States Rewrite Education Rules, With or Without Race to the Top

 
U.S. Department of Education photo

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the chief decision-maker on Race to the Top, visits a classroom in Washington D.C.

Some of the states rejected for federal "Race to the Top" education grants are proceeding to revamp their school systems anyway — in some cases more ambitiously than states that won.  

Colorado, for example, is moving forward with a new system tying teacher and principal reviews to student performance. That sort of linkage is central to the Race to the Top program. "We've had dramatic changes," says Mike Johnston, a Democratic state senator who sponsored the legislation creating the new system. Johnston says losing out on the federal grant "was more of an opportunity to lay out our plan for reform."

Colorado is one of six states — along with Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and South Carolina — that achieved finalist status in the first two rounds of the U.S. Education Department's $4 billion Race to the Top competition but walked away empty-handed.

One year later, officials in several of these states say they're proceeding with plans outlined in their grant applications, albeit at a slower pace than they might have hoped for. "The funding simply isn't there," says Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Even at a slower pace, education experts say some of these states are making more progress than some of the Race to the Top winners - all of whom have requested amendments to their initial applications. "It's a mixed bag," Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says of the competition's winning states. "There are some places like Hawaii where we really aren't seeing too much activity yet. Perhaps it's all behind the scenes, or perhaps it isn't."

New round of competition

States that missed out last time are getting another chance. Applications are due today for a $500 million round of awards focusing on pre-kindergarten programs, and five of the six states that have narrowly missed twice have indicated that they plan to apply. These states and several others from the last round are also eligible to apply later this year for smaller awards from a $200 million pool to support work from their previous applications, which were focused on K-12 changes. Colorado, Louisiana and Pennsylvania are considered favorites in the early learning competition.

In the first two rounds, states were asked to outline their plans to improve college and career-readiness standards, student and educator assessment, teacher recruitment and plans to turn around poorly performing lower schools. Several states were able to tout significant policy changes, but still lost out in the bid for federal grants.

Value-added in Louisiana

One of them was Louisiana. In that state, Frank Hoffmann, a Republican state representative, had introduced a "value-added" teacher effectiveness model, which ties half of a teacher's evaluation to student performance. He says it would have been nice to win the federal funds, but insists that they weren't a primary motivator for the successful legislation. "From my own perspective, Race to the Top was ancillary," says Hoffmann, a retired assistant superintendent in the Ouachita Parish School System.

Louisiana's changes haven't come without controversy. Many school districts and the state's largest teachers union still aren't sold on the "value-added" model. Joyce Haynes, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, describes it as flawed. "There's no way that using test scores as 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation is going to wash," she says. Meanwhile, school boards were concerned that the application could bring higher costs down the road.

Race to the Top reviewers docked Louisiana for that lack of school board and union support, as they did Colorado . "We still feel like it was unjust," says Johnston, the Colorado state senator, who founded an organization that trains principals. "We had reviewers who didn't really understand what we're doing."

Finding the money

In the short-term, at least, losing out on Race to the Top money means local school districts in Colorado have had to absorb more of the costs of educational change, such as a new state curriculum, which is tied to a model developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Missing out on the funds has also limited the scope of a pilot program testing the new educator effectiveness model.

"It was assumed that we would get Race to the Top to help out with that," says Colorado's Jill Hawley, chief of staff and strategy for the state's Department of Education.

The state's largest union, the Colorado Education Association, didn't back the educator effectiveness law, and, along with a third of the state's school districts, didn't sign off on the state's last Race to the Top application. The union has since been heavily involved in determining how the legislation will be implemented, but Mike Wetzel, a CEA spokesman, says the union stands by its earlier opposition. When the legislation was first introduced, he says, it wasn't clear whether it was likely to be used to help teachers improve or make it easier to fire them. "We have to look out for the teaching profession and support the best legislation that helps them in the classroom," Wetzel says.

Jacobs, of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says the Race to the Top competition served different purposes for different states. For winners such as Tennessee and Florida, where major changes were already underway, it was a chance to win financial support for work they were in the process of doing. In losing states like Colorado, she says it provided a major impetus for change, and states have continued to pass related legislation, even after the awards were made. Just last week, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, who wasn't in office during the state's first two unsuccessful bids for Race to the Top, laid out priorities for educational change that include performance-based teacher assessment and increasing the number of charter schools.

In Illinois, the legislature passed a bill this past session which created flexibility in teacher tenure rules and extended school hours. Winning one of the first two rounds of Race to the Top would have helped the state implement its education shifts, says Vanover of the Illinois State Board of Education, but coming close still helped to spur change. 

 
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