Magazine article Technology & Learning

Which States Are Winning: Who Got What? and What Are They Doing with It?

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Which States Are Winning: Who Got What? and What Are They Doing with It?

Article excerpt

Nine lucky states and the District of Columbia jump-started the new year this January with welcome extra cash from the $4.35 billion federal Race to the Top fund.

The second-round winners, in addition to the first-round winners, Delaware and Tennessee, will get the opportunity to be national leaders in education reform and millions of federal dollars to help them forge ahead. The statewide pilot projects will focus on turning failing schools around, implementing performance-based evaluations of teachers and administrators, building better data systems, and adopting assessment tests that accelerate learning instead of "dumbing down" curricula and forcing schools to teach to the test.

With U.S. students losing ground to those of other nations, the urgency for reform is great, officials say. But overhauling the way education is delivered requires fundamental structural change that is extraordinarily hard to achieve. Race to the Top seeks to succeed where earlier efforts failed by adopting a multifaceted approach and offering financial incentives to lighten the burden of new initiatives in this difficult budgetary climate.

Like first-round winners Delaware and Tennessee, the second-round winners were credited with the full amount of their respective four-year grants, subject to federal oversight and completion of the work. The awards were based on population and ranged from $700 million apiece for Florida and New York to $75 million apiece for Hawaii, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia.

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Somewhat overshadowed by the announcement of the second-round winners, this past August, was the awarding of $350 million the following month to two multistate collaborative efforts to develop better student assessment tests by 2014. This work is already under way. Federal officials hope that these joint endeavors will also foster more collaboration among states.

In fact, the Race to the Top reform movement has already sparked spontaneous collaboration among many states, winners and nonwinners alike. For example, the District of Columbia (a second-round winner) invited all superintendents in Delaware (a first-round winner) to a conference at E. L. Haynes Public Charter School in January to discuss data-driven strategies and best practices.

Although the $4.35 billion awarded in the onetime Race to the Top challenge has been disbursed, federal officials hope to continue fiscal support for education reform by means of smaller but continuous annual appropriations starting with $1.35 billion in fiscal 2011. However, the current federal budget, whose 2011 fiscal year began last October 1, was still awaiting final approval by late December.

The 2011 challenge may also differ from the original Race to the Top in that individual school districts and local education agencies, in addition to

states, may be eligible to apply. As of late December, federal officials were not able to estimate when states and/or school districts would be able to apply.

Taking issue with the Race to the Top approach to reform, the Foundation for Educational Choice recently released a study concluding that earmarking another $4 billion in available stimulus funds for school-choice vouchers would spark more genuine reform than Race to the Top, which, it contends, simply "bails out" existing schools without changing the system through reform.

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The foundation, instead, advocates offering private-school scholarships of $2,000 to $2,500 each to 630,000 students over the next five years. Not only will students achieve more in private school, the report concludes, but states will save money through reduced enrollment, and the increased competition will spur public schools to improve. Federal education officials declined to comment.

THE RTT WIN FACTOR

Winnowing 35 finalists to 10 winners last summer was apparently a daunting task. …

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