools; supporting charter schools; and focusing on math and science strategies, among other criteria. States were also encouraged to seek broad support from a diverse set of stakeholders, such as teachers’ unions.

Sixteen states were named as finalists in the first round of the Race to the Top competition earlier this year, a number that many observers considered surprisingly high, given that Duncan had pledged to set a “high bar” for the competition. Yet when the winners were announced in March, just Delaware and Tennessee, emerged victorious.

What similarities do you spot among the 10 winners? Of the states that were left off the list, which ones surprised you the most? Judging from Round One, one thing seems certain: The states that fell short will be providing their own, critical analyses of this round of scores sometime soon.

This post includes contributions from Sarah D. Sparks and Stephen Sawchuk.