Education Funding

How Colorado Lost Race to the Top

By Nancy Mitchell, Education News Colorado — August 27, 2010 5 min read

Colorado’s failed bid for $175 million in federal Race to the Top funding was hampered by concern about the state’s flat achievement data and fear that union opposition would prevent the spread of reform.

Evaluators also docked points for what they describe as the state’s vague plans to ensure effective teachers and principals are in the neediest schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Tuesday announced winners of the federal grant competition, awarding nearly $3.4 billion to nine states and the District of Columbia. Colorado placed 17th out of 19 applicants for round two of the Race to the Top; the state also was a finalist, but not a winner, in round one of the contest earlier this year.

Education News Colorado analyzed detailed scores and reviewers’ comments for Colorado and the winning states.

“The applicant’s record of improving student achievement is weak and there is little information describing lessons learned from previous reforms,” wrote the toughest of five reviewers of Colorado’s application. “Implementation of successful reforms appears to be weak.”

That reviewer repeatedly noted the lack of support from the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Colorado Education Association, which drew comment from all five evaluators.

“Without the support of the CEA, the applicant will predictably face difficulties in the implementation of its multifaceted reform effort, which must depend heavily on the goodwill and commitment of the majority of the state’s teachers,” one reviewer wrote.

Only 5 percent of local unions signed on to participate in the reform plan after the CEA withdrew its support over Senate Bill 191, now a state law linking student academic growth to teacher evaluations.

“There is a notable absence of formal support from the Colorado Education Association,” wrote another reviewer. “This is a serious issue and threatens to compromise a full and successful implementation of the applicant’s RTTT agenda.”

Questions About Objectivity

When the winners were announced, several Colorado officials argued that their state hadn’t been judged “objectively” in the Race to the Top competition. Gov. Bill Ritter said state officials had been certain from the start that they would receiving funding.

“There were some flaws in how objective the scores were,” Gov. Ritter told a news conference. “There were these two judges who just consistently marked us down. We’d be in the money if we’d had just judges one, two and five.”

Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who had led the state’s effort, said reviewers had “a tin ear about how things are done in the West,” where local control of schools is the tradition. She noted during the news conference that more than half the questions asked during the reviewers’ Aug. 10 interview with Colorado leaders concerned implementation and local control.

Colorado Commissioner of Education Dwight Jones also told EdNews that he sensed during the interview that two of the reviewers seemed skeptical about parts of the state’s application.

Evaluation Overhaul

Several reviewers referred to Senate Bill 191, which overhauled the way Colorado schools evaluate, promote and reward teachers, in flattering terms—one called it a “bold strategy”—but it does not appear to have dramatically increased the points awarded Colorado’s application.

Of the seven areas in which states can win points, Colorado’s second-poorest showing came in “state success factors,” which considers the likelihood a plan will have successful and widespread impact.

Colorado received only 78 percent of 125 possible points, with markdowns for years of flat achievement indicators and for little union buy-in.

But the state’s poorest showing—or 76 percent of 138 possible points—came in the area of “great teachers and leaders,” which looks at educator preparation, development, and distribution.

The biggest ding was in the category of “ensuring equitable distribution” of effective teachers and principals in high-poverty or high-minority schools.

“The application acknowledges a lack of success in the area of access and there is no data to demonstrate or review their progress,” wrote the reviewer who gave the state its highest overall score. “The state method to determine distribution is unclear; … the plan to move forward in this area is not considered ambitious.”

Another reviewer wrote that the state “does not currently have a methodology to determine the distribution of effective teachers and principals in high poverty/high minority schools.”

A third reviewer remarked that a state council must first define effectiveness, as required by Senate Bill 191, before any plan to distribute teachers and principals can begin: “The September 2011 adoption date for the definitions places the true starting gate for this initiative on a somewhat distant horizon, which suggests an absence of a sense of urgency here.”

Comparing Massachusetts

Colorado’s application is in stark contrast to that of Massachusetts, the state that will take home up to $250 million after achieving the highest overall point total of the 10 round-two winners.

Reviewers laud that state’s progress on national and international tests, noting its students ranked first on all four National Assessment of Educational Progress exams in 2005, 2007, and 2009.

One reviewer called Massachusetts “an unquestioned leader in the nation” on NAEP.

Like Colorado, the state did lose some points for union participation—56 of 276 union leaders, or 20 percent, did not sign on, including Boston’s.

Another reviewer gushed about Massachusetts’ plan for the equitable distribution of teachers in the most-challenging schools, describing it as “visionary and catalytic.”

The state allows principals of its lowest-achieving 4 percent of schools to require all staff to reapply, and it has lessened the “just cause” requirement of teacher dismissal to “good cause.” It also allows the principals to choose staff without regard to seniority.

Both Colorado and Massachusetts received high marks for developing and adopting common standards and for making education funding a priority.

But they differed again where charters are concerned—Colorado fared well for enabling high-performing charters, for equitably funding charters, and for providing charters access to facilities.

Massachusetts just lifted its cap on charter enrollment in January but still restricts the number of charter schools to no more than 6 percent of public schools statewide, which cost the state some points.

From EdNews Colorado

Colorado Education Commissioner Jones and others vowed their state would continue to pursue the reform policies laid out over the last three years. However, Mr. Jones acknowledged, “It does slow down how we move forward.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2010 edition of Education Week

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