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RACE TO THE TOP: Obama, Duncan Outline Requirements of $4.35 Billion Program

“This competition will not be based on politics or ideology or the preferences of a particular interest group.”

On July 24, President Obama joined U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to announce the criteria states must meet to win a competitive grant under the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund. “Better standards. Better teaching. Better schools. Data-driven results. That’s what we will reward with our Race to the Top Fund,” Obama said.

With that short series of declarative sentences, Obama put an end to months of questions and maneuvers by states in an effort to paint themselves in the best light and gain an edge in the competition. The deep budget gaps that many states are facing make the Race to the Top competition even more critical for states looking to enact education reforms.

As reported by the Washington Post, several states have made proactive moves to position themselves to compete for Race to the Top funds. For example, Colorado has passed laws to align state and federal goals on turning around low-performing schools, linking teacher and student data, and helping students at risk of dropping out. “I have read every speech that Arne Duncan and President Obama have given on education like a literary critic,” said Colorado Lieutenant Governor Barbara O’Brien (D). “We all know Colorado needs this money. Nobody wanted to be the group that threw up the roadblock that would kick us out of the competition.”

Of course, Colorado is far from the only state facing money problems. According to a June 2009 report by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers, fiscal conditions deteriorated for nearly every state during Fiscal Year (FY) 2009, and weak fiscal conditions are expected to continue in FY 2010 and possibly into FY 2011 and FY 2012. As a result, states must fill the more than $183.8 billion in budget gaps between FY 2009 and FY 2011, after previously closing gaps totaling $46.2 billion.

Authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the Race to the Top Fund was designed to encourage and reward states that are most aggressively creating the conditions for education innovation and reform.

“This competition will not be based on politics or ideology or the preferences of a particular interest group,” Obama said. “Instead, it will be based on a simple principle—whether a state is ready to do what works. We will use the best evidence available to determine whether a state can meet a few key benchmarks for reform—and states that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant. Not every state will win and not every school district will be happy with the results. But America’s children, America’s economy, and America itself will be better for it.”

Under the draft guidelines issued last week, the U.S. Department of Education proposes to give priority to states with a comprehensive approach to the four areas of reform laid out in ARRA: developing internationally benchmarked standards and assessments; establishing longitudinal data systems; improving teacher and principal effectiveness; and providing intensive support for low-performing schools.

Within each area of reform, the department has proposed requirements that states must meet. For example, states must participate in the development of common standards and develop and implement standardized assessments aligned to these common standards. Currently, forty-six states and the District of Columbia have signed on to a state-led effort to develop common standards.

The department will also consider the extent to which the state has structures in place that permit alternative certification programs for teachers, plans to increase the effectiveness of teachers and principals and improve teacher distribution to hard-to-staff areas, and plans to use multiple rating categories to make decisions that include teacher tenure and dismissal procedures. It will also be looking to see if a state has a plan to link student achievement data to teachers and principals and track that information back to the credentialing programs. Obama was careful to point out this criterion in his speech. “Any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways if it wants to compete for a grant,” he said.

The department will also examine each state’s charter school laws and its plan to identify, at minimum, the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools (or lowest-performing five schools, whichever is larger). It will also evaluate state plans to support school districts with coherent turnaround plans for schools and flexibility to the school leadership.

Finally, to be eligible for consideration, a state’s data system must include all twelve of the elements from the America COMPETES Act.1 Each state must also ensure its data system is accessible and it must increase the use of assessments to inform instruction.

Stakeholders will have thirty days to comment on the proposed guidelines that were issued last week. After that point, the Department will issue final rules and will begin accepting grant proposals from states. It plans to award Race to the Top grants in two phases—one near the end of 2009 and the other in spring 2010.

More information about Race to the Top, including the proposed guidelines

President Obama’s complete remarks

1) The first ten elements of the America COMPETES Act are the same as those endorsed by the Data Quality Campaign. The two additional elements are 1) information regarding the extent to which students transition successfully from secondary school to postsecondary education, including whether students enroll in remedial coursework; and 2) other information determined necessary to address alignment and adequate preparation for success in postsecondary education.

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