The Race Is On
With Phase 2 finalists picked, states nervously await the DOE’s judgment.
Pencils down. After a rush of activity, last-minute legislative jockeying, and a final live pitch to peer reviewers, there's nothing to do but wait for the 19 finalists in the second round of Race to the Top. The big prize—$3.4 billion in federal education reform funds—only adds to the anxiety for cash-strapped states and eager school districts.
In March, the U.S. Department of Education named just two winners in Phase 1. Delaware was awarded $100 million and Tennessee $500 million. Now, 36 applicants have been whittled down to 19. This time, 10 to 15 states are expected to receive funding; final word should come in early September.
During the spring, many states pumped up their proposals with new laws, broader support, and more details to win the favor of reviewers. In Phase 2, states were required to submit requests for exact dollar amounts based on student population, which forced many applicants to scale down their plans.
The administration asked states to advance reforms around four areas:
• Adopting standards and assessments to prepare students to succeed
• Building data systems that measure student growth and inform educators about improving instruction
• Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective classroom teachers and principals
• Turning around lowest-achieving schools
The administration's competitive strategy has forced some lasting policy changes that have many states moving down the road of education reform-whether or not they receive funding. Critics charge that RTTT will create inequity among the states and fail to provide a steady stream of needed support. While most states have stepped up to the challenge, some admit they are exhausted from the intense application process and hope other approaches will be used in the future. Whether RTTT continues depends on the passage of the president's next budget, which will be decided in Congress in the coming months.
A Slew of Statehouse Action
There has been a flurry of activity in state legislatures to align state education policy with the goals of RTTT.
Just prior to the Phase 1 deadline, Kentucky tried to strengthen its chances at funding with legislation defining persistently low-achieving schools as laid out in the RTTT rules. The measure was introduced on the day the legislature convened in January, and within 10 days it was passed, signed into law, and administrative regulations drawn up to attach to the application. "We think it holds the record for the quickest legislation in our state's history," says David Cook, project manager for the state's Race proposal.
After finishing ninth and realizing it was the only state finalist without charter school legislation, Kentucky proposed a charter school measure in the spring. But this time, the legislation didn't make it through. "That's going to hurt us again," says Cook. Still, he thinks since the state passed sweeping education reform in 2009 that aligns with RTTT goals, it is well positioned.
Florida, which finished fourth in the first round, tried to boost its chances of getting $700 million in RTTT funds by passing additional legislation revamping teacher evaluations. The controversial bill, which would have eliminated tenure and tied teacher pay much closer to student achievement, passed the state House and Senate, but was vetoed by Governor Charlie Crist in April.
Between RTTT's Phase 1 and 2, Colorado put into law new rules for how teachers earn and keep tenure. Now teachers will be reviewed annually with at least half of their rating based on whether students progressed during the school year. This change came at a cost. The state affiliate of the National Education Association that supported Colorado in the first RTTT application withdrew its endorsement in the second application.
Ohio hopes reviewers will reward it for having put in place education reform laws in 2009. "It wasn't a matter of ‘Hurry up and let's scramble to put something together,'" says Marilyn Troyer, deputy superintendent for the Ohio Department of Education. "We already had a blueprint that was the foundation for our proposal....We knew where we were headed."
While there have been some changes in 23 states and the reforms being pushed have merit, few are truly "cutting edge," says Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C. Yet, the administration was successful in leverage action—"It's better than nothing," he says.
States differed in the extent to which they sought buy-in from all parties. The local district superintendent needed to sign off to demonstrate that a school district was participating in the state's plan, but union support was optional. Since the first-round winners were lauded for having 100 percent support from their school districts, many applicants reached out to get more endorsements.
Rhode Island expanded its steering committee, asked for public input, and was more transparent in its preparation for Phase 2, says Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. This helped the state pick up nine more endorsements from local teachers unions, up from two in the first application, and all but one of the state's 36 districts signed on to the plan.
The extra time allowed for more court and union endorsements in Illinois. Support grew from 368 districts to 521, and union leader support from 115 to 242 from the first to the second round. In the midst of a budget crisis and possible cuts, educators at RTTT meetings in Illinois asked: Why education reform? "It was a logical question for districts to ask," says Mary Fergus, spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education. RTTT advocates said the state had to look long term and couldn't pass up potential federal support, says Fergus.
