Special Report

Criteria Seen as Too Restrictive in Quest for ‘Race to Top’ Funds

By Michele McNeil — September 15, 2009 8 min read

As the U.S. Department of Education prepares to fine-tune its rules for the Race to the Top Fund competition, officials face mounds of objections from states, school districts, and teachers’ unions that the federal government is seeking to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to its education improvement efforts.

But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan isn’t likely to budge from his strong stance that this $4 billion in coveted discretionary aid is his lever to push states toward what he calls common-sense reforms. Chief among them: using data to track students and improve their achievement; spreading uniform, rigorous academic standards across states; improving teacher quality; and turning around the worst-performing schools.

“We’re just saying that there are some fundamental building blocks. How you get from A to B will be different. We expect a lot of variation among states,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview this month at the department.

He disagrees with critics who say the Race to the Top Fund—which will be doled out through a strictly voluntary competition—is too prescriptive. Rather, he said, “this is a way of challenging the status quo in a much more tough-minded way.”

Still, he has asked all of his senior staff members to read some of the formal public comments submitted about the proposed Race to the Top Fund regulations so they can get a feel for how the education community has reacted.

During the 30-day comment period on the proposed rules, which ended Aug. 28, the department received 1,135 comments on 19 criteria by which states would be judged, from how friendly their charter school climates are to how they reward good teachers. For a time, the proposed regulations made it onto the “What’s Hot” list on the federal government’s regulations Web site, ranking among the top 10 most-visited filings.

Stimulus Pool

The Race to the Top program is an education reform competition for states made possible by $4 billion from the $787 billion economic-stimulus package Congress passed in February. Details are still pending on a separate $350 million grant competition through the Race to the Top Fund to help states’ efforts to adopt common assessments.

Joanne Weiss, the department’s Race to the Top Fund director, said her team will make any needed changes in time to have the final regulations issued in November. That’s also when the department expects to outline the scoring framework that will explain how much weight the different criteria will receive. The department hopes to award the first of two phases of grant money to states early nextyear. (“‘Race to Top’ Guidelines Stress Use of Test Data,” July 23, 2009.)

The comments submitted by individuals and organizations range from those cheering the Education Department’s principles for school improvement to those who say its approach is overbearing.

“The primary concern is the overall prescriptive nature of the guidelines, including rigid definitions and the emphasis placed on charter schools as the major tool of innovation,” wrote North Carolina Gov. Beverly E. Perdue, a Democrat, on behalf of her office and several education organizations in her state.

However, the message from the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, which supports its state’s public schools, was this: “Hold the line. ... This historic opportunity cannot be weakened by the whims of politics.”

Interests Overlooked

While the vast majority of commenters said they support the overall goals of the Race to the Top program, each of the 19 criteria seemed to draw its share of critics—along with those who felt their interests were not represented at all.

For the Record

More than 1,100 comments have been submitted to the U.S. Department of Education on proposed rules for $4 billion in competitive grants from the Race to the Top Fund. Among them:

“Although I consider Delaware a leader among the states, I support without reservation your guidance that only those states that prove they can meet the bar you have set should earn funding. ... This historic opportunity cannot be weakened by the whim of politics.”
Paul A. Herdman
Rodel Foundation of Delaware

“The process has left state legislatures out completely. Aside from fiscal concerns, state legislatures pass statutes or change statutes, both of which may be necessary to comply with grant requirements.”
Idaho State Sen. John Goedde (R)
Senate Education Committee

“Kentucky urges [the Education Department] to ensure in its weighting that no single criteria or assurance area can by itself eliminate a state from successfully competing.”
Kentucky Department of Education

“States enacting and implementing education reform policies before being awarded a grant should be prioritized because they are most likely to accelerate student achievement. Past performance is the best indicator of future performance.”
Broad Foundation

“As states develop plans for low-performing schools, they should plan for implementation of new leadership and avoid recycling ineffective leaders and teachers.”
U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.)
House Education Committee

“Inherent in the command and control philosophy of your draft regulations is a belief that everyone agrees on what should be taught—to whom and when—and how the lowest-performing schools can best be turned around. Yet, there are so many unknowns about what produces educational success that a little humility would be in order.”
Jerry Brown (D)
California Attorney General

“The Race to the Top program has the potential to spark innovation, replicate proven programs, and promote promising ideas. ... However, after examining the draft notice, it appears that it is [the Education Department’s] intent that this program go much further, effectively creating and implementing education policy outside of a legislative process.”
Randi Weingarten
American Federation of Teachers

“We cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates that have little or no research base of success and that usurp state and local governments’ responsibilities for public education.”
Kay Brilliant
Director of Education Policy and Practice
National Education Association

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

For example, more than a dozen comments came from representatives of arts-related organizations, accusing the department of leaving their subject area out of the mix. State officials from Colorado and Kentucky, along with foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, are encouraging the Education Department to ask states to integrate early-learning programs into their Race to the Top applications.

