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Race to Top Finalists Prepare for Last Pitch

By Michele McNeil — August 10, 2010 7 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addresses an audience at The National Press Club in Washington on July 27, where he announced the 19 finalists that will compete in the interview portion of the Race to the Top Round Two competition.
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Representatives from 18 states and the District of Columbia will descend on Washington this week as part of the final round of the Race to the Top competition, where they’ll interview before a panel of judges for a piece of $3.4 billion in remaining federal funds.

At stake is 10 to 15 grants that will be awarded in September to applicants that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believes have the boldest, most sustainable plans for education improvements.

This week’s interviews offer the last chance for states to influence peer reviewers, who can adjust scores based on those interviews. In round one, however, scores only changed by 4.6 points on average after the interviews, not a significant margin on the 500-point grading scale.

The list announced July 27 includes all of the states that were finalists in the first round, but lost, along with five additional states: Maryland, which did not compete in round one; New Jersey, which placed 18th; Hawaii, which placed 22nd last time; California, which placed 27th; and Arizona, which placed 40th.

The returning finalists are: Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

Together, these states asked for $6.2 billion, nearly twice the amount that’s left in the Race to the Top pot, which is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In the first round of the $4 billion competition, Mr. Duncan selected two states, Delaware and Tennessee, for a total of $600 million in awards. ("$3.4 Billion Is Left in Race to Top Aid,” April 7, 2010.)

Based on the scores, the second-round applications seemed stronger than the first. The scores between the two rounds of competition improved by an average of 26 points, according to the Education Department. Scores and the peer reviewers’ comments will be released once the winners are announced in early September.

“We hoped we’d see significant movement between round one and round two,” Mr. Duncan said in a briefing with reporters. There was “remarkable hard work and remarkable reform from many, many states.”

The 19 finalists edged out 17 other states vying for the grants, and all were scored by peer reviewers at above 400 points on the 500-point grading scale. States are graded on their progress and reform plans in four key areas: turning around low-performing schools, improving teacher and principal effectiveness, implementing common standards and tests, and bolstering data systems.

And the number of winners will depend on which states win. If New York, Florida, and California win and are awarded the maximum amount allowed by the Education Department’s rules, they’ll eat up $2.1 billion, or almost two-thirds of the remaining funds.

Surprise Contenders

During this week’s interviews with the states, Mr. Duncan said that peer reviewers will be paying particular attention to how practical a state’s plan for the Race to the Top money is to implement and whether a leadership team is in place to ensure reforms are sustainable.

Already, states are gearing up.

In Maryland, which sat out of round one, state officials have watched the videos from the first-round interviews, scrutinizing, in particular, states that saw a big jump in their scores because of the interview, or a big decrease.

“We know we really have to prepare and be able to convey what [Maryland’s education reform landscape] is going to look like after the four years of the grant,” said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland’s schools chief.

In Colorado, a repeat competitor, “We took some lessons from phase one,” said Nina Lopez, the state education department’s director for the federal recovery act. “The thing we want the peer reviewers to come away with is that we have a strong set of leaders who knows what’s in the plan and is ready to implement it.”

Arizona is the comeback story of the second round. The state placed next-to-last in the first round with 240 points, but it picked up at least 160 points to make it to the finals of round two.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announces the 19 finalists in round two of the Race to the Top competition in an address at the National Press Club in Washington on July 27.

“We did not give up—instead we pushed even harder for the education reforms we know are critical regardless of federal funding,” Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, said in a statement. She attributed the dramatic progress to three pieces of legislation passed in the run-up to round two: laws that created new teacher and principal evaluations based in part on student progress, alternative teacher and principal certification, and improvements to the state’s data system.

Arizona also boasted a nearly 30-percentage-point increase in teachers’ union support for its plan in round two. Buy-in from unions and school districts was cited by Mr. Duncan as a key factor in Delaware and Tennessee winning round one, and many states aggressively sought to boost their support for round two. (“Race to Top Buy-In Level Examined,” June 16, 2010.)

California, which also failed to make the running in the first round, put together a more aggressive proposal with seven districts as the lead participants and a requirement that all participating districts adopt all parts of the state’s plan, rather than being able to pick and choose. The result was a drop in the number of districts supporting the plan.

Maryland is a different case study. It made the strategic decision—which sparked disagreements between Ms. Grasmick and Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley—to sit out round one in order to polish its proposal.

“We did not feel we could submit the highest-quality application had we done it in January,” said Ms. Grasmick.

She said Maryland’s application represents 70 percent of the state’s poor children and particularly focuses on how the state would help the most challenged districts—Baltimore and Prince George’s County—raise achievement.

In addition, a central piece of Maryland’s application is a new state law and regulations that require new teacher and principal evaluations, half of which will be based on growth in student achievement, and an increase to three years, from one year, in the time it takes for a teacher to get tenure. Both Ms. Grasmick and Gov. O’Malley support the new law, and both plan to appear before the panel of judges to support their state’s plan.

Even states that made it into the finals the first time around took big steps to bolster their chances of winning a round-two grant.

Colorado, for example, passed a sweeping new state law that more closely ties teacher evaluations to student performance. Not only will that help the state improve its performance in the teachers’ scoring category, but it will help improve its scores related to buy-in since the law doesn’t just apply to those districts choosing to participate in the state’s Race to the Top plan, Ms. Lopez said.

‘False Choice’

Mr. Duncan’s announcement of the finalists came a day after leading civil rights groups released their own education framework that blasted the department’s focus on competitive versus formula grants, specifically Race to the Top.

“We believe education is a civil right, and that means that everybody should have that right. There shouldn’t be winners and losers,” Barbara R. Arnwine, executive director of the Washington-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in an interview on July 26.

However, Mr. Duncan said that pitting the two approaches against each other—competitive versus formula funding—is a “false choice.”

“We absolutely need both,” he said July 27 in a speech to the National Press Club. He later pointed out that Race to the Top funding represents less than 1 percent of total K-12 education spending nationwide.

Timothy Daly, who has been tracking Race to the Top as the president of the New Teacher Project, said this is the better message for the department to be advancing.

“I think they’ve hit on the true message; the truth is this [Race to the Top] money is ensuring that states and districts that want to do grassroots reform have the money,” said Mr. Daly, whose New York City-based nonprofit helps urban districts train and hire teachers. “It’s not really depriving any other state of anything, as formula funding hasn’t gone down.”

As evidence of how political Race to the Top has become, the announcement of the finalists also provoked finger-pointing and criticism about who made the list of finalists, and who didn’t.

In Iowa, a Republican legislative leader accused Democratic Gov. Chet Culver of putting teacher unions ahead of school reform. In Nevada, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat, blamed Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons for not being more aggressive in pursuing reforms, according to local media reports.

The 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, meanwhile, blasted the federal Education Department for picking the District of Columbia as a finalist in the wake of news that Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee plans to dismiss 302 teachers and other school staff members, mostly for poor performance, as part of a new teacher-evaluation system that the union says was developed without input from frontline educators.

And in New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who got into a squabble with the teachers’ unions and his own education commissioner over the content of the state’s application, used his state’s good news—that of being a finalist—as an opportunity to take a swipe at the state teachers’ union.

“This announcement affirms our decision to stick with real reform and not capitulate to the watered-down, failed status quo approach advocated by the [New Jersey Education Association],” he said in a statement.

A version of this article appeared in the August 11, 2010 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Finalists Prepare for Last Pitch

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