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States Up Ante on Applications for Race to Top

By Michele McNeil & Lesli A. Maxwell — June 04, 2010 8 min read
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After 39 applicants went home losers from the first round of the Race to the Top competition, many states regrouped and raised the stakes for round two—changing laws to revamp teacher evaluations, drumming up more support from districts and teachers’ unions, and getting more aggressive about turning around low-performing schools.

The result is a field of 35 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have proposed what they assert are their boldest plans yet in hopes of capturing part of the remaining $3.4 billion in the second, and maybe last, round of the federal education sweepstakes.

Colorado rewrote its laws on teacher evaluation and tenure so that half of an educator’s rating is based on student performance, and ineffective teachers can be dismissed more easily. Rhode Island’s application is now supported by 30 percent of its local teachers’ unions, up from 5 percent in the first round. Illinois will demand more of its principal-preparation programs, starting by making them all reapply for accreditation.

“The changes you’ve seen around the country show that Race to the Top has been an incredible catalyst,” said Jonah Edelman, the chief executive officer of Stand for Children, a parent-advocacy group active in six states. “This dramatically accelerated the progress.”

Race to the Top Applications

Thirty-five states, plus the District of Columbia, applied for a share of the $3.4 billion at stake in the second round of the economic stimulus grant competition. While most states applied for money in both rounds, some dropped out this time around. Four states did not apply for funding in either.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Only 10 to 15 of the states will see their efforts literally pay off when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announces the round-two winners in late August or early September. And if Congress doesn’t agree with the Obama administration’s request to continue the program, then the Race to the Top, which is being funded with economic-stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will end.

The question remains whether the nation’s schools will get a significant return on the total $4 billion investment in competitive grants to states.

“We’ve had maybe 10 states where the school reform ball moved down the field in any significant way. And then, it wasn’t revolutionary,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, which has been tracking education stimulus spending.

Whatever the fate of the Race to the Top, round two promises to end with winners and losers being decided by the narrowest of margins, making every point in the competition’s 500-point grading scale count. In round one, 10.6 points were all that separated the two winners—Delaware and Tennessee, which were awarded a total of $600 million—from the third-place finisher, Georgia. ("$3.4 Billion Remains in Race to Top Fund,” April 7, 2010.)

Crucial Difference

The second round of competition is almost identical to the first—with one major difference. States had to adhere strictly to grant-award dollar limits set by the U.S. Department of Education, which are based on a state’s student population. In the first round, those dollar limits were suggestions, and most states sought more money than the top-line estimates.

But other tenets of the competition remain. The grading scale measures a state’s record of success, and its reform plans, in four categories: standards and assessments, data systems, teacher and principal effectiveness, and low-performing schools. Winning states must send at least half the grant money to districts to carry out the improvement plans.

See Also

Related Story: Scoring Race to the Top: A Look Behind the Curtain
In an online analysis published by Education Week, journalist Steven Brill examines the judging for round one of the competition.

Online Chat: In an exclusive Education Week chat, Brill provided a behind-the-scenes look at the judging process in the $4 billion federal stimulus-grant program. Read the transcript from this chat.

The second round featured some prominent dropouts from the competition, including Indiana and Minnesota. Both states scored in the middle of the pack the first time, but they elected not to compete again. In both cases, fierce fights with teachers’ unions over redesigning evaluations based on student performance torpedoed their efforts.

A disappointing 34th place finish for Oklahoma, however, didn’t prompt retreat. The state came back with a series of legislative changes that align with Obama administration positions: It raised the cap on charter schools, gave districts more power to fix low-performing schools, tied teacher evaluations to student performance, and made it possible to dismiss a teacher rated as “ineffective” two years in a row. And the state won statewide union support, too.

“Race to the Top definitely gave us leverage, [the opportunity for] funding, and dialogue,” said Kathy Taylor, the chief of education strategy and innovation for Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat.

Not every state had such a harmonious result.

In New Jersey, a long-running feud between Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the New Jersey Education Association exploded again over the state’s application. The governor angrily denounced a compromise that Bret Schundler, his appointed education commissioner, had brokered with the union on tenure and merit pay as part of an effort to get it to sign on to the state’s application. Scrapping those agreements, Gov. Christie submitted an application that he described in his cover letter to Secretary Duncan as including no compromises that would “achieve a contrived consensus.”

