Special Report

Race to Top Enters Home Stretch With 16 Finalists

By Michele McNeil & Lesli A. Maxwell — March 05, 2010 10 min read
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When 16 finalists come to Washington next week to make their final pitches in the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, most can expect to go home empty-handed.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in announcing the finalists last week, said that no more than $2 billion will be divided among “very few winners” when the awards are given out in April—and said “most” would not be victorious.

“These are the 16 best applications we received. Winning will require excellence,” Mr. Duncan said in a conference call with reporters.

The finalists from among 41 first-round applicants are: Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

The $4 billion available for individual state grants under the Race to the Top Fund—a sliver of the $787 billion economic-stimulus package passed by Congress early last year—is paying for a high-profile school reform initiative that’s helping drive the Obama administration’s education agenda.

The awards will come as many states continue to claw their way out of a deep fiscal pit and face the prospect of stinging cuts to programs, including K-12 education. The highly coveted awards will also be given out during the pivotal 2010 election season, when 37 states will elect governors. Eleven of the finalist states will see gubernatorial races this year, and the District of Columbia has a mayor’s race.

The dash for cash—and bragging rights—prompted states to embark on aggressive lobbying campaigns to change laws to be more competitive under the 500-point scoring scale used to weigh the applications. Some lifted caps on charter schools, tore down data “firewalls” standing in the way of new systems of teacher evaluation, and devised strategies to intervene in more low-performing schools.

“Most of the states that really did bold things in the spirit of the competition generally made it through,” said Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, a New York City-based nonprofit group that helps urban districts train and hire teachers.

One example: Illinois is among a handful of states to require all districts, not just those participating in the Race to the Top, to use student achievement as at least 50 percent of an individual teacher’s evaluation.

Lengthy List

Many policy experts were surprised at the length of the finalist list, particularly after Secretary Duncan had promised—in an interview with Education Week and elsewhere—that he would set a “very, very high bar” for the competition. The finalists represent more than one-third of the applications submitted.

“I can’t see how this advances the reform agenda by rewarding states for putting out average applications,” said Andy Smarick, a visiting fellow with the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He pointed out that Kentucky doesn’t have charter schools, and that Colorado and New York are weak on teacher-evaluation components, factors that would have been weighed in the scoring. “That sends a message to other states that you can bypass tough decisions.”

But Mr. Duncan said that he favored giving more states, rather than fewer, a shot at the money. Each of the finalists earned a grade of at least a B on its application, scoring above 400 points on a complex 500-point grading scale that measured each state’s blueprint for education improvement and, specifically, its commitment to improving teacher effectiveness, data systems, academic standards, and low-performing schools.

In essence, Mr. Duncan said that the scores are close enough among the Final 16 that “all of these states can win.”

What matters to Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is just that: who wins in April. He said five states are complete “clunkers” when it comes to charter schools, either because they don’t have charters at all (in Kentucky’s case) or because they have restrictive caps on the growth of the publicly financed but largely independent schools (as in New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island).

Follow the Stimulus Money

Read states’ Race to the Top applications and see state-by-state breakdowns of education funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. View this interactive map.

If any of those states wins, “I think it could be potentially harmful to the administration’s rhetoric up until now, and the role of charters in education reform policy,” said Mr. Ziebarth, who is the vice president of state advocacy for the Washington-based group.

Up next for the finalists is a high-pressure, in-person presentation to the peer reviewers who scored their applications, which will help determine whether they walk away with up to an estimated $700 million each, or nothing.

One big question mark will be how much money the winners receive collectively. The 16, together, asked for $6.5 billion, which would break the Race to the Top bank. All but Pennsylvania asked for more money than the maximum the Education Department had suggested, which varied according to a state’s size.

The presentations, scheduled to be held next week in Washington, will be closed to the public, but will be videotaped and posted online once the winners are announced in April. Also to be made public at that time are the winning and losing states’ scores and the peer reviewers’ comments.

Any state, except a first-round winner, can submit an application for round two of the competition in June, with the final Race to the Top dollars to be awarded in September.

