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Rules Proposed for District Race to Top Contest

By Alyson Klein — May 22, 2012 10 min read
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School districts that want a slice of the latest, nearly $400 million in Race to the Top competitive grants will have to put a major focus on helping schools tailor instruction to the needs of individual students—and agree to evaluate school board members and superintendents—under draft regulations released by the U.S. Department of Education Tuesday

The department anticipates giving out about 15 to 20 four-year grants, of up to $25 million each. Districts will be able to apply for the funds individually, or as part of consortia with other districts, even those in other states. And charter schools—as well as other organizations that are defined as a “local education agency” by their states—can compete, too.

The district competition is the latest iteration of in the Education Department’s Race to the Top franchise, begun under the economic-stimulus program in 2009. So far, it has provided around $5 billion to states that embrace certain education redesign priorities, want to create new assessments aligned to the Common Core standards, or want to improve early-childhood education programs.

Districts already benefitting under the earlier, state-level rounds of Race to the Top will have a shot at this districts-only round, too. Eleven states and the District of Columbia won in the first round for states, and seven states in the next tier of applicants received grants in a subsequent round.

The draft regulations will be open for comment through June 8 on the department’s website. The final applications will be available in mid-July, and districts will apply in October. The money itself has to go out the door by the end of December.

‘Personalized Learning’ Priority

This time around, “personalized learning environments” are a big watchword. As a central part of their applications, districts will have to explain how they plan to do a better job of individualizing instruction for all their students, so that all students graduate college-and-career-ready (also a watchward in previous rounds). That means a lot of emphasis on student data, both to track individual student progress and to make sure schools are addressing their strengths and weaknesses.

This could be accomplished in the classroom, possibly by creating “personalized learning plans,” which outline students’ educational and career goals and track their progress toward them. Districts could choose to offer extra supports, such as expanded use of technology. And they could decide to go with a “competency-based” approach, meaning students would advance for mastering particular skills, not the amount of time they spend working on a given subject.

“We all want a school that meets the unique needs of our children,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Duncan during a conference call. “We recognize this is a very ambitious goal. [But] we’ve [seen that] it’s possible throughout the country. For some teachers that involves technology, for some it involves partnering with parents. We’re wide open to new strategies and new approaches.”

Districts will also have to address the “four assurances” that were a cornerstone of the state rounds of Race to the Top, including teacher quality, turning around low-performing schools, boosting data quality, and improving standards and assessments.

Eligibility Criteria

Eligible districts or consortia must have at least 2,500 students in order to apply, which means a lot of smaller, rural districts will likely have to join a consortium. There’s no maximum number of students that can be served by a district or consortia. At least 40 percent of the students served across all participating schools in a district or consortium must be from low-income families, meaning that they are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch.

The size of the awards will depend on how many students are in the applicant’s mix. Applicants serving 2,500 to 5,000 students can get $15 million to $20 million; those serving between 5,001 and 9,999 can get $17 million to $22 million, and those serving 10,000 students or more can get from $20 to $25 million. That’s similar to the state round of Race to the Top, in which the size of the awards was based in part on population. And all applicants will have to spell out how they plan to continue their work once the money goes away.

Districts don’t have to come up with plans that serve all their students, in every school. They could be more specific, such as just coming up with a plan for low-performing schools, schools that feed into one another, or just for particular grade spans, such as all 5th and 6th graders.

Evaluation Systems Crucial

The department has put in place what it calls a “high bar” for districts to able to compete for the funds, officials said. Just to be eligible, by the 2014-15 school year, district-level applicants will have to put in place data systems that can track students progress from pre-school through K-12 and post-secondary education, as well as a mechanism to link student performance to their teachers.

What’s more, also by the 2014-15 school year, districts will have to promise to implement evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account--not just for teacher and principal performance, but for district superintendents and school boards. That’s a big departure from the state-level Race to the Top competitions, which just looked at educators who actually work in schools, not district-level leaders.

That idea had Reginald Felton, the assistant executive director for congressional relations at the National School Boards Association, scratching his head. Most school board members are elected, he noted, which already means “they have the ultimate evaluation” when they face the voters.

But, overall, he likes the idea of a local Race to the Top competition. “Generally, we think it’s a great thing for local districts,” he said.

But Chester E. Finn, Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote on Flypaper that the idea was “very refreshing, even exhilarating, the inclusion of superintendents and boards in a results-based accountability system, rather than the customary focus only on schools and their principals and teachers.”

