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.

“Adaptive learning has its place within personalized learning; however, that is just one component of personalized learning,” wrote Don Knezek, CEO of ISTE, in a comment on the ED webpage.

Goldmann said while it’s important to incorporate adaptive learning, schools also should use digital tools for interaction orally and in writing, project-based learning, and creative assessment.

Furthermore, she said, competition guidelines should more strongly encourage districts to explain how they plan to provide and track professional development in their implementation of personalized learning.

ISTE’s comments suggest adding personalized learning measures into evaluation systems for both teachers and principals: Teacher evaluations should be based in part on their “ability to use digital tools to personalize learning,” and principal evaluations should measure how well the principal “establish[es] a school-wide digital culture.”

As the teacher’s role in the classroom shifts away from a “sage on stage,” school districts should take advantage of the planning required for the RTT-D competition to consider how digital learning “can change the way the classroom is structured,” Goldmann said.

‘Burdensome bureaucratic process’

While the National School Boards Association (NSBA) praised the RTT-D program as a “potential catalyst for more comprehensive reform,” the group also raised major reservations about the plan’s approach to local government authorities.

“Key elements in the draft reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the governance role of local school boards that must be corrected in the final document,” wrote Michael A. Resnick, the group’s associate executive director.

NSBA emphasized that RTT-D is meant for local education agencies (LEAs), which can be individual school districts or consortia of several small districts. NSBA argued that authority over those grants should go to the school boards that lead those LEAs—but as the draft is written, “unnecessary requirements” for state and local government approval would dilute LEAs’ authority.

NSBA took issue with the competition’s requirement that districts evaluate their school boards, arguing that such evaluation should remain a local issue free from federal mandates; furthermore, it argued, most school board officials are elected by voters and thus already subjected to the “most strenuous, direct, and transparent evaluation process possible.”

In the same vein, NSBA urged ED to eliminate the state and mayor, city, or town administrator comment period on LEA grant applications.

Because a single LEA or a consortium of LEAs could span across multiple cities, counties, or even states, requiring an LEA applicant to incorporate the comments of all affected entities “creates an unprecedented and burdensome bureaucratic process for LEAs that undermines the purpose of the grant,” wrote Resnick.

NSBA concluded that the program should “honor local authority” and support local innovation by administering grants directly to LEAs.

Favoring charter schools?

Unlike the NSBA, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) lauded the draft’s requirement for school board and superintendent evaluation as encouraging a culture of “shared responsibility.” AFT also praised the “labor management collaboration” fostered by the competition’s requirement that applicants produce evidence of union engagement and teacher feedback.

Overall, however, AFT disapproved of several key elements of the plan. RTT-D imposes even more requirements on schools that are already struggling to follow existing rules, the group said, and it argued that the competition seems to favor charter schools.

AFT questioned whether districts already struggling to meet Common Core standards and implement new evaluation systems even have the capacity to meet additional requirements.

“It is not clear how layering a personalized learning environment that includes among other things, a personalized learning plan (defined as a formal document) for every student, on top of all of these other requirements will serve students,” wrote Kristor Cowen, legislation director for AFT.

AFT also charged, “While this competition would require districts to do a lot, it neglects to require them to do some basic things that would have a positive impact on student learning.”

As an example, the comments point to the guidelines’ failure to ask districts how they would help teachers overcome barriers to student success.

AFT also raised concerns that the RTT-D application process seems to favor charter schools, particularly virtual schools. The organization said states that have allowed “unfettered expansion” of such schools have experienced “ongoing problems with quality and mismanagement.”

AFT reiterated its fundamental concern with the RTT program: By encouraging schools to compete for money, “the [RTT] brand serves to sort states—and now districts—into winners and losers. The real losers in this program are, of course, the millions of children in districts that will not receive funding, and who will thus miss out on much-needed programs and services.”

The National Education Association (NEA) echoed many of AFT’s concerns, particularly the fundamental reservations about using competