Tuesday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the next round of Race to the Top (RTTT) program funding, with a new focus on district reform rather than states. Teacher quality, turning around low-performing schools, data quality, and improving standards would continue to be at the heart of the program according to Duncan. But the fourth round adds a new focus: personalized learning environments. Districts will have to show how they plan to address individual student needs based on feedback from student data. Schools may create individual plans for all students, similar to the process already used for students that are identified as needing special education and related services. “We need to take classroom learning beyond one-size-fits-all models and bring it into the 21st century,” Duncan said. New guidelines also require schools to connect student data with college outcomes.
The largest game changer could be a proposal to use testing to evaluate not only teachers, but also principals, and even school boards. It is unclear what these evaluations will look like when implemented, but it adds new questions to the already contentious debate of who and how to evaluate. The competition is open to all school districts with at least 2,500 students where 40 percent or more qualify for free/reduced price lunch. 15 to 20 winning districts are expected to receive $15-25 million each. Here are three early opportunities and three early concerns about the new district-level competition.
Creating a clear evaluation system for all stakeholders involved in the education system could emphasize shared accountability. The Department is asking districts to review the competition guidelines and make recommendations for how to evaluate district-level administrators. Stay tuned as the guidelines are finalized in the months ahead. Hopefully, the evaluation of district administrators will be tied to student achievement and other measures directly linked to school quality and effective management, rather than some arbitrary rating system.
For a plan to be seriously considered by the Department, district superintendents, school boards, and the local union president (if applicable) must all agree to the proposal. While this may lead to some early inter-district dissension, ultimately shared ownership of the proposal should lead to all stakeholders working toward successful implementation of the programs that are adopted. It is clear that the Department is trying to avoid the sanctions and squabbles of Hawaii by requiring up front agreement of the proposal.
Secretary Duncan hopes that competition will drive “applications of innovation.” One of the strongest aspects of this initiative is the fact that the additional money will push districts to have meaningful discussion on education reform. Many have already participated to some extent in this process as a part of their state’s RTTT plan, but districts now have the opportunity to lead the process. Even districts that do not ultimately “win” RTTT funding could still see the application process as a building block for positive education reform- the scenario that played out in several “losing” RTTT states.
How much will the proposed systems cost to implement and sustain? The applicant districts have to show how they will continue their work once the RTTT money goes away. For large districts or smaller districts in supportive states this will be less of a strain compared to the districts in states or regions with little funding, like many rural areas. The long term implications of front-loaded and temporary funding are not addressed. Providing a new beginning with lots of bells and whistles and then fading away into the sunset is a great format for television, but not so much for education reform. Unfortunately the feelings of excitement are often replaced with fears of how to pay for it all, whether it’s a new roof on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition or new expensive technology in a rural classroom.
Some districts could have a huge advantage in the competition if they are from states that have already won RTTT money or if they have enough money to hire outside consultants that were successful in earlier rounds. Successful grant writers already know the formula for a strong bid, and strategies Department of Education officials will be looking for are already being implemented by previous winners. While Secretary Duncan said he had “no idea” what the breakdown of winning districts would look like, theoretically all 20 could come from one or two states that have already received RTTT funding.
The plan is a positive step towards bringing focus to the classroom level, at the heart of teaching and learning. In my opinion, the relationship of teachers and students should always be at the forefront of education policy. Unfortunately, the initiative does not take it one step further and address the human capital deficiencies in the classroom. While Secretary Duncan says teacher quality remains a major focus, the criteria only addresses strategies for classroom instruction and whiffs on the bigger issue of who is standing in front of the class implementing these new strategies. As anyone that has ever been in a classroom knows, strategies and tools are only as effective as the teacher implementing them.
The Department of Education is looking for feedback through an open forum until June 8, with the final application release set for July.
Written by Education Sector policy intern (and former high school teacher) Jared Billings.