Special Report

Rich Prize, Restrictive Guidelines

By Michele McNeil — August 10, 2009 6 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education’s proposed guidelines for awarding $4 billion in Race to the Top Fund money send a strong message that any state hoping to land a competitive grant should expect to allow student test scores to be used in decisions about teacher compensation and evaluation.

The draft plans outlined by department officials last month call for states to be judged on 19 education reform criteria, including how friendly they are to charter schools and whether they cut state K-12 funding this year.

In addition, the department is setting two absolute preconditions: States must have been approved by the Education Department as eligible to receive fiscal-stabilization funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (most already have been), and states must not have any laws in place barring the use of student-achievement data for evaluating teachers and principals.

States not meeting those two absolutes would be ineligible to compete for aid from the Race to the Top Fund, a comparatively small—but highly coveted—slice of some $100 billion in federal economic-stimulus aid for education. That policy could eliminate California and New York, big states with powerful congressional delegations and lots of students, but with legal fire walls between student and teacher data.

Being able to link teacher and student data is “absolutely fundamental—it’s a building block,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a recent interview. “When you’re reluctant or scared to make that link, you do a grave disservice to the teaching profession and to our nation’s children.”

Timetable for Grants

So far, the criteria are just proposals—but important enough to command President Barack Obama’s attention.

Draft Criteria

The Education Department is proposing to use 19 criteria in awarding Race to the Top Fund grants. Each category mirrors areas outlined in the federal stimulus law in which states must “assure” that steps are being taken toward improvement.

Standards and assessments

• Developing and adopting common standards

• Developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments

• Making the transition to enhanced standards and high-quality assessments

Data systems to support instruction

• Implementing a statewide longitudinal-data system

• Making a state’s data system accessible to key stakeholders (for example, parents, teachers, community members)

• Using data to improve instruction

Improving teachers and leaders

• Providing alternative pathways for aspiring teachers and principals

• Differentiating teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance, including supporting merit-pay programs

• Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals

• Reporting the effectiveness of teacher- and principal-preparation programs

• Providing effective support to teachers and principals

Turning around struggling schools

• Intervening in the lowest-performing schools and districts

• Increasing the supply of high-quality charter schools, including not imposing a cap on their expansion

• Turning around struggling schools

Overall Criteria

• Demonstrating significant progress in the four education reform “assurances” and using other stimulus funding for reform

• Making education funding a priority, including not severely cutting K-12 education aid in 2009 from 2008 levels

• Enlisting statewide support and commitment, including from charter school authorizers and teachers’ unions

• Raising achievement and closing gaps

• Building strong statewide capacity to implement, scale up, and sustain proposed plans

Source: U.S. Department of Education

“This competition will not be based on politics or ideology or the preferences of a particular interest group. Instead, it will be based on a simple principle—whether a state is ready to do what works,” Mr. Obama said in a July 24 speech at the Education Department, when the proposed criteria were announced. “Not every state will win, and not every school district will be happy with the results.”

The department is accepting comments until Aug. 28, and will make any changes before the rules and criteria become final in October.

States would have 60 days to apply for the first round of grants, with applications due in December. Awards would be made by the end of March. The second wave of grants would go out in September 2010, with applications due in late spring. A state that won a phase-one grant would not be eligible for a phase-two grant.

A state’s governor would have to officially apply for the money, but its state education chief and the president of its state education board would also be required to sign off. Federal officials would also want to see evidence of support for a state’s plan from key stakeholders, such as the state teachers’ union.

Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester, whose state is often singled out by Obama administration officials for its education reform initiatives, said it will be a challenge to show the kind of support for a state’s plan that Secretary Duncan and his staff are proposing as a criteria.

Getting that much consensus in such a short period of time, Mr. Chester said, means states run the risk of having to “water down” their proposals.

The Race to the Top Fund is just $4.35 billion of the $100 billion in education aid in the $787 billion recovery act passed by Congress in February—with $350 million already committed to fund development of assessments as part of a national common-standards initiative.

But the fund is giving the education secretary important leverage. Mr. Duncan has made clear he intends to use the competitive grants to cajole states into making specific policy moves, such as lifting caps on the expansion of charter schools and tapping rainy-day funds rather than cutting state funding to K-12 schools. (“Racing for an Early Edge,” July 15, 2009.)

Based on ‘Assurances’

The list of proposed Race to the Top criteria is fairly predictable, revolving around the four “assurances” that states were required to make to receive federal stimulus money. The assurances call for states to adopt internationally benchmarked standards; improve the recruitment, retention, and rewarding of educators; improve data collection; and turn around the lowest-performing schools.

States that have signed on to the common-standards movement being spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers would be given preference under the Education Department’s draft. All but Alaska, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas have done so. (“46 States Agree to Common Academic Standards Effort,” June 10, 2009.)

States that allow alternative-certification routes for teachers and principals also would be looked on favorably. States also would be judged on whether they used their share of the $39.5 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund on efforts to improve education, rather than just on plugging budget holes.

Although Mr. Duncan has hammered on states to remove charter school caps, states also would be judged on how equitably they fund charter schools compared with regular public schools, and on how much funding they provide for charter school facilities.

Secretary Duncan had also stressed his disapproval of states that have laws barring the use of student-achievement data in teacher-evaluation decisions, but the proposed criteria go further: Having such a law would automatically disqualify a state.

California prohibits its newly established teacher-identification database from being used for decisions about teacher pay, promotion, evaluation, or other employment matters. In New York, state legislators barred the use of student-achievement data in tenure decisions. That law is scheduled to sunset in 2010, according to the state department of education.

“I hope states that don’t presently meet the eligibility will decide to take the steps necessary to meet it. It’s the right policy to take our education system to the next level,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller, a Democrat and the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, whose home state of California has such a law.

Teachers’ unions harbor concerns about the technical quality of the tests that would be used to judge their members’ performance, as well as the validity of many “value added” methodologies, which seek to identify the impact of a given teacher on the achievement of his or her students.

The president of the 1.4 millionmember American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, has in the past said that student test score data should be used primarily for informative and instructional purposes. (“Growth Data for Teachers Under Review,” Oct. 22, 2008.)

Education commentators, meanwhile, say that the proposed guidance sends a clear signal to the teachers’ unions.

“This is clearly poking the unions in the eye,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy at the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former Education Department official under President George W. Bush.

Questions Remain

Still unresolved is whether any of the remaining criteria would be given more weight than others, and if so, which ones.

And while states would be judged heavily on their plans for the Race to the Top money, it’s still unresolved how Education Department officials would balance a state’s proposed reform plan and the policies the state already has in place.

“We’re not just looking for a plan but a commitment, … what you are doing now,” Mr. Duncan said. “This is not about the hypothetical. You must demonstrate to us your plans, ideas, and capacity to deliver on this.”

Staff Writer Stephen Sawchuk contributed to this story.

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Rich Prize, Restrictive Guidelines


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