A Blueprint for Change: Lessons in Educational Reform: A Federally Funded Program Designed to Encourage and Reward States to Develop Comprehensive Educational Reform Altered Federal Involvement in Education and Faces Unique Implementation Challenges

Article excerpt

As chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Joanne Weiss serves as senior advisor to the secretary, and was director of the Race to the Top (RTT) Fund during its early days of design and implementation. The walls of her office are covered with beautifully framed children's artwork. The view from her seventh-floor window covers an expanse of neighboring federal buildings and a sliver of the Washington Monument. Next to her door hangs a t-shirt with the words "Disrupt Ed" printed boldly across the front.

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The symbolic value of these visible artifacts reflects the most recent initiatives of the U.S. Department of Education--federal intervention in state and local education policy intended to disrupt the status quo of public education to the benefit of all U.S. students.

Shortly after the children's artwork was hung on the walls of her office in 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to jumpstart the economy and save jobs. It dedicated $97.4 billion to help save 275,000 jobs including those of teachers, principals, and librarians whose positions were eliminated due to the budget crisis confronting state and local governments. Of that total, $4.35 billion was earmarked for education reform, specifically RTT.

RTT is the largest competitive grant program in the history of U.S. education. Schools traditionally are funded through state and local funds, and federal involvement, for the most part, is indirect. The federal government typically provides 10 percent of K-12 public education funding and most of that is distributed through formula grants directed at specific programs, such as Title I funds for high-poverty school districts.

RTT significantly altered the level of federal involvement in public education through the sheer size of this one-time financial investment and through the articulation of specific federal priorities that were to be met through RTT funds. Critics of RTT say the federal government coerced states to change education policy and included prescriptive guidelines for how the money should be spent across four categories. Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University and an outspoken critic of RTT, refers to it as "No Child Left Behind" on steroids.

Advocates of RTT say that education reform was desperately needed and federal incentives were a good way to stimulate that reform. New York Times columnist David Brooks, an advocate of RTT, wrote that the Obama administration used federal powers to "incite reform, without dictating it from the top."

Four Reform Goals

Weiss was the chief architect behind the high-stakes competition that pitted governors against one another in the quest for sizable federal education dollars. According to Weiss, "competing with one another actually raised the ante for everybody. The amount of funding available, as well as the involvement of governors in the application process, increased the visibility and status of Race to the Top."

To secure the funding, states were expected to implement legislative changes to education policy and design a blueprint for change with a focus on four reform goals:

1. adopting standards and assessment

2. building data systems to store student data longitudinally

3. recruiting, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals

4. turning around the lowest achieving schools.

States were encouraged to submit proposals that reflected local needs and those that addressed multiple goals were awarded the most points.

The competitive design of the application process, as Weiss says, "set up a dynamic that made every-body reach for a place that was both ambitious and achievable." States were required to develop comprehensive plans that clearly articulated strategic goals and objectives as well as create the action steps needed to achieve their goals. …