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“With this competition, we are inviting districts to show us how they can personalize and individualize education for a set of students in their schools.”

On May 22, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a new $400 million Race to the Top (RTT) program for school districts to create plans for individualized classroom instruction aimed at closing achievement gaps and preparing each student for college and a career.

In announcing the competition, Duncan said it was “aimed squarely at the classroom level” and the “all-important relationship” between teachers and students. “With this competition, we are inviting districts to show us how they can personalize and individualize education for a set of students in their schools,” he said. “We must take classroom learning beyond a one-size-fits-all model and bring it into the twenty-first century.”

The U.S. Department of Education is positioning the district-level competition as the “next phase” to the RTT state-level competition, which it said has “inspired dramatic education reform nationwide” and led forty-six states to “pursue higher standards, data-driven decisions making, greater support for teachers, and turnaround interventions in persistently low-performing schools.” The district competition will build on those principles at the classroom level and provide teachers with strategies and tools—including digital learning, which is featured prominently in the proposed requirements—to help every student learn at his or her own pace.

Duncan said the program would fund roughly twenty grants in the range of $15 million to $25 million. He added that the competition would be designed so that rural areas and school districts in states that did not win RTT state-level grants would have an equal opportunity to compete for the funds.

Specifically, districts or groups of districts serving at least 2,500 students with 40 percent or more qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch are eligible to apply and can request funding to support learning strategies that personalize education in all or a set of schools, within specific grade levels, or select subjects.

According to the department’s RTT district competition draft executive summary, successful districts will “provide the information, tools, and supports that enable teachers to truly differentiate instruction and meet the needs of each child.” They will “organize around the goal of each child demonstrating content and skills mastery and credentialing required for college and career” and “will allow students significantly more freedom to study and advance at their own pace—both in and out of school.” Successful districts will also create opportunities for students to identify and pursue areas of “personal passion.” The document stresses that each of these student-directed learning opportunities will occur in the context of ensuring that each student demonstrates mastery in critical areas identified in college- and career-ready standards.

The department adds that school districts that successfully implement this approach to teaching and learning will “lay the modern blueprint for raising student achievement, decreasing the achievement gap across student groups, and increasing the rates at which students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers.”

The department is inviting comments on the proposed requirements until June 8. The final requirements will be released this summer with grants awarded by December 31, 2012. More information on the program, including eligibility criteria, application requirements, and selection criteria, is available at

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.