Scrambling for Points

The run-up to the second-round application deadline, which was June 1, showcased the tension in many states between needing more buy-in from districts and teachers’ unions and needing bold proposals for change that would impress Race to the Top judges. Mr. Duncan, in selecting Delaware and Tennessee as first-round winners, pointed to broad-based buy-in—in which every district in the two stateswould participate—as a key factor.

So most states turned in second-round applications with more buy-in—earned, in some cases, through more negotiation, by offering more money to districts, or by changing parts of the application.

In Illinois, where 368 school districts and 115 local teachers’ unions were on board for the state’s first-round application, the level of buy-in for phase two was even higher, with 521 districts and 246 unions. But the additional support wasn’t because any parts of the application were softened to be more palatable, asserted Robin M. Steans, the executive director of Advance Illinois, a school reform group that worked with state officials to shape Illinois’ application.

“The answer about watering down is a resounding no,” Ms. Steans said. “I think what our higher level of buy-in reflects is that there was more time. There was more time for school boards and unions to review the application and to get their questions answered.”

Illinois, which placed fifth out of 16 finalists in the first round, kept its application from that phase mostly intact, Ms. Steans said. One substantive addition, she said, should help the state make a stronger case for improving teacher and leader effectiveness. The state has a brand-new law—signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, on June 1—aimed at improving the rigor of the state’s principal-preparation programs and the quality of candidates for those programs.

Wisconsin, which placed 26th in round one, got more buy-in from districts and their teachers’ unions by offering districts more grant money for signing on and for giving them the flexibility to determine the scope and breadth of the changes they will implement, said state schools Superintendent Tony Evers.

To get that level of support, Wisconsin will also allow school districts to back out of their commitments within 90 days.

For Ohio, a round-one finalist with a 10th place showing, one of the main goals in round two was to increase the number of districts participating, said state schools Superintendent Deborah S. Delisle. This time, participating districts represent nearly 62 percent of K-12 students statewide, up from 50 percent in round one. The state persuaded some smaller districts to sign on by guaranteeing them at least $100,000 in federal money if Ohio wins.

In Maryland—a state that sat on the sidelines for the first round—all but two of the 24 school districts endorsed the Race to the Top blueprint. But one of the holdouts is Montgomery County, which, at 142,000 students, is the state’s largest district, and also its highest-achieving.

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, said William Reinhard, the spokesman for the Maryland education department. The same law will also change Maryland’s tenure system so that it takes teachers three years, rather than two, to acquire tenure.

The teacher-evaluation overhaul—which Mr. Reinhard said will affect districts regardless of whether they sign on to the Race to the Top plan—is a key reason that Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast said he would not endorse the application.

Mr. Weast, whose district is a finalist this year for the Broad Prize in Urban Education, has said he does not want to change the district’s decade-old “peer assistance and review” system of evaluation, which the teachers’ unions strongly support.

New Strategies

Not every state worked to increase district and union buy-in.

Louisiana, for example, was penalized by Race to the Top reviewers in round one for having limited statewide reach, with a plan that had won agreement to participate from only 28 of 70 districts. For round two, the state made “no effort” to amend its application to get more buy-in, and focused instead on passing legislation to increase statewide reach, state Superintendent Paul G. Pastorek said in a statement.

For example, the state legislature passed a new law last month that will require all districts to use a new “value-added model” tying teacher evaluations to students’ academic growth.

California, which finished 27th in round one, also took a different tack in round two.

Rather than seek sweeping buy-in from its school districts, which number more than 1,000, the state tightened its focus on a group of seven districts—including Los Angeles and Long Beach—where superintendents were willing to embrace more-aggressive plans than were proposed in round one. Still, more than 100 additional districts agreed to the state’s new plan, along with more than 200 charter schools.

Superintendents and other district officials from those California localities agreed to a 13-month timeline to redesign their teacher and principal evaluations, said Bonnie Reiss, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s education secretary. Those newly designed evaluations must factor in growth in student achievement as at least 30 percent of a teacher’s or principal’s annual job-performance rating.

But unlike in Colorado and Louisiana, California’s superintendents will have to persuade local union leaders to update collective bargaining agreements to reflect the new evaluations.

“We created a framework for how the evaluations would be done,” Ms. Reiss said. “But we have to respect current laws for collective bargaining.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as States Up Ante on Applications for Race to Top


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