Georgia took a different approach.
In its bid for $460 million, the state decided to focus on turning around the lowest-performing schools and partner with 26 of the state's 181 districts, says Erin Hames, policy director for the Georgia Governor's Office. Although Georgia came in third in the Phase 1 competition, it did so without the support of the Georgia Association of Educators or the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
Will the Race Continue?
Not everyone agrees with the approach of RTTT. While recognizing the role of competitive grants, school administrators surveyed in March by the American Association of School Administrators expressed concern about the burden of the application process, the disadvantage that smaller districts face, and the budget instability of short-term grants.
"If a state gets Race to the Top dollars, it's a one-shot deal," says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the AASA. "Then what happens when the dollars run out?"
Superintendents like formula programs, but they don't lead to changes in behavior, says Petrilli of Fordham. "If you believe the education system is in need of fundamental reform, there is an argument for using competition to push the envelope," he says. AASA's complaint about $4 billion of the $100 billion being disbursed competitively is "sour grapes," says Petrilli. "They simply don't want to be reformed."
So is this the wave of the future for education reform?
"The reform that has happened has certainly been good for kids—if you believe the system needed changes and needed to shake up the status quo," says Petrilli.
But the process demanded a substantial effort and more states than not will walk away from the competition empty-handed.
Troyer of Ohio hopes other strategies will be used in the future. While Ohio has the capacity to write grants, the state is not in a position to do it year after year. "It is a huge investment of staff time and resources," she says. "We can't maintain that level of effort on an ongoing basis—we just can't."
Petrilli says the program is unlikely to be renewed by Congress. "Most states will not get the money and that will not fly on Capitol Hill," he says. "Members want to make sure their own districts get money, and the vast majority of states who didn't see a dime are not likely to sign up for a Round 3 that will have the same outcome."
Still, others say RTTT has propelled a focus on education effectiveness that will not likely go away.
"It is driving an agenda forward," says Domenech. "It is making everyone think differently about education. The promise of where this will get us is very exciting," he says.
Tennessee's "Big Responsibility"
Bipartisan reform legislation, union support, and buy-in from 136 districts helped Tennessee win $500 million in Phase 1 funds, says Amanda Anderson, deputy director of communications for the state's department of education.
Now, half of the funds will go to local districts based on their Title 1 funding formula and the other half will be used at the state level to implement the reforms.
In June, each district submitted its plan for how it would use its money over the next four years. The state is reviewing the plans and encouraging schools to use the funds for projects such as hiring a data coach temporarily to train teachers on how to better assess students' performance, rather than filling a teacher position, since the grant money will run out.
In April, a new Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee began work to develop guidelines and recommendations for a new teacher and principal evaluation. Distinctly different from previous evaluations, 50 percent of the reviews now will be based on student achievement data.
Anderson says it's like a beehive within the state education community. "We are very excited. This is a great undertaking," says Anderson. "All eyes are on us and we have to get it right. It's a big responsibility."
Delaware's Small Advantage
Tiny Delaware hopes to leverage its small size and tight-knit relationships to make the most of the $119 million gift from the federal government.
"Size has been a huge asset for us," says Lillian Lowery, executive secretary of education for Delaware. "In a state like Delaware, if one starts planning and rearranging a new order of things without the people who will be impacted, it will go down in flames pretty soon."
Within a month of getting news it had won, 150 educators gathered for a statewide meeting to start work to become a model for the nation in education reform. A week later, there was a meeting in each of the state's three counties where district teams began collaborating.
Administrators are learning about strategies behind successful programs in their neighboring districts and sharing best practices, says Lowery. "It's been a very powerful model of getting business done, and for the state that is one of the most impressionable and impactful results," she says. "We are switching the culture on how we discuss, make decisions, and get things done."
Each local education authority was given 90 days to prioritize the state's 12 areas of education reform. However, the plans will be fluid, as the state needs to be responsive to changing situations and feedback throughout the process, says Lowery.
Leaders who signed on to the plan must now share the vision with the masses. "We are moving people. In theory, people get it and understand this is the right thing to do," Lowery says. "It's going to always be a negotiation to get us where we ultimately need to be."