Race to the Top opens up to districts

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.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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