Some of the most heated comments focused on the department’s effort to improve teacher effectiveness, such as emphasis on merit-pay plans for educators and alternative routes to teacher certification.

The heavy-hitters from the national teachers’ unions weighed in: The 3.2 million-member National Education Association, for example, came out in opposition to core elements of the criteria. (“NEA at Odds With Obama Team Over ‘Race to the Top’ Criteria,” Sept. 2, 2009.)

Meanwhile, the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers declared that the Race to the Top initiative “would simply layer another top-down accountability system on top of the current faulty one.”

Eric Feaver, the president of the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers, a merged affiliate of the AFT and NEA, went so far as to say: “If such criteria remain, MEA-MFT will do everything in our power to insist that Montana does not apply for these funds.”

Other groups, however, felt the criteria didn’t go far enough toward improving teacher effectiveness.

Amy Wilkins, the vice president of government affairs and communications for the Washington-based Education Trust, which advocates on behalf of low-income and minority students, pointed out in aninterview that existing law already seeks to make states and school districts distribute their highly qualified teachers more equitably among schools that serve disadvantaged and minority children.

We are driving toward using effectiveness as the measure, [but] we aren’t there yet,” Ms. Wilkins said.

Flexibility, Transparency

While many of the comments focused on the broader school improvement issues entangled in the Race to the Top program, common themes on some of the finer points of the criteria emerged, too.

States and education groups are curious about whether, if they win a grant, they can award a portion of their Race to the Top money to a select group of school districts, or if they have to dole out money to all of them. State officials said they may be interested in directing part of the money selectively.

In illustrating how important definitions are, many states, special education advocacy groups, and even U.S. Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who chairs the House education committee, object to proposed language about how states should measure achievement for special education students. The criteria call for using students’ individualized education programs, or IEPs, as a gauge for measuring their achievement in nontested subjects. Critics pointed out that ieps are meant to set goals, not to measure student achievement.

Transparency Urged

Several organizations that operate outside state governments wanted to hear more from the Education Department about how the competition will encourage accountability and transparency.

The Coalition for Student Achievement, which represents more than 80 education groups that organized to monitor the use of education aid under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as the stimulus law is formally known, wants the department to post all of the state applications online, even before they’re approved. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wants the department to hold back some of a winning state’s grant money as leverage to make sure the state delivers on its reform plan.

Sometimes, the Education Department’s criteria don’t jibe with an ongoing effort. A case in point: the push by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers for common academic standards nationwide. (“46 States Agree to Common Academic Standards Effort,” June 10, 2009.)

Those two Washington-based groups, plus several states, noted that the federal timeline for states to adopt common standards is far more aggressive in the department’s criteria than in the agreement reached by states. The states agreed

to adopt standards within three years; the federal criteria favor their adoption in just one year.

The department’s criteria also suggest standards be “identical” across states; the states have agreed that it’s sufficient if 85 percent of their standards match.

Several state officials complained that the application documentation could be too burdensome. Many objected to requiring that a state’s attorney general sign off on the interpretation of state laws used as evidence for meeting a criterion.

The comments also reveal a power struggle over who in the states should control their Race to the Top applications and reform plans.

The proposed federal criteria call for a state’s governor, chief state school officer, and state school board president to sign off on the state’s application. The NGA said that some governors object to the inclusion of the state board president, saying that would have the “potential to limit gubernatorial prerogatives in proposals.”

The Arlington, Va.-based National Association of State Boardsof Education argued for keeping its members’ place at the table, since they “play an integral role in developing and implementing state education policies.” Meanwhile, the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures wants state lawmakers to be required to assent to the plans.

What’s more, the criteria seek to judge states on how much support their reform plans have from the community, including school districts that plan to participate in Race to the Top-financed initiatives. The Education Department wants to see a memorandum of agreement with each participating district.

But Larry LeDoux, the commissioner of the Alaska education department, wrote that while community support is crucial, going so far as to require letters of support may “squelch reform.”

He wrote: “Sometimes the unintended consequence of consensus where accountability is concerned is mediocrity.”

Staff Writer Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Criteria Seen as Too Restrictive In Quest for ‘Race to Top’ Funds


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