Posts Tagged ‘Race to the Top’

ARRA Meets the Frontier

May 12, 2010

One challenge for any federal program is to try to make it work, more or less, for each of the 50 states, regardless of size, demographics, etc. The Recovery Act may be having troubles accomplishing that.

In late April, 13 rural states sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, describing issues they face as they try to compete for ARRA school improvement and Race to the Top grants.

With respect to school improvement grants, the letter asserts that rural states are hard-pressed to implement any of the four available “intervention models” to transform underachieving schools.

For example, the letter points out that the “turnaround model,” which would require firing the principal and half the staff of a failing school, simply isn’t viable for many rural schools:

[M]any of our districts are considered frontier. . . .Districts in the remote areas [face challenges] regarding recruitment and retention of principals and staff. The challenges of these lowest performing districts do not rest solely on the backs of their principal, and we struggle to find quality administrators willing to take the helm of a school in such dire circumstances. Further, the idea of firing half the staff at these schools and finding replacements is a virtual impossibility.

Charter schools, which are also supported by stimulus dollars may also be unrealistic in rural states. It certainly stands to reason that there may not be enough students in rural areas to support charter schools. On top of which, as the letter notes, charter schools may not be viable politically. The states suggest that federal regulations could be removed from existing public schools, allowing states to use their existing resources in a charter school manner.

The rural states’ letter also says that the rigorous Race to the Top grant applications are forcing them to shift their attention and resources away from their main work at a time when they are already stretched thin.   Possibly true. But we’d be surprised if even the most densely populated states didn’t share that concern.


Leaving Cash on the Table…

May 4, 2010

Indiana’s school system bowed out of Round Two of Race to the Top in late April. Why would a state walk away from a potentially huge education bonanza? We looked into the issue, and here’s what we found.

For one thing, Indiana officials complain that the Race to the Top scoring favors states with fewer teachers’ unions. Whether or not this was intentional in any way is immaterial. Indiana has 293 school districts, more than many other states, and it was a Herculean task to get all the unions and education leadership on the same page.  Kim Preston, Director of Communication for Indiana’s Department of Education adds that Delaware, which won about $100 million in the first round of Race to the Top funding, has few enough school districts that they could all talk around a single table.

Indiana’s Dale Chu, Senior Adviser for School Leadership & Policy, explains that the challenge of getting so many individuals to play nicely together makes it nearly impossible to get wide-spread  buy-in for bold reforms.

The federal emphasis on getting that buy-in from teachers unions is certainly understandable. But Chu speculates that there could have been another worthwhile approach: using the awards to incentivize bolder reforms as opposed to guaranteeing achievability.  It would have sent a very interesting message, says Chu, if a state like Louisiana, which had some of the boldest reforms, would have won money in the first round instead of finishing 11th.

Another question from Indiana about the scoring and the Race to the Top judges: “There wasn’t consistency from the reviewers. The feds did not throw out high scores or low scores even if they seemed to be an anomaly,” says Chief Operating Officer Heather Neal. “While the [scoring] rubric we had seemed specific, we’re not sure how standardized the training or implementation was.”

By way of example, Chu points again to Louisiana’s grades: “Two [of their five reviewers] said they didn’t submit a bold, comprehensive reform plan. I don’t think you can find two other people in the country who didn’t think they had a bold reform plan.”

But all of these concerns aside, Neal, Preston, and Chu agree that the Race to the Top’s competitive reform grant-making has been catalytic. (“It can’t be overstated how valuable some of those conversations we had here internally were,” Chu says.)  In fact, their main worry is that it will be a  once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, rather than a dynamic, ongoing shift in federal education support.

Judging the judges

April 5, 2010

Highlighting a quote from Colorado’s Gov. Bill Ritter, today’s New York Times explores state reactions to being bypassed in the first round of the Race to the Top contest. The quote: “It was like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a Soviet judge from the 1980s.”

Update: Hawaii Education

March 31, 2010

Yesterday, we mentioned that some in Hawaii think the state’s current educational power-sharing arrangement might impede its ability to achieve the goals it set in the Race to the Top competition. We’ve just gotten word that some reforms to the current arrangement may be up for change in a statewide referendum this autumn. For more, see this item from the Honolulu Advertiser.

And for further thoughts about why Hawaii didn’t make the Race to the Top cut, see this item in the Honolulu Star Bulletin.