Some Surprises

Among the surprise appearances on the list: New York, which, on the day it submitted its application, failed to advance a legislative proposal that would have expanded the number of charter schools in the state. The state also has a law, which is set to sunset this summer, that bars the use of standardized-test-score data in tenure-granting decisions, though the data could, presumably, be used in annual teacher evaluations.

Highlights From States' Proposals

• “Turnaround center” to be operated by nonprofit organization to ramp up state and district capacity to turn around low-performing schools
• Subsidies and incentives to districts to share curricula and assessment materials

• State education secretary now has veto power over turnaround plans for low-performing schools • Proposed “data coaches” to work with teachers

• Teacher-evaluation system based on student achievement
• Would launch a district-designed degree program for principals
• Mayoral control in place

• Proposed deadline for districts to adopt teacher effectiveness, merit-pay policies
• Would expand charter options in lowest-achieving schools
• Plans to makes student-level data easier to access for parents, educators

• Would tie teachers’ “step” increases and principal raises to evaluation scores
• Would create links between teacher-preparation programs and the achievement of students taught by graduates of those programs
• Cites its prior success in improving low-performing schools through classroom auditing

• Half of teachers’ evaluations will be based on student growth under new law
• Twelve districts, including union leaders, agree to aggressive school turnaround efforts

• Leader in move to adopt common academic standards and assessments
• Expand data system to include preschool and additional post-secondary information

• Half of teachers’ evaluations will be based on student growth under new law
• Aggressive turnaround strategies through Recovery School District
• Proposed performance contracts for principals

• Creation of a tiered teacher-licensure system based in part on effectiveness
• Proposed nonprofit turnaround intermediary to manage school turnaround operators
• Planned early-warning indicator system to identify students at the highest risk of dropping out

• Part of six-state initiative to conduct aggressive school turnarounds
• Developing a career ladder for teachers to determine pay or opportunities

• Expanded use of Teach For America corps in hard-to-staff teaching areas
• Use of regional leadership academies to develop turnaround principals
• Expansion of “virtual” school opportunities across the state

• Would provide classroom-level value-added math and reading scores to teachers in grades 4-8
• Planned expansion of new principal-evaluation system statewide
• Turnarounds of the state’s 69 lowest-performing schools over the next four years

• Identifies many more schools for intervention than required under Race to Top process
• Has enacted tougher requirements for accreditation for teacher education programs

• Plans to recruit top charter-management organizations over the next two years
• Would guarantee a child will not have an ineffective teacher in consecutive years
• Proposed interim assessments for all school districts

• Would revamp teacher-evaluation system to include performance-pay component, and evaluate online educators
• Wants to put in place a tiered evaluation system for principals

• Half of teachers’ evaluations will be based on student growth under new law
• Data system for tracking student growth
• Districts, along with organizations such as Teach For America, would be able to license teachers

SOURCE: Education Week

Many consider New York to be flouting the requirement that states, in order to be eligible to compete, have no firewall barring the use of student-achievement data in teacher-evaluation decisions.

Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee, called New York’s appearance on the list “baffling.”

Another dark-horse surprise was South Carolina.

“A lot of people thought we were a very, very long shot,” said Jim Rex, South Carolina’s state schools superintendent. “We are sort of like the little tugboat or the little train that could.”

He said the state was “viewed by a lot of people as an outsider” in part because it wasn’t chosen by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for a technical-assistance grant to help complete its application.

Only two of the 16 finalists—South Carolina and Delaware—did not pass Gates’ litmus test for $250,000 in aid to hire consultants.

The Sweet Sixteen


SOURCE: Education Week staff writers Dakarai I. Aarons, Catherine Gewertz, Alyson Klein, Lesli A. Maxwell, Michele McNeil, and Stephen Sawchuk

“I think what the reviewers saw in our application was a true sense of collaboration and cohesive reform initiatives,” said Daniel Cruce, Delaware’s deputy secretary of education. He highlighted his state’s participation in a six-state effort that will require aggressive interventions in the lowest-performing schools, and its plans to hire “data coaches” to work directly with teachers.

