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Education’s ‘Race to the Top’ Begins

By Joanne Weiss — July 24, 2009 6 min read

On Friday, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are explaining what states need to do to win grants from the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund—the largest-ever single federal investment in school reform. The criteria they are announcing will challenge states to create comprehensive strategies to address four core reforms that will drive increased student achievement and narrow achievement gaps: common, internationally benchmarked standards and assessments; effective teachers and principals; data to inform decisions; and turnarounds of the lowest-performing schools.

This money will not support the status quo, and it won’t be focused on piecemeal efforts. States that have created conditions for reform and have comprehensive and coherent plans across all four reform areas will have the best chance of winning grants worth hundreds of millions of dollars from the fund. It is the thoughtful design and interplay of these four reform areas that will lead to sustained and lasting instructional improvement in classrooms, schools, and districts—and that will lead to achievement and attainment gains for our students. Education is a complex system, and each area interacts with the others; if we don’t get the key building blocks right, the structure we build will not stand, nor will it withstand the inertia that stalls most educational reforms.

Taken individually, each area reform addresses a vital need in our nation’s schools.

Standards and assessment are the foundation. Our standards need to set forth what students must know and be able to do if they are to be prepared for college and for jobs in the global workplace. We need to focus on the standards that are “must haves” in each grade—those skills and concepts that all students absolutely have to master in order to be prepared for the next, higher-level concept or task—so that students have time to learn material in depth rather than flying from topic to topic. With such standards in place, educators can then create the curricular frameworks, curriculum materials, formative and interim assessments, professional-development materials, and other supports that they need to effectively implement a coherent system of teaching and learning. But standards aren’t enough. We need assessments to measure whether students have actually mastered those standards. The results of those assessments must provide to students, to teachers, and to those supporting them a rich, relevant, and actionable picture of student achievement and growth.

At its heart, though, a great education depends on great people—teachers and leaders—to produce great outcomes for the nation’s students. Talent is the second core reform area. Three years in a row of an effective teacher can virtually eliminate the achievement gaps between students; several years of having ineffective teachers, or just an inconsistent mix of effective and ineffective, makes it virtually impossible for students to stay on track. Unfortunately, the current policies, practices, and conditions in most schools and districts discourage many talented people from entering education, and don’t encourage those who choose the profession to stay in it. Successful state proposals will plan to strengthen the entire “talent chain”—recruitment, preparation and credentialing, placement, induction, professional development, evaluation, advancement, and retention. In particular, we want schools and districts to know which teachers and principals are effective (as evidenced in significant measure by how their students are improving academically), and to ensure that local decisionmakers use this information to inform key decisions in such areas as evaluation and development, compensation and advancement, tenure and removal. We want to recognize excellent teachers and principals and be able to attract them to the schools and subject areas where their talents are needed the most. And we want to shine a light on which credentialing and preparation programs best prepare teachers and principals for success, so that new entrants into the profession know the most effective ways in, and schools and districts know where to recruit from.

No system is stronger than its weakest link, and for too long we have sat complacently as our lowest-performing elementary and secondary schools failed our students, year after year."

To provide the information that teachers and leaders need to continuously improve the effectiveness of their instruction, that students and families need to guide and support student learning, and that the community and taxpayers need to judge and support their schools’ success, we must have state-of-the-art data systems—the third critical area of reform. Rapidly reported, accurate, relevant, and actionable data are the key to knowing what’s working for our students and what’s not. They tell us which students are on track and who needs additional support. They tell us which teachers excel and in what areas, so they can be tapped to share knowledge and provide support. They tell us what curriculum materials and instructional strategies are working, and for what types of students. And they tell us which schools and districts excel and which require support and intervention. Transparency is not just a goal—it is a necessary prerequisite and enabler to good decisionmaking. It allows teachers and leaders to make decisions that improve the quality of the instruction and support they provide to each student every hour of every school day.

Finally, the last reform area is turning around struggling schools. No system is stronger than its weakest link, and for too long we have sat complacently as our lowest-performing elementary and secondary schools failed our students, year after year. For example, some 2,000 high schools produce more than 50 percent of America’s dropouts. These schools require aggressive interventions. Through Race to the Top and other programs, states and districts can help ensure that these schools have exceptional teachers and leaders, radically overhauled programs, and unrelenting, focused attention and support.

These are places ripe for innovation, reform, and rapid improvement. But we must be willing to step up and make the hard choices. We must have the courage and conviction to close down bad schools and open good ones in their place; we must learn to partner with different kinds of school operators and welcome into our communities all those willing to provide high-quality education to our public school students.

States’ commitments to each of these areas—and their ability to blend them into a comprehensive strategy—will drive how we allocate the $4.35 billion in the Race to the Top Fund. But the Obama administration’s commitment to these areas of reform goes beyond Race to the Top.

These areas of reform will guide the administration’s work across programs such as the Title I School Improvement Grants, the Teacher Incentive Fund, the Investing in Innovation Fund, and others. They will inform our proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and other laws. If we don’t invest our political will and resources in these policies, we’ll continue on the current path where some schools succeed, but too many stagnate or even fail.

The race has begun. Those who have the innovative ideas that promise to deliver results, as well as the demonstrated political will to set conditions conducive to reform and the capacity and ability to execute well, will win. We encourage state leaders to work together with their districts, principals, teachers, local officials, nonprofit entrepreneurs, union leaders, charter school operators, parents, and students to implement bold new approaches for transforming state and local education systems. We encourage the engagement of a wide range of stakeholders in supporting the applicants and in ensuring accountability for effective implementation of the plans.

The winners of these grants will be leaders whose reforms can inspire and inform the nation. There is no more important work to be done in America, and no more important legacy to leave, than that of having redesigned our educational system so that it produces millions of students, year after year, who graduate prepared to make their dreams a reality and our nation’s social, cultural, economic, and political future ever brighter.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week

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