Did Race to the Top Help or Hurt the Push for a Common Curriculum?
By David Harrison, Staff Writer
Nine states and the District of Columbia were awarded stimulus-funded education grants Tuesday, ending an interstate competition called "Race to the Top." The grants, totaling $4.3 billion, rewarded states for implementing reforms advocated by the Obama administration.
Nowhere was the competition among states more fierce than in their efforts to adopt a common academic curriculum known as the "Common Core" standards. So far, 36 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the new standards. Many of them seemed motivated by the possibility that doing so would help their applications for the Race to the Top money.
Kentucky even went out on a limb by adopting the standards in February, long before a final version of them had been released. In the end, Kentucky did not receive one of the grants. The states that did include Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island; Delaware and Tennessee had won money in an earlier round of grants.
Dangling money in front of states during the toughest recession in memory has turned out to be a shrewd move for the Obama administration, which has strongly supported the idea of moving to a common curriculum. But even though advocates for the standards are encouraged by the enthusiasm with which state officials have bought into common standards, they also are wary of the political baggage that can come with an endorsement from the Obama administration.
Alabama, for example, is one of the states that has not yet passed the standards. Some on the state board of education are skeptical about giving up state control over the curriculum, which they say is on a par with the common standards anyway. "Esau in the Bible gave up his birthright for a bowl of porridge," says board member Betty Peters. "The states are giving up their authority for temporary money."
Alabama applied for Race to the Top money but was turned down. Still, the state superintendent is working to get the board of education to approve the standards when they come up for a final vote in November. "It's regrettable in some ways that it became such a core topic of Race to the Top," says Tommy Bice, the state's deputy superintendent. The standards, he adds, "really weren't developed by the U.S. Department of Education. They were developed independently of that."
A longstanding effort
As Bice suggests, the push for common standards didn't start with the federal government. Rather, it began in the states. In 2005, the National Governors Association led an initiative to get states to use the same measures to calculate graduation rates. That initiative evolved into a broader effort over the past year, as education officials from 48 states - Alaska and Texas did not participate - worked on developing a new set of academic standards for K-12 schools in conjunction with the NGA and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Those quiet state-led efforts got tied up in national politics when the administration decided to use the standards as a criterion for Race to the Top. That has made it harder for state officials to convince conservative legislators or board of education members to sign off on the Common Core standards.
In May, Virginia's new Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, announced that his state would not adopt the new standards and would not apply for the second round of federal grant money.
"Virginia's standards actually exceed those of the common core in most areas," he wrote . "And to be competitive for a RTTT grant under the current rules, we would have to lower our standards. This we cannot do."
Advocates say a common curriculum would do away with the patchwork of standards that are currently in place across the states. If all states had the same standards, students who transfer to a new school in another state during the school year could pick up where they left off. A common standard also would make it easier for colleges to know what to expect from high school graduates.
The initial rush to revise the standards has slowed, however. This month, only five states have approved the new standards. That's down from 15 in July. So far, 14 states have either turned down the Common Core standards or not yet adopted them. The push weakened considerably when the last round of finalists for Race to the Top money was announced in July and it became clear that many states were out of the running for grants.
In Nebraska, for instance, the state board of education was scheduled earlier this month to discuss the new standards, and education observers thought the board might take a vote. But the meeting came and went without any decision. That's because Nebraska did not make the cut for the federal money, says board member Jim Scheer.
"Nebraska did not qualify for the second round of Race to the Top, so some of that urgency fell by the wayside," Scheer says, adding that he doesn't expect the board will discuss the standards again until October or November.
Elsewhere, states that won't get federal grant money decided to go ahead with the administration's reforms anyway.
In a memo to the Connecticut educators earlier this month, state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan expressed his disappointment over not receiving Race to the Top money but added: "I believe our application put in place several essential initiatives that must go forward, even without the extra funding."
McQuillan also questioned "whether any process that, in effect, declares some states 'winners' and many more 'losers' is effective public policy - particularly now as our economic crisis continues."