On the flip side, many observers say that Indiana’s omission from the list was also a surprise, especially given its ambitious, detailed plan to build a statewide evaluation system that focuses not just on using data to inform teacher evaluations, but for compensation, tenure, and promotion decisions.

Tony Bennett, Indiana’s state superintendent of public instruction, said he was “quite disappointed” because he thought his state had embraced—better than others—the major principles of the competition, including revamping teacher evaluations, improving alternative routes to teaching, and increasing high-quality charter schools.

“I am confused. I am surprised,” Mr. Bennett said. “We were told to be bold and aggressive. I think our plan characterizes that.”

Mr. Bennett said Indiana officials likely would apply for round two, but not change the core of their plan: “We’re going to do what I don’t think the federal administration did do—we’re going to do what we said.”

Some officials in states that were shut out of the first round expressed reservations, however, about applying for round two.

Jack O’Connell, California’s state schools chief, said he was unsure whether the state should try again. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said in a press release that California was left off the finalist list because the state’s proposed reforms were not aggressive enough.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican who is seen as a likely presidential contender in 2012, is using his state’s first-round loss—also a surprise to many education policy watchers—to take on the state’s teachers’ union.

“It’s hard to race to the top with an anchor tied to your leg,” said Brian McClung, Mr. Pawlenty’s deputy chief of staff, who in a statement urged the state legislature to adopt charter school and teacher-merit-pay changes in the wake of the Race to the Top announcement.

Geographical Spread

States that made the cut are heavily centered on the East Coast and in the South—only Colorado lies entirely west of the Mississippi River. The list of finalists leans Democratic: Eleven of the finalists have Democratic chief executives, including the mayor of the District of Columbia; five are controlled by Republicans. (Nationwide, Democrats hold a majority of governorships, at 27.)

Race to the Top prognosticators had heavily favored Tennessee, in part for its passage of legislation this year that mandates using student achievement as half of a teacher’s annual evaluation. Louisiana, Illinois, and Florida have also mandated that half of a teacher’s evaluation be based on growth in student achievement.

Tennessee also has the advantage of its existing “value added” data system, which positions it ahead of other states in being able to tap student-achievement information to make decisions about instruction and teacher performance, and to track how well teacher-preparation programs are doing.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat who was able to secure bipartisan support for a package of legislation that included raising the statewide cap on charter schools, highlighted the formal declaration of all seven major gubernatorial candidates in the state to back the Race to the Top changes. The state included their signatures in its application.

“I think so much of the issue is just the ability to sustain these reforms through political changes,” said Gov. Bredesen, who will leave office early next year because of term limits. “I think we’ve got a really believable program when we can show that, regardless of who is in political office, these reforms are going to move forward.”

The governor will be on the Tennessee team that goes to Washington to pitch the state’s plan.

Paul G. Pastorek, the schools chief in Louisiana, said that central to his state’s plan is teacher effectiveness, particularly the teacher evaluations the state will design to heavily weigh growth in student performance. The state is also one of six that will be part of a new $75 million initiative to turn around low-performing schools using strategies created by the Boston-based Mass Insight Education and Research Institute. (“Turnaround Project Signs Six States,” Feb. 3, 2010.)

Regardless of how the final awards shake out, state policy advocates say the Race to the Top has already had impact.

Robin M. Steans, the executive director of Advance Illinois, a school reform group that helped state officials shape Illinois’ application, believes that state can already point to concrete accomplishments when it makes its case for the federal reviewers.

One, she said, is state officials’ approval of the outside organizations that have to serve as partners to districts on turning around low-performing schools. Another is the state’s passage of legislation to create rigorous teacher evaluations and to raise the cap on charter schools.

“One of the things you want to do is keep the energy going, and this competition so far has helped us get a ton of things done here in Illinois,” Ms. Steans said. “Being named a finalist helps keep us going even more.”

Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this story.

A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Enters Home Stretch


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