Beyond that, applications will be judged by districts’ “vision” for boosting performance on high-stakes tests, narrowing the achievement gap, and improving graduation rates, among other goals. Districts will also have to show they have a track record of improving student learning—including closing the achievement gap, and making data, including financial data, such as salaries, available to the public. And, as with previous rounds of Race to the Top, applicants will be judged on their ability to reach out to parents, community members, and others on their plans.

Districts can get extra points if they partner with public or private organizations—such as public health, after-school, and business groups— to offer extra supports to meet students’ social and emotional needs. Districts and their partners must spell out how they plan to track these services and target them to those most in need, including students with disabilities, English-language learners, and those in poverty.

Overall, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the chairman of the House subcommittee that deals with education, isn’t happy with the proposal.

“The department’s proposal represents an unprecedented expansion of federal intrusion into local education decisions, adding to the boondoggle of bureaucracy already challenging teachers, principals, and superintendents,” he said in a statement.

Addressing Rural Concerns

The department is also asking districts to specify whether they are rural and whether they are in a state that has already won a Race to the Top grant. The idea is to make sure that different types of districts—including small rural districts in states that didn’t win a state Race to the Top grant—have a fair shot at competing for the funds. Some members of Congress led by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., had asked the department to look out for rural schools in this round of Race to the Top.

The Rural School and Community Trust, which has been critical of what is sees as the lack of a true rural focus in previous rounds of Race to the Top and other Obama administration competitive grant programs, is glad to see that rural districts can apply together, as part of a consortium, said Robert Mahaffey, the group’s director of communications.

But, at a forum at the U.S. Department of Education Tuesday on the proposal, Mr. Mahaffey asked whether the department planned to provide technical assistance and other support to make sure as many rural schools as possible have a fair shot at the grants. That’s something Murray and other senators also asked for in a letter sent to the department earlier this year.

Mahaffey was also concerned about the 2,500-student minimum for applications. More than half the nation’s school districts don’t meet the threshold to apply on their own, he noted. That means rural schools will almost certainly have to go through the extra step of joining a consortium.

The short time span for applications could also be an issue, said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director for policy analysis and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators.

“The application process will occur over the summer, a timeline that runs counter to a very common school calendar,” Ellerson said in an email. “This operational reality is further complicated for districts trying to apply in consortia.”

Officials Weigh In

Anne Whalen, the director of policy and program implementation at ED, said that the department can’t get too hands-on with any one district application, since that could give some contenders an unfair advantage. But she said the department would be able to serve as a resource for all districts interested in applying.

In order for a plan to be considered, the district superintendent, the local school board, and the local union president (in districts that have unions) must sign off.

But state chiefs won’t have veto power over the applications. Instead, they must be given at least five days to examine and comment—or decide not to comment—on the districts’ plans. The same goes for local government officials, including the mayor or town administrator.

That doesn’t sit well with Ron Tomalis, the secretary of education in Pennsylvania, who argued that the new contest could cause districts’ reform plans to clash with the reforms that he and other state school superintendents want to pursue.

“School districts weren’t created to serve the interests of the federal government. And this is exactly what they’re starting to do in driving the administration’s agenda down to the local level,” Tomalis said.

And Joan Wodiska, director of the education and workforce committee at the National Governors Association in Washington, echoed Tomalis’ concerns that the program would allow for districts to execute an “end run” around state governments.

Having only five business days to respond to applications is “completely unworkable and unreasonable,” she said. She also said the NGA was disappointed that U.S. territories, except for Puerto Rico, were excluded from applying for the new Race to the Top grants.

But aspects of the proposal also won praise from some of the attendees at the department’s forum.

Lisa Guernsey, the director of the Early Childhood Initiative at the New America Foundation, liked that districts could choose to focus on particular grade spans, including, for example, kindergarten through third grade.

The focus on personalized learning environments got the thumbs up from Mary Kingston, the manager of government relations at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Personalization, she said, can take many forms, such as an individualized academic plan for each student and early intervention services for at-risk students.

And the rules could help more districts move towards using multiple measures, such as student climate surveys to assess how personalized students feel their school environment is, to adjust and improve instruction as well as serve as part of well-rounded teacher and principal evaluation systems, she added.

Congress appropriated $550 million for Race to the Top this year. In addition to the district-level competition, $133 million of that money is going to another round for the states that very nearly missed getting a piece of the $500 million Early Learning Challenge Fund.