Education Funding

Race to Top District Finalists Include New Hopefuls

By Michele McNeil — December 10, 2012 5 min read
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The list of 61 finalists for the latest Race to the Top competition shows that the U.S. Department of Education was successful in enticing high-scoring applications from districts in rural America and in states that had not shared in the Race to the Top bounty before.

But whether the ultimate winners, which will be announced this month, will be successful in increasing personalized teaching and learning in classrooms—a key priority for this competition—is unclear.

The Education Department has not released copies of the finalists’ proposals, and most districts had not posted their plans online either as of late last week, making it anyone’s guess what those districts would do, collectively, with $400 million in winnings.

But interviews with several of the finalists show that the competition didn’t elicit entirely new initiatives from districts, and instead rewarded those already well on their way to tailoring instruction to students’ individual needs.

“This will be the gas in the tank to get us there quicker,” said Ken Zeff, the chief strategy and innovation officer for the Fulton County system in Georgia, which is a finalist after making its pitch to implement a performance-management system for its educators, among other initiatives.

The finalist list, released late last month from a pool of 372 applicants, is a diverse group of school districts, many of which are among the nation’s largest—Boston, Cleveland, New York City, and Philadelphia, for example. But this list is full of medium and small districts as well, with several districts of less than 1,000 students represented.

“This really confirms the emergence and pace of personalized digital learning, and that there are so many districts that have been doing it,” said David DeSchryver, the vice president of Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting firm in Washington that is tracking these grants.

While previous Race to the Top competitions have pitted states against each other with a focus on general reform or early-learning initiatives, this latest contest was designed to spur education improvement—particularly in the area of personalized learning—at the district level. The department expects to award up to 25 grants, worth between $5 million and $40 million each, depending on a winner’s enrollment. After the finalists were announced last month, teams of outside peer reviewers came to Washington to discuss the applications in detail and revise the scores. The winners are expected to be announced by Dec. 31.

Diverse Group

Broken down, seven of the 61 finalists are charter or charter-like schools and networks, 10 finalists are groups of districts, and the rest are traditional individual school systems. In all, the 61 finalists represent more than 200 school districts.

Several on the finalist list, including New York, the Idea charter schools network in Texas, the St. Vrain district in Colorado, and the Miami-Dade school system in Florida, have already won grants as part of the federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, program, another signature competition of the Obama administration.

With this latest iteration of Race to the Top, one of the department’s goals was to expand the program’s reach into states that have not won earlier contests. And indeed, 40 of the 61 finalist districts are not in Race to the Top states.

The department also wanted to encourage rural schools and created separate categories for those districts to compete. The department has refused to disclose which finalist applications are under the rural umbrella, but a preliminary review of the finalist list by the Rural School and Community Trust shows that about 40 percent of the more than 200 districts are rural.

Even with a special priority given to rural districts, advocates say the finalist list—which is dominated by large and medium-size ones—shows those contests really don’t work well for rural America.

“Based on the list of finalists, knowing what we know about them, there’s no guarantee that any rural districts will receive resources from this competition,” said Robert Mahaffey, a spokesman for the rural trust.

One successful rural finalist is the North Central Educational Service District in Washington state, which is the lead applicant for a group of 47 districts representing about 25,700 students in four states: Arkansas, New Mexico, Washington, and West Virginia.

Their pitch would take $40 million in winnings and implement a comprehensive, college- and career-ready agenda for rural schools that would create—among other things—virtual academies to connect students and professional mentors with similar interests across states, an online “share portal” to link teachers who teach in geographically isolated schools, and project-based-learning programs that cross state lines.

“This brings to these rural and, frankly, geographically challenged districts a level of career awareness that they would not be able to afford otherwise,” said Richard McBride, the superintendent of the North Central Educational Service District.

District Plans

One thing that jumped out at education policy analysts is the number of charter schools on the list, including well-known management organizations such as KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program in the District of Columbia is the finalist) and Green Dot Schools of Los Angeles.

“It’s interesting and encouraging,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting group in Washington. “It shows [charters] can be nimble and on the cutting edge.”

In Texas, Uplift Education operates a network of 26 charter schools in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, with a combined enrollment of 7,500 students, that already prioritizes personalized learning by using individualized education plans for all students. It wants to use $17 million in winnings to expand International Baccalaureate programs, increase parental engagement through efforts such as “parent university” classes in subjects like child nutrition, implement its performance-management system for educators, and enhance its student-data system.

“I think it would be more difficult to accomplish some of our goals without the Race to the Top grant. For example, the education technology and performance-management components are both really heavy on technology acquisition. It’s very expensive,” said Michael Terry, the communications director for Uplift.

In the 100,000-student Fulton County district, the school system is on its way to converting entirely to a charter system, which the state of Georgia allows for those districts that want more freedom and flexibility. Mr. Zeff said the $40 million in winnings would go chiefly to two main initiatives—partnering with community organizations on a dropout-prevention initiative, and its performance-management system.

“As we do this, we need to make sure the human-capital part is really strong,” said Mr. Zeff, who explained that the new performance-management system would be automated and link educators to resources—from video clips to data—that would help them grow professionally. “The U.S. Department of Education is signaling that it wants to invest in districts that know their way forward. We appreciate that.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Draws Out New Suitors

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