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Education Funding

Districts Divide On Race to Top, But Share Goals

By Sean Cavanagh — March 29, 2011 9 min read
Students at the district's LaMendola Elementary School return to their classroom after a music lesson.

A pair of Ohio school districts, a short drive down Interstate 70 from each other, share similar goals. Each wants to improve student achievement by strengthening curriculum and instruction and giving teachers and principals the tools to make it happen.

But the Huber Heights and Brookville school systems diverge in their approach to meeting those targets in one important respect: One of them elected to take part in the federal Race to the Top initiative, while the other did not.

The experiences of the two districts, located outside Dayton, reflect the challenges that school systems in Ohio and other winning Race to the Top states are likely to face in the years ahead. Districts that signed on to the program will have to meet a number of academic and administrative mandates as part of their states’ plans, but will receive federal money to help them. The districts that opted not to participate will have more freedom to pursue their own agendas, but without that same infusion of money and other resources.

Perhaps no state offers as divided a Race to the Top landscape as Ohio, which received a $400 million award over four years through the $4 billion federal grant competition. Roughly half the state’s districts have chosen not to take part.

The 6,500-student Huber Heights city school system will receive at least $605,000 through the program, money that is helping to sustain and build data tools that district officials say are improving instruction.

But administrators and teachers acknowledge they face major hurdles in meeting Race to the Top requirements in the state plan, particularly in devising a new system for evaluating teachers.

“It’s going to be a work in progress, and it’ll take time,” said Becky Whited, the president of Huber Heights’ teachers union, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “The money is tied to making changes, and everybody needs money nowadays. We were willing to work through things.”

See Also

To read how Race to the Top funds are affecting school reforms in winning states, read

Race to Top Winners Work to Balance Promises, Capacity

About 20 miles away, officials in the 1,500-student Brookville school system will not take part, because the district could not get the support of its teachers’ union—a state requirement for participating districts.

Superintendent Timothy L. Hopkins said he understood the union’s objections. But he also believes Race to the Top aid could have paid for future improvements to data, curriculum, and evaluation that his district may want to make—or that the state may require—at some point, independent of the federal competition.

“These changes are coming our way, whether we sign on or not,” Mr. Hopkins said.

“My point to them was, ‘I understand your concerns. I don’t even argue all of your concerns,’ ” he said of the union. Yet he fears, he said, that his district is “going to have to do the work, regardless.”

Ohio’s Goals

Ohio’s Race to the Top plan, like those of many other states, lays out a series of ambitious academic goals, including raising high school graduation rates, closing achievement gaps between minority and white students, and lifting the state’s performance into the top tier on national measures.

Nance Parent, left, and Nikki Smyth, right, get help from intervention specialist Lisa Lewis on a data system that the Huber Heights, Ohio, school system will use Race to the Top money to expand.

The state was not the only one of the 12 Race to the Top winners to have a substantial number of districts and schools decline to take part. In high-performing Massachusetts, for instance, about 135 of the state’s 393 districts and stand-alone schools are not participating, state officials said.

Ohio’s districts have pledged to take many steps over a four-year period, including building data systems that give teachers faster, more precise information on student performance, crafting plans for placing effective teachers in struggling schools, and fashioning agreements for judging teachers and principals on gains in student achievement.

The state, which has about 2 million public school students, is rolling out its Race to the Top plan in a tumultuous education environment.

Freshman Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, and state lawmakers are considering legislation that would remove many of teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

Critics say the governor’s proposed budget would deal a blow to K-12 and does not do enough to make up for anticipated losses in federal economic-stimulus aid. Those proposals have stirred anxiety in Huber Heights and Brookville, where administrators and teachers worry about such measures’ impact on their ability to serve students, and on labor-management relations.

In Huber Heights, as in some other Ohio districts, Race to the Top money provides an opportunity to build on some academic-improvement efforts the district had already begun.

This academic year, the district began using DataDirector, a computerized system that gives teachers in grades 1-10 precise information on student performance, based on quarterly pre- and post-tests in reading and math. Race to the Top funding will help the district pay for and expand the data system, which costs $40,000 a year, said Kathy Demers, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Every dollar counts in the district, which has an annual budget of $64 million, and where about one-third of the students are economically disadvantaged. The district could be forced to cut $3 million in spending over the next two years. It recently sent pink slips to 19 teachers, and is considering layoffs to clerical and administrative staff members.

Rather than having to rely primarily on broader state data, arriving once a year, the district can now use the new system to pinpoint which lessons are giving students the most trouble, and even determine which responses on multiple-choice questions they picked most often, to determine where they’re going astray.

One day this month, Jennifer Elchinger, a 1st grade teacher at Valley Forge Elementary School, used the data tool to present students with a series of written, multiple-choice math questions, sometimes coupled with an illustration.

“Gus wants to write the number that is 6 tens + 8 ones,” one question asks. “What is the number?”

