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‘Race to Top’ Viewed as Template for a New ESEA

By Alyson Klein — January 04, 2010 7 min read
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Educators hoping for a glimpse at the next rendition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act may want to take a close look at the rules for the Race to the Top program, which pushes states to adopt education redesign principles that federal officials say are likely to be the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s plans for a new ESEA.

The $4 billion Race to the Top competition, created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aims to reward states for making progress on a series of redesign “assurances,” including turning around low-performing schools, improving teacher quality and distribution, bolstering state data systems, and improving the use of data and assessments.

Those themes are likely to inform the U.S. Department of Education’s plans for reauthorization of the ESEA, of which the 8-year-old No Child Left Behind Act is the most recent iteration, said Carmel Martin, the department’s assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development, in an interview with Education Week reporters late last year.

Duncan on ESEA Reauthorization
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discusses the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act during an interview with staff writers from Education Week on November 30, 2009, in Bethesda, Md.
—Video by Charlie Borst/Education Week

“I think some of our big-picture goals are, first, to carry through the reform agenda that we see in Race to the Top and other [recovery act] programs, to carry that forward through ESEA,” said Ms. Martin, one of the officials who have been tapped to lead the department’s effort on renewing the main federal law in precollegiate education.

The guidelines for the Race to the Top Fund’s competitive-grant program, which were made final in November, give insight into just which policies the administration would like states and districts to adapt to help advance the four principles.

The list comes complete with a 500-point system explaining just how much each move will bolster a state’s application.

States can give themselves an edge in the competition by encouraging proliferation of high-quality charter schools, measuring student progress through comprehensive data systems, and compensating and promoting educators at least partly on the basis of student performance, among other policies.

And states are considered ineligible for a slice of the Race to the Top funding if they have laws on the books that prohibit the linking of student-achievement data with teacher effectiveness. Such states arguably include New York and Nevada.

“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 no program quite like it. It encompasses pretty much the whole Obama administration agenda.”

Competitive Considerations

To continue to encourage states and districts to embrace certain education improvement practices

Familiar Themes

Education advocates in Washington are betting that the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will incorporate these “four assurances” of education improvement efforts demanded of states hoping to tap economic-stimulus aid to stabilize their budgets or to win some of the $4 billion in Race to the Top Fund grants.

• Turning around the lowest-performing schools.

• Bolstering state data systems in order to link K-12 systems with early learning, higher education, workforce, social services, and other state data.

• Improving teacher quality and the distribution of effective teachers.

• Strengthening standards and assessments.

Source: Education Week

after the Race to the Top money has been spent, the Education Department could urge Congress to create new incentive programs under the ESEA reauthorization, or boost authorized funding levels for existing ones, said Andrew Smarick, a former department official under Secretary Margaret Spellings and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

For instance, to promote effective charter schools, the administration could raise the authorization level for charter school grants, which are governed under the ESEA, he suggested.

It is also possible that the administration could go further than simply using grant competitions to promote policies it favors and make adopting certain practices a contingency for receiving Title I aid for disadvantaged students, Mr. Smarick added.

That strategy could include asking districts to rework their teacher-tenure rules, he suggested. He said such a policy could be hard to enact, however, in part because of district-level collective bargaining agreements.

And generally, it may be tougher for the department to prod states to adopt sweeping changes in the ESEA, partly because the money governed under the law is generally formula-driven rather than competitively awarded, policy advocates say. That means school districts—and the federal lawmakers who represent them—may be less willing to target funds to new policy initiatives, said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council of Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that works to restructure the teaching profession.

She said she expects the department’s vision for the ESEA to have language “very similar” to that covering the Race to the Top, but “without as much punch” because it’s hard to be “as experimental in statute as you can be in competition.”

Common Standards, Tests?

It’s also less clear what impact some of the policies the Race to the Top program has urged states to adopt will ultimately have on how districts measure student progress, and how these policies improve schools struggling to meet the goals of No Child Left Behind, the current ESEA.

For instance, Race to the Top guidelines award states up to 40 points, out of a possible 500, for participating in an effort to create common academic standards and student assessments.

Right now, the highest-profile effort in support of more-uniform standards is being led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. So far, 48 states have signed on to that effort, in part, observers say, to better position themselves for the Race to the Top competition.

If the initiative indeed leads to common, more rigorous standards, it is likely to have implications for the new version of the ESEA, said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the schools chiefs’ group.

“I think it will lead to a whole new way of calculating [achievement]” under the law, he said.

One of the most frequent criticisms of No Child Left Behind is that states are unintentionally rewarded for setting their standards lower and choosing less rigorous tests so that they are able to meet the law’s goals for moving all students to proficiency in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

By encouraging states to work on common standards, the Race to the Top guidelines are likely to change that, Mr. Wilhoit said.

When lawmakers rewrite the ESEA, Mr. Wilhoit said, they will have to consider how to “set ambitious targets for the future in a way that encourages people to go to high standards,” while allowing states “some time and the ability to [close] the gap between what we’re now able to do and what students need to know.”

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, the CCSSO-NGA project, could also lead to a new generation of assessments, including more of an emphasis on so-called formative tests, which gauge student progress.

How, or whether, such tests would be used for accountability or school improvement purposes under a revamped ESEA is uncertain.

The Education Department, meanwhile, has already made a move intended to improve tests by setting aside $350 million in economic-stimulus funds to help states develop common, high-quality assessments.

Under Race to the Top, states can get up to 10 extra points for working with other states to develop and implement common tests.

Lowest Performers

The Race to the Top regulations also devote a significant chunk of points to rewarding states that have taken steps to begin revamping their lowest-performing schools.

Those policies, which include such measures as closing low-performing schools or turning them over to charter operators, could be codified as part of the renewal of the ESEA, education lobbyists say.

The Race to the Top language mirrors regulations issued for the Title I School Improvement Grant program, which is meant to help turn around the very lowest-performing schools in a state. The program received $3 billion under the stimulus law.

But, in the coming ESEA reauthorization, the Education Department school improvement beyond the strategies outlined in the Race to the Top and the improvement-grant program, said Jamie Fasteau, the vice president for federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington advocacy group that works to promote high school completion for students deemed at risk of academic failure.

The Race to the Top initiative “presents a very clear guide on what they want to do with the lowest of the lowest-performing schools,” Ms. Fasteau said of department officials, but for the “huge majority of the schools that don’t make [sufficient progress under No Child Left Behind], the vast majority will not be the bottom 5 percent. … What we’re trying to apply in Race to the Top wouldn’t be appropriate for the vast majority,” she said, referring to schools that might have missed meeting the goals of the law because of the performance of a single student subgroup.

A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Viewed as Template for ESEA

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