Special Report

Race to Top Sets Stage for ESEA Reauthorization

By Alyson Klein — February 05, 2010 6 min read
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Some important clues to how the Obama administration intends to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act may be found in an indirect source: the detailed rules set out for states competing for $4 billion in grants under the economic-stimulus program’s Race to the Top Fund.

That competition offers an enticing carrot—grants ranging from an estimated $20 million to $700 million each—to states that make strides in four education redesign areas. Those priorities are: improving teacher effectiveness and distribution, ensuring rigorous collection and use of student and classroom-level data, turning around the lowest-performing schools, and bolstering academic standards and student assessments.

The four “assurances” states must make to qualify for the Race to the Top—echoed elsewhere in the stimulus law’s education provisions—are likely to form the basis for the U.S. Department of Education’s plans for the reauthorization of the ESEA, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has signaled.

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Those intentions are emphasized even more strongly in the fiscal 2011 budget proposal unveiled by the administration Feb. 1. The plan includes $3 billion in new competitive-grant funding, such as $1.35 billion to extend the Race to the Top beyond this year and $500 million in additional money for the separate Investing in Innovation program.

Broad Agenda

Education observers say the Race to the Top competition, in particular, encompasses much of the administration’s agenda. That includes encouraging the proliferation of high-quality charter schools and using student-achievement data to guide instruction and—at least to some extent—teacher pay.

“Race to the Top has everything in it,” said Vic Klatt, who served as an aide to Republicans on the House education committee for 15 years and is now a lobbyist with Van Scoyoc Associates in Washington. “There’s never been another program quite like it,” he said, since it touches on a myriad of policy areas, from what kinds of interventions states and districts should use in their lowest-performing schools to how they should decide which teachers to retain and promote.

Secretary Duncan’s strategy of spurring policy change at the state level through financial incentives—an agenda evident in various parts of the 2011 budget proposal—is getting an important test run in the Race to the Top competition.

Mr. Duncan appears to want to shift his department’s focus away from compliance and more toward innovation, said Andrew Smarick, a former department official in President George W. Bush’s administration and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The quality of states’ Race to the Top proposals—and the extent to which states follow through on their plans—will help determine whether that’s the right approach, he said.

New ESEA legislation could be introduced in the coming months to revise the current version of the law, the 8-year-old No Child Left Behind Act. But it’s far from clear that lawmakers have reached a consensus on the reauthorization’s principles. An ESEA renewal would have to compete with other domestic priorities, including shoring up the economy, overhauling financial regulations, and revamping energy and environmental policy.

Accountability Model

And the incentive approach has its limitations, Mr. Klatt said.

“I don’t see how [an incentive-only approach] could ever work in Title I,” Mr. Klatt said, referring to Title I grants to districts, which help cover the cost of educating disadvantaged students and are considered the main vehicle for implementation of the ESEA. “Essentially, we’d be saying that schools that continue to do badly don’t deserve any federal help, and that’s just not Title I.”

It also remains unclear what impact the policies that the department has encouraged states to adopt through the Race the Top could have on the accountability system at the heart of the No Child Left Behind edition of the ESEA.

The administration’s budget proposal includes language indicating the department wants to revamp or replace the model of adequate yearly progress, or AYP, which holds schools accountable for bring students to proficiency by 2014. The budget blueprint would seek to refocus that mechanism toward assuring that students are ready for college or a career.

Such efforts could be bolstered by the Race to the Top competition. States get an edge in winning those grants if they take part in an effort to create common academic standards. Right now, the main national effort in that area is being driven by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

So far, 48 states have signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, in part, advocates say, to better position themselves for a Race to the Top grant. And the Education Department is helping to further the push by setting aside $350 million in economic-recovery money to aid states in developing common tests.

Regardless of which states win Race to the Top grants, the initiative could have a lasting impact on the way that student progress is measured under the ESEA, said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, in an interview before the budget proposal was released.

Under the NCLB law, schools must test students in reading and math at least once a year in grades 3-8, and once in high school. Schools that fail to meet achievement targets under the law, both for the student population as a whole and for individual subgroups, such as students in special education, are subject to increasingly serious sanctions. States are permitted to set their own standards and select their own assessments.

Mr. Wilhoit said the CCSSO-NGA initiative and the stimulus-funded common-assessments program could help address a perennial criticism of the current law: that it unintentionally rewards states for setting their standards low so that more schools can meet achievement targets.

“People are beginning [to consider] whether the current calculus that’s being used to determine [progress]would fit within the context of very high standards,” Mr. Wilhoit said.

Adjusting the System

That could pave the way for adjustments to the current accountability system as states begin to implement more-rigorous common standards, possibly including more of an emphasis on individual student growth. Such an approach is embraced in the adminstration’s budget proposal, which still will have to be considered by Congress.

The Race to the Top regulations also encourage states to adopt a number of strategies for turning around their lowest-performing schools, including closing schools and sending the students elsewhere, or turning schools over to charter-management organizations. The options also allow schools to try a comprehensive approach that includes removing the principal, adopting a new instructional program, and trying out merit pay, among other options.

A renewed ESEA could seek to codify those approaches. But education advocates may well contend that they are not appropriate for all schools, especially those that have had difficulty meeting the achievement targets under the current No Child Left Behind framework for one or two particular student subgroups or subjects.

That could put pressure on policymakers to pinpoint ways of intervening in those schools that are falling short in selected areas, perhaps through a menu of more-targeted strategies.

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Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Sets Stage for ESEA


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