Hawaii: A very slow race to the top?

March 30, 2010

Lowell Kalapa, executive director and president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, wrote to us in response to our recent post about Hawaii incorporating its Race to the Top goals into the state’s education strategic plan. We were positively impressed by the idea that Hawaii intended to continue to pursue those goals, whether or not it got any Race to the Top money.

But Kalapa has some interesting thoughts about the feasibility of the goals set forth in the first place. He wrote:

I am a little surprised that you . . . were impressed with Hawaii’s effort to secure the Race for the Top money . . . While they have set outcomes, they are pretty lofty and given the current state of affairs in education, those goals may be very challenging to achieve.  As you may or may not know, Hawaii adopted a plan of “furlough Fridays” as a way to cut expenditures in education.  There will be 17 furlough Fridays this year where no classes will be held and a planned 17 for next year.  Hawaii will have the shortest school year in the nation.  This does not make parents happy . . .

“In large part many of the challenges facing the Department of Education stem from a dysfunctional elected Board of Education which allows the buck to be passed from the Board to the legislature to the Governor, none of whom seem to want to shoulder the responsibility (read blame) for the sorry state of affairs.  Layer on top of that a powerful teachers’ union and you have all the fixin’s for a failing system. Despite accounting for more than half of the state’s general fund operating budget, the Department of Education has failed to meet the standards imposed by ‘No Child Left Behind.'”

Kalapa reminds us that sticking something in a strategic plan won’t get it accomplished without strong managerial leadership, political backing, and the constitutional wherewithal for change. In a followup conversation, Kalapa explained that the governor and legislature make the budgetary decisions, but the Board of Education—which is not appointed by the governor—makes the managerial decisions, a situation that three former Hawaiian governors have pushed to reform in order to better align funding and management decisions.

“When you talk about the Race to the Top goals,” Kalapa says, “it is going to be hard to get there because I don’t see the collaborative efforts—the teacher’s union, the support staff, the legislature, the governor, and the school board.”

Race to the Top chatter

March 30, 2010

With only Delaware and Tennessee selected to win Race to the Top grants yesterday, there was lots of theorizing about other applications that didn’t make the final cut  Here are a handful of comments we’ve pulled from press accounts:

  • In  The Washington Post “D.C. Schools Insider” —  Bill Turque writes: “Speculation has centered around problems with development of its data warehouse system for school information. The District‘s application was also not signed by Washington Teachers’ Union president George Parker, an omission that may also have cost points.”
  • In  The Washington Post “The Answer Sheet” – Valerie Strauss suggests North Carolina was done in by a cap that limits charter schools to 100 statewide.
  • In The New York Times, Jennifer Medina noted that the  New York loss was pretty easily explained by a state law that bars tying teacher tenure decisions to test score data, as well as by its cap on the number of charter schools.
  • Discussion in the Lexington Herald-Leader centered around Kentucky‘s  perceived need for charter school legislation to improve  its chances in the second round.
  • An article in the Washington Post by Nick Anderson and Bill Turque suggested that Florida and Louisiana fell short because they both lacked “broad union support.”
  • Lack of union support also was cited in the Enterprise Blog by Andrew Smarick as hurting Rhode Island.
  • In Colorado, Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who led the state’s Race to the Top efforts, told The Denver Post that Colorado needed more buy in from rural school districts and local unions. She also wondered whether Colorado’s emphasis on local control may have been a factor.
  • A lack of commitment from South Carolina state leaders was cited by Ron Barnett at

State scores in the Race to the Top application process are posted on the U.S. Department of Education website. You can also find applications, scores and comments from reviewers.

Race To the Top Finalists and a Clear Crystal Ball

March 29, 2010

Around 11:00 this morning, the winners of the Race to the Top competition for education-oriented stimulus dollars were announced. According to the Washington Post’s website, they are Tennessee and Delaware.

According to the Post, “Education Secretary Arne Duncan picked the winners after a team of judges in the Race to the Top competition unexpectedly gave tiny Delaware the highest ranking, with Tennessee close behind. Delaware won as much as $107 million and Tennessee could be awarded $502 million.” The immediate runners up were Georgia and Florida.

