In final heat for Race to the Top
Switching from a big-tent strategy, with a lot of districts committing to little, to a pup-tent strategy, with a few districts pledging to do a lot, has paid off so far for California in Race to the Top.
The state learned on Tuesday that, having improved its score by at least 20 percent, it will join 17 other states and the District of Columbia as finalists in the competition for $3.4 billion in the federal education money. Thirty-five states had applied in the second round.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan wouldn’t rank the states or give their scores, other than to say that 400 points out of a possible 500 was the cutoff for finalists. California’s gain of at least 63 points, from 337, was nearly triple the average state increase of 23 points from the first to the second round.
Between 10 and 15 states are expected to be awarded money, so, depending on where California is in the standings, California could come away with all or some of the $700 million it is seeking. On the week of Aug. 9, a team of five, yet to be announced, will go to Washington to pitch the state’s case. Winners will be named in September. Only two states, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded money in the first round. But 13 first-round finalists are also finalists in the second round.
In the first round, for all the good that it did, the state was able to rustle up the support of 745 school districts, county offices of education and charter schools, who signed vague pledges to come up with reforms once the state got the money. California came in 27th out of 40.
This time, seven superintendents with a record of reforms – from Long Beach, Fresno, San Francisco, Sacramento, Clovis, Sanger and, perhaps most important, Los Angeles – led a bottom-up process. They came up with a more specific proposal with commitments to make significant changes in how teachers and principals are trained, placed, evaluated and paid, how student data and technology will be used, and how students will be made ready for college and careers. By the end, 300 districts and charter schools had signed MOUs. They comprise 1.7 million children – less than a third of the state’s K-23 students – but 68 percent of those students come from low-income households.
California’s district-centric approach may be distinct among the applications, and must have intrigued the panel of five reviewers.
But California has a lot of liabilities that judges will be hard-pressed to overlook. Its data system is kludgy; teachers unions refused to sign MOUs pledging support; the state is being sued over seniority-based layoffs and inadequate school funding; its plans for performance pay and new evaluations still have to be negotiated in each district. Other finalists have worked through these problems, particularly at a state level.
But Long Beach Unified Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser said that because of the political stalemates in Sacramento, the Race to the Top districts can make the case that they offer a credible alternative and model for California. The seven lead districts are working together on personnel and data questions. Long Beach has a data system that can track students through community college and Long Beach State. Each district can decide, with its unions, whether bonus pay will go to individuals or to schools that meet goals.
In its application, the districts commit to taking strong actions that should have an effect on erasing the achievement gap. They pledge:
- By school year 2013-14, underperforming schools with high poverty rates will have teacher retention rates equal to or greater than the other schools within their district.
- By a year from August, districts will create a new evaluation system for teachers and principals, with at least 30 percent of the evaluation based on student growth (not necessarily standardized test scores alone);
- By 2013-14, all principals will be evaluated using the new system, and tenure and promotion decisions will be made based on evaluation ratings; five alternative pay plans, based on teacher effectiveness, will be piloted.
Steinhauser said that even if California doesn’t get any money in this round, the seven districts have agreed to continue working together on reforms in the application.