Some of the states rejected for federal “Race to the Top” education grants are proceeding to revamp their school systems anyway—in some cases, more ambitiously than states that won.
Colorado, for example, is moving forward with a new system tying teacher and principal reviews to student performance. That sort of linkage is central to the Race to the Top program. “We’ve had dramatic changes,” says Mike Johnston, a Democratic state senator who sponsored the legislation creating the new system. Johnston says losing out on the federal grant “was more of an opportunity to lay out our plan for reform.”
Colorado is one of six states—along with Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—that achieved finalist status in the first two rounds of the U.S. Education Department’s $4 billion Race to the Top competition but walked away empty-handed.
One year later, officials in several of these states say they’re proceeding with plans outlined in their grant applications, albeit at a slower pace than they might have hoped for. “The funding simply isn’t there,” says Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education.
Even at a slower pace, education experts say some of these states are making more progress than some of the Race to the Top winners—all of whom have requested amendments to their initial applications. “It’s a mixed bag,” Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, says of the competition’s winning states. “There are some places like Hawaii where we really aren’t seeing too much activity yet. Perhaps it’s all behind the scenes, or perhaps it isn’t.”
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States that missed out last time are getting another chance. Applications were due Oct. 19 for a $500 million round of awards focusing on pre-kindergarten programs, and five of the six states that have narrowly missed twice had indicated that they plan to apply. These states and several others from the last round are also eligible to apply later this year for smaller awards from a $200 million pool to support work from their previous applications, which were focused on K-12 changes. Colorado, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania are considered favorites in the early learning competition.
In the first two rounds, states were asked to outline their plans to improve college and career-readiness standards, student and educator assessment, teacher recruitment, and plans to turn around poorly performing lower schools. Several states were able to tout significant policy changes, but still lost out in the bid for federal grants.
One of them was Louisiana. In that state, Frank Hoffmann, a Republican state representative, had introduced a “value-added” teacher effectiveness model, which ties half of a teacher’s evaluation to student performance. He says it would have been nice to win the federal funds, but insists that they weren’t a primary motivator for the successful legislation. “From my own perspective, Race to the Top was ancillary,” says Hoffmann, a retired assistant superintendent in the Ouachita Parish School System.