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States Vie to Stand Out in Race to Top Proposals

By Stephen Sawchuk & Lesli A. Maxwell — January 26, 2010 8 min read
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As peer reviewers for the U.S. Department of Education begin to comb through the thousands of pages of applications for $4 billion in federal Race to the Top Fund grants, they’ll be under pressure to determine which are most worthy of funding: those that promise the most, or those with the best chance of delivering.

In a competition whose criteria were tightly outlined, applications from 40 states and the District of Columbia contained many common themes. But the plans differ markedly on the details, and in interviews with Education Week, state officials highlighted reform proposals they believed might set them apart in the scoring process.

Among other areas, those officials noted factors such as how heavily they plan to weight student-achievement data in teacher and principal evaluations, highlighted the percentage of local school boards and unions that signed on to the plans, and promised to be even tougher than the federal guidelines in seeking to improve poorly performing schools.

Making Their Pitch

Only 20 percent of states decided to sit out the first round of competition for up to $4 billion in Race to the Top grants.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

But there is little telling what the peer reviewers will value most in rating the applications. Some plans placed more flexibility in the hands of local officials, thus winning more statewide support; others took a more prescriptive approach to teacher effectiveness and school turnarounds, but faced resistance at the district level.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been coy about revealing what might give states a leg up over others in the competition intended to spur state-level education improvements.

“We’ve never said there’s one question that’s a make or break,” Mr. Duncan said in a telephone briefing last week with reporters.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, said that many of the states’ applications can likely be tossed aside as “insincere.”

“If peer reviewers are really careful and bring to bear outside knowledge, and the department sticks to its guns about being highly selective,” Mr. Finn said, “then the winners of round one [in the grant awards] could be the sincere states that are bent on using the money to do some good.”

Even before the first grant has been awarded, the Obama administration has said it will seek $1.35 billion in next year’s budget to expand the competition, a step toward making permanent a program created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Congress passed last February to help stimulate the economy.

The states’ enthusiasm for the program is borne out by funding requests filed to meet a Jan. 19 deadline that in some cases far exceed grant estimates provided by the Education Department. Florida is asking for more than $1 billion, though it is slated to get no more than $700 million if it is chosen. Illinois, pegged to receive a maximum of $400 million, is seeking roughly $510 million. Louisiana is estimated to pull down a maximum of $175 million if it gets one of the grants, but its proposal rings in at $314 million.

At least one state, New York, already released a budget based on a $750 million win in the competition, although the Education Department’s award range tops out at $700 million.

The states’ applications will be weighed on more than 30 criteria reflecting the Obama administration’s education priorities. High among them are improving teacher and principal effectiveness, turning around low-performing schools, and using data systems effectively. Points also are awarded for states that secure signatures from school district leaders assuring that they are on board with the state’s plans.

Revamping evaluation systems so that teachers are judged, at least in part, on how well students perform is a top priority of the Obama administration, and one area of the competition in which many states are seeking to make a strong case.

Among them is Illinois, where districts that signed on to participate in the state’s Race to the Top plan agreed to make growth in student achievement count as at least 50 percent of teacher and principal evaluations by the 2012-13 academic year.

One of the most striking features of Illinois’ application is the 12 local education agencies dubbed “super LEAs.” In those districts, superintendents and union leaders have already agreed to waive portions of their collective bargaining agreements to ease the way for adopting new evaluation systems before the 2012 deadline and to take more-aggressive measures on turning around low-performing schools. Those districts would split an additional $16 million from the state’s share of Race to the Top funding, said Darren Reisberg, the deputy superintendent and general counsel for the state board of education.

“We thought there would be a small number of districts that were willing to go even further than what we are asking all the other districts to do, but we wanted it to be those that were willing to do it with their unions,” Mr. Reisberg said.

Louisiana is another of a small group of states that have pledged to make growth in student achievement at least 50 percent of what teachers are evaluated on.

