District ‘Race to the Top’ rules spur mixed reaction

School groups criticized RTT-D for creating 'winners' and 'losers.'

Proposed guidelines for school districts to vie for $400 million in new federal grants have elicited mixed reaction from education groups—from concern among ed-tech groups over how “personalized learning” will be defined, to arguments that the grants will exclude smaller districts from competing.

With an eye toward expanding the Obama administration’s signature “Race to the Top” (RTT) competition to the district level, the federal Education Department (ED) recently issued a draft outlining competition guidelines and invited responses from stakeholders.

RTT, which previously targeted only states, has triggered a flurry of education reforms as states scrambled to win billions in funds. Now, the creation of the Race to the Top-District Program (RTT-D) gives individual school districts a shot at winning a slice of $400 million in grants.

On May 21, ED posted to its website a draft executive summary that outlines requirements, priorities, selection criteria, and definitions of key terms. Under the draft eligibility requirements, districts must have a minimum of 2,500 students—of whom 40 percent or more must qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—to participate in the competition.

The competition evaluates districts’ plans based on how well they address four core issues:

  1. Learning: Engaging and empowering students to meet “college- and career-ready standards.”
  2. Teaching: Helping educators implement personalized learning plans for all students through effective data collection.
  3. Policy and Infrastructure: Creating policies that provide enough resources and support to enable personalized learning.
  4. Performance measurement: Establishing “annual ambitious yet achievable targets” for measures of student success, such as the graduation rate and the percentage of students participating in personalized learning plans.

ED accepted public comments until June 8. Dozens of postings from national groups, state officials, parents, and teachers revealed mixed responses to the draft. Here’s a roundup of some of the key concerns.

Personalized learning

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) said it strongly supports the plan’s emphasis on personalized learning and hopes to see preference given to districts that prioritize digital learning. However, ISTE is concerned that the draft “too narrowly defines personalized learning.”

Members were concerned that the draft proposal seems to encourage using “a lot of off the shelf, drill-and-kill software,” said Hilary Goldmann, ISTE’s director of government affairs.

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