“Choose the missing symbol,” another question says: “17 [blank] 9 = 8.”

Ms. Elchinger has reviewed test data with other teachers to determine if they’re covering concepts as well as they can, or if there’s a disconnect between their classroom lessons and the exams.

In many cases, when her students had stumbled over a question, “I found it was the same question their classes had missed, too,” Ms. Elchinger said of her fellow teachers.

For district leaders, the trickiest piece of carrying out the state’s Race to the Top plan will be constructing a teacher-evaluation system, Huber Heights Superintendent William Kirby said. Teachers in the district staged a strike five years ago, and administrators and teachers have worked hard to repair relations since then, Mr. Kirby said a recent interview in his first-floor office, which is attached to a middle school.

“When Race to the Top came along, I wasn’t sure we would have the collaboration to move things along. But we did,” said Mr. Kirby, as the sound of a gym class, in full swing one floor above him, rumbled overhead. “I feel very good [that] we’re working together on these issues.”

Undone by Unknowns

In nearby Brookville, administrators and union officials say they have a history of cooperation, though the local teachers’ organization ultimately believed there were too many unanswered questions about the impact of the Race to the Top program for it to agree to join the effort.

At LaMendola Elementary School, in Huber Heights, Ohio, Royce Bridstrup takes a test to evaluate his progress. Race to the Top money will help pay for and expand the data system.

Teachers questioned how easily the evaluation system and other aspects of the program could be developed and what they would look like, said Sandra Dobberstein, the vice-president of the Brookville teachers’ union, an nea affiliate.

“We have a good working relationship with our administration, and we have a good record of moving our kids forward,” said Ms. Dobberstein. “We didn’t want to sign onto things that had unknowns.”

Ohio, along with 43 other states and the District of Columbia, has signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a shared set of learning expectations in English/language arts and math. That decision earned the state points in the Race to the Top competition. All districts in the state, regardless of whether they are participating in the Race to the Top plan, will be expected to follow those standards, and their students will be tested on them.

Brookville administrators had hoped to use the federal money to pay for substitutes as teachers took time to become familiar with the standards, as well as other data and curriculum planning. Instead, the district is planning to use early-release days so teachers can do that work.

Brookville, which has a total budget of $13 million and where about one in four students are economically disadvantaged, has been forced to cut transportation spending, and not fill open positions to save money in recent years, Mr. Hopkins said. The superintendent’s work environment, like that of his counterpart in Huber Heights, is no-frills: He and the school board work out of an oversize trailer next to a school.

The district stood to gain only $100,000 over four years through the Race to the Top, a small fraction of what Ohio’s largest districts will receive. Yet district officials might have used the money to pay for a comprehensive data system, which probably would have cost at least $10,000 a year, curriculum supervisor Stephanie Hinds estimates. Still, Brookville is committed to improving its data and curricular tools, even without federal aid, Mr. Hopkins said.

“We could choose to drag our feet and say we’re not a part of Race to the Top, we’ll cross that bridge when it gets here,” he said, “but that would be to nobody’s benefit.”

No ‘Overnight Reform’

Of 614 school districts in Ohio, 306 are participating in the program, and 176 of 339 charter and community public schools in the state are taking part. Much of their work so far has been relatively easy and focused on planning, but it will become harder as they work out the details of creating new evaluation systems and technological and other tools to customize instruction, said Michael Sawyers, Ohio’s assistant state schools superintendent.

“It’s not an overnight reform plan,” Mr. Sawyers said. “It’s building capacity and changing culture. ... [Districts and schools] have to create a culture of learning to work together.”

Ohio is devising its own statewide systems for evaluating teachers and principals. Participating Race to the Top districts will be able to use those systems or develop their own, he said. But nonparticipanting districts also will benefit from the Race to the Top program, he argued. Roughly half of Ohio’s $400 million award will support the creation of statewide tools designed to benefit all the state’s districts and schools—not just in evaluation, but also in fomative assessment, instructional planning, and other areas.

More-populous Race to the Top districts have greater resources to overcome challenges in administering the program, but smaller ones, like Huber Heights, often have better luck working through disagreements between administrators, unions, and school board members, said Timothy Daly, the president of The New Teacher Project, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve instruction for disadvantaged students.

“They have advantages of relationships—less adversarial relationships,” he said. “You can get everyone in a room and make decisions.”

Superintendent Kirby says he and his Huber Heights colleagues will try to use cooperation, and common sense, in the years ahead.

He recalled a recent discussion with one district official who questioned why one of their schools didn’t have as strong an academic record as some others. The superintendent pointed out that the school had made great strides, despite working with large numbers of disadvantaged students, progress he attributed largely to the leadership of its principal.

The temptation is to look at “just the raw data,” Mr. Kirby said. “To me, it was a good example of how you have to look at more than the raw data.”

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Pushed to Improve—Race to Top, or Not

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