“That half of what the evaluation looks like is cast in stone,” said Paul G. Pastorek, Louisiana’s state superintendent. “We will work with the [districts] to figure out what the rest of the evaluations should look like, but it will be uniform across the [local education agencies].”

Teacher-Effectiveness Plans

With teacher and leader effectiveness as the most important component of the Race to the Top competition—worth 138 points out of a total of 500—Louisiana made it the main theme of its application and elected to focus on the overhaul of evaluations as a key piece of its strategy, Mr. Pastorek said.

That insistence may have kept the state from garnering more school district support for its Race to the Top plan, although the Louisiana Federation of Teachers did offer its backing. Roughly one-third of its districts—representing about half the state’s student population—agreed to participate.

Other states that say they will base at least 50 percent of teacher evaluations on student data are Florida, Indiana, and Tennessee.

In Florida, the state application takes matters one step further, by requiring all districts to use the data to inform new performance-pay programs as well. The state has had several legislatively mandated performance-pay initiatives in the past. But the new system would contain fewer strictures than the prior efforts, and could be tailored locally as long as it included consideration of the student data, said Frances Haithcock, Florida’s chancellor of the division of public schools.

Turning Schools Around

In its pitch, Pennsylvania aimed to take a strong tack on school turnarounds.

Had the state followed the federal government’s requirement that it take aim at the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools, which is based on academic-achievement status, only 37 schools would have been targeted for intervention, said Gerald Zahorchak, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education.

Instead, the state seeks to address 128 schools, including those that are failing to move students out of the “below basic” category.

Participating districts with “turnaround” schools would receive more funding, and be expected to adopt a more prescriptive series of changes than those that are not home to such schools. The strategies would include putting a heavier focus on literacy and instituting an “early warning” system using student data.

“We wanted to be much more directive with districts that have a record of not moving kids,” Mr. Zahorchak said.

Pennsylvania, he noted, also won approval from every district, school board, and teachers’ union.

That’s also the big selling point of Colorado’s plan, which was criticized by some observers as not moving aggressively enough on teacher-effectiveness issues, but managed to win support from every district and 41 percent of those with unions.

Colorado also would make student-achievement growth worth 50 percent in evaluations. The details about what other measures would be selected and how the system would affect pay, tenure, and other policies would be recommended by a committee—created by an executive order of the governor—and then bargained locally.

“We’ve got everyone on board; they know what’s in the language. And through the executive order, we will start work before we even hear if we get Race to the Top [funding],” said Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who headed the effort to prepare Colorado’s application. “We’re going to do this no matter what. A state like Florida can’t say that.”

Officials in Florida, however, pointed to their state’s Race to the Top “memorandum of understanding,” which would forfeit the grant money for any district that did not collectively bargain the relevant terms of pay and evaluation overhauls with its union in a timely fashion, as another strong point of its bid.

Bowing Out

Even as many states worked to craft applications designed to appeal to federal officials, the competition encountered a backlash in some states. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, decided earlier this month not to enter his state in the competition, citing fear of a “federal takeover” of schools.

The state superintendent in Montana, Denise Juneau, said that the prescribed options for school turnarounds wouldn’t be applicable in her state or others with spread-out populations. “It’s really pushing an urban agenda onto our rural states,” she said of the Race to the Top.

The other states that did not apply for the first round of grants were Alaska, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, Vermont, and Washington. Those states, and any losing states from round one, will be able to apply in round two. The deadline is June 1.

First-round finalists will be asked to send a team to Washington in March to make an in-person pitch to the reviewers—a high-stakes interview that will be factored into the point total before the winners are announced in April.

Secretary Duncan said that the number of winners in the first round will be determined by the quality of the proposals, and that there is no predetermined cutoff score or set number of winners. States with the highest scores will win. The second-round winners will be announced in September.

Assistant Editor Michele McNeil and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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 January 27, 2010 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Applications Scrutinized

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