Meanwhile, there’s likely to be a fair amount of debate about how these two states were picked. And we have a little light to shed. Recently, The National Counsel on Teacher Quality selected three states that appeared to be the strongest contenders to get the green light — two of which were Delaware and Tennessee.

That’s pretty impressive we think. How did they get their batting average so high? They didn’t look at state budgets or the hundreds of pages of appendices attached. They simply looked at the “narrative portions of the ‘Great Teachers and Leaders’ section of each finalist’s application only, because it is the place where states are asked to provide their visions for recruiting, preparing, evaluating, retaining and rewarding effective teachers in their states.”

Race to the top . . . even without the cash

March 19, 2010

A little while back, on the day when the finalists for “Race to the Top” money were announced, we suggested that,  “If Race to the Top is successful, it may help to usher in a new era in which competitive selection is used by the federal government in a way that could motivate states, counties or cities to focus more closely on improvements in performance outcomes.”

We’re still hoping that’s true.

But we just came across a piece in the Honolulu Star Bulletin that points to other potentially positive results of the competition to share in about $4.3 billion of federal funding intended to help improve school outcomes. According to the article Hawaii’s Department of Education “has incorporated the core of its ‘Race to the Top’ application in its 2011-2016 strategic plan, meaning it aims to achieve the stated goals whether or not it wins the federal money.”

That would be an impressive accomplishment for Hawaii and other states that may follow the same path. There is at least one sticky point, however: If all the states adopted all the “Race to the Top” goals, a good number would be doomed to failure on one front: the effort to ensure that students of a state will meet or exceed the national median by 2018 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Sadly, Lake Wobegon is the only place where all the children can be above average.

Race to the Top: A New Beginning?

March 4, 2010
There’s a pot of cash and the states can come and get it – if they follow the desired performance standards. . . . In the case of Race to the Top, “the very sweet carrot,” as  Posner puts it, has created real momentum for reform at the state level.

Around 1:00 P.M. today, the Department of Education announced that 15 states and the District of Columbia have been selected as finalists for the first installment of  “Race to the Top,” grants. This much-discussed element of the  stimulus was designed to spur innovation and performance improvement in state education systems. The finalists were picked out of 41 applicants. Those that were turned away – as well as new entrants — will have an opportunity to try again in the second round.

The finalists: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

The importance of Race to the Top goes a lot deeper than this set of grants. The Government Accountability Office and others who focus on performance have long been looking at ways that grants can be more performance oriented. [See the September, 2006 GAO report on “Enhancing Performance Accountability” in grant management.]

If Race to the Top is successful, it may help to usher in a new era in which competitive selection is used by the federal government in a way that could motivate states, counties or cities to focus more closely on improvements in performance outcomes.

The federal grants were scored based on 30 selection criteria. States moved forward on a number of fronts over the last year in order to make themselves more attractive candidates. According to an early January Education Week article about Race to the Top inspired reforms, the application criteria encouraged Alabama Governor Bob Riley to call for legislative action to permit charter schools. A number of other states, similarly, changed laws that limited charters.

One of the key requirements for applicants is the ability to link student achievement data to teacher evaluation. That led governors in Tennessee and Maine to push for legislative measures that would facilitate that connection. Last October, California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger worked with the legislature to remove a data firewall that prohibited the use of test scores to evaluate teachers.  That barrier “would have put the state out of the running for the Race to the Top,” wrote Erik Robelen in Education Week.

Paul Posner

We talked with ever-helpful Paul Posner (left)  about this a few days ago. Now director of the Masters in Public Administration program at George Mason University, Posner had a long and distinguished career at the Government Accountability Office, which he left in 2005. He sees Race to the Top as a departure from a more punitive compliance-oriented federal approach that sparked tremendous state resistance to both the No Child Left Behind and Real ID programs. In contrast, Race to the Top didn’t impose rules or standards on states, he says, but harked back to methods of the Great Society and New Deal, using cooperative federalism and relying on the “catalytic role that grants can play.”

The idea is that there’s a pot of cash and the states can come and get it – if they follow the desired performance standards. If you don’t want the money, you don’t have to play.  In the case of Race to the Top, “the very sweet carrot,” as Posner puts it, has created real momentum for reform at the state level.

“The whole Recovery Act has regenerated interest in federal grants as a tool to promote new national policies. Race to the Top is a pull rather than a push. It has the potential to change priorities and standards over time.”