Race to the Top opens up to districts

Count LAUSD in; others consider applying

California school districts will finally be able to seek Race to the Top money without interference and resistance from Gov. Jerry Brown and state officials.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Tuesday announced much anticipated draft criteria for a $400 million competition open to individual districts or groups of districts nationwide. That’s enough money to fund a projected 20 proposals for grants of $15 million to $25 million, Duncan said.

For districts and qualifying schools in California, this will be the last opportunity to pursue innovative ideas and school models they have not been able to develop in cash-strapped times. The three previous Race to the Top rounds have been open only to states, and California has been shut, although it was one of nine finalists in the second cycle and was all but guaranteed at least $49 million in round three. However, Brown declined to sign the application on behalf of seven districts that put it together, because he believed it would have obligated the state to enact statewide reforms he opposed. As a result, Duncan rejected the state’s application out of hand.

That hasn’t discouraged John Deasy, superintendent for Los Angeles Unified, one of the lead districts in the aborted last round. Deasy said Tuesday that the nation’s second largest district certainly will be applying for $25 million. LAUSD’s pilot schools, its new teacher evaluation system, and experiments in other schools are the kinds of reforms that Race to the Top is encouraging, he said.

Applications will be due in July; the awards will be announced in October, and money for the grants disbursed in December.

LAUSD and the other six Race to the Top districts formed the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, to continue their work implementing Common Core and teacher evaluation. They also have been encouraging federal education officials to open up Race to the Top to districts. Hilary McLean, director of communications for CORE, said that the superintendents remain intrigued at the possibility and will examine the criteria for applying either singly, as LAUSD intends to do, or collectively.

There will be a new twist. The top priority will be, Duncan said, “personalized student-focused learning” ­– approaches and programs directed to meeting individual student needs within and outside of the classroom. The Department of Education describes these on the Race to the Top website as “collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready.”

21st century technologies

One obvious applicant pool would be districts and charter schools with a widespread use of online and blended learning; the latter is a hybrid that combines classroom instruction and online learning. California has leaders in blended learning: Palo Alto-based Rocketship Education, along with districts (Los Altos School District) and charters (Summit Public Schools) working closely with Mountain View-based Khan Academy on technologies that track individual students’ progress and allow them to learn at their own pace.

Among large districts, Riverside Unified, with 43,000 students, is the farthest along in piloting online and blended learning. It also operates the Riverside Virtual School for 12,000 students in and outside the district. Principal David Haglund said that a Race to the Top grant would enable Riverside to take its individualized learning commitment to scale.

But Duncan said that new technologies are only one approach to break the “one size fits all mold.” Pointing to the Promise Neighborhoods model of community involvement in schools, Duncan said this could be done by bringing adult tutors into the schools and establishing partnerships with community groups, colleges, and health services to meet the academic, physical, and emotional needs of students. Oakland Unified’s ambitious Community Schools, Thriving Students initiative, which has established partnerships for school health clinics in some schools, with plans for a community STEM concentration in West Oakland, is one effort that could be taken to scale. Deasy said that pilot schools with home visitations and extended-day programs are examples of what the district might choose to expand with a grant. LAUSD hasn’t decided whether to target certain schools or concentrate on select grades.

Some of the proposed criteria and stipulations may disqualify some districts and give others pause:

  • District applications must serve at least 2,500 students (too large for some rural districts and charter school organizations but not in a consortia with others), with at least 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch subsidies;
  • Applicants must agree to priorities of previous rounds of Race to the Top. These include having a data system that links teachers to students and a commitment to employ a teacher evaluation system by 2014-15 that gives significant attention to growth in student achievement;
  • The superintendent, president of the school board, and head of the teachers union all must sign the application. In previous rounds, union leaders’ consent was not required but helped a state’s score.

United Teachers Los Angeles didn’t sign off on LAUSD’s previous applications. Deasy said he assumes that the union would not stand in the way of pursuing $25 million for the district.


  1. Surprised you didn’t dive into the other new requirement: Evaluation of local school boards.

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  2. Yes, a proposed school board evaluation (not of particular members) is included and defined as follows: School board evaluation: An assessment of the LEA school board that both evaluates performance and encourages professional growth. This evaluation system rating should reflect both (1) the feedback of many stakeholders, including but not limited to educators and parents; and (2) student outcomes performance in order to provide a detailed and accurate picture of the board’s performance.

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  3. @Bea – fascinating. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2012/05/department_announces_game_plan.html

    “What’s more, also by the 2014-15 school year, districts will have to promise to implement evaluation systems that take student outcomes into account–not just for teacher and principal performance, but for district superintendents and school boards. That’s a big departure from the state-level Race to the Top competitions, which just looked at educators who actually work in schools, not district-level leaders.
    That idea had Reginald Felton, the assistant executive director for congressional relations at the National School Boards Association, scratching his head. Most school board members are elected, he noted, which already means “they have the ultimate evaluation” when they face the voters.”
    So I’m wondering when we evaluate Arne Duncan by student test scores. Seems to me that by all this logic, he should have been booted out at the end of his second year, right?

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  4. So what happens to this school board evaluation? Is it just a document that collects dust, is it put on the LEA website, is it mailed to the voters? If the board is rated “Abysmal” is there some action that would be triggered?
    Oh, and my favorite question: will the people who put together this evaluation attend any of the board meetings? :-)

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  5. It’s also interesting that Riverside, behind the (presumably failed) initiative to unlock student ADA from their home district would receive federal funds to scale their operation that would (closing the circle here) result in a land grab of more ADA from struggling districts throughout the state. “Scale” in their case is taking from one LEA to fund another.
    And @el that IS an interesting story and comment thread on Ed Week. Reed Hastings has been quite vocal about his advocacy for the end of local school boards. In a sane world, elections are the ultimate evaluation of public officials. Arne Duncan and his merry band of reformers are finding every chink in the foundation to undermine the entire concept of locally governed public education in this country.
    It’s a train wreck.

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  6. Interesting, Bea. It seems to me that the charter school interest suggests that people want their school governance more local, not less local, which should mean smaller districts and more access to school boards, not less.
    But then, people always look at the problem from their side of the elephant. “Dealing with my elected school board sucked, therefore they all suck” versus “My local school board rocks, therefore, they’re all fantastic.” Obviously, both views are wrong when applied to the system as a whole. :-)

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  7. @el Local isn’t the issue, it’s the “elected” that Hastings and reformers wish to unwind. They hold that all school boards are dominated by union interests. So until they can rewrite governance to abolish elected school boards, they invest heavily to back reform-minded anti-union candidates.
    Tying RTTT funds to this agenda is just another way to move their initiatives forward. Note that these policies neatly bypass Congress and our representative voice. I didn’t elect Arne Duncan, did you?

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  8. Let’s see. LAUSD is staring into a $700m funding hole and has already issued 25,000 pink slips. They are trying to get $25m from the Feds for  something that would likely cost more than that to implement.  $25m is a bit over $700 per teacher at lausd  A teacher eval system can easily cost significantly more than that (depending on what it includes). And that  doesn’t even include the other ‘programs’ it wants to implement. I will be surprised if the union head signs it. In fact, I’m surprised that they’d pick now as the time to spend time and resources on this

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  9. @navigio, maybe they can outsource their teacher evaluations to the Los Angeles Times and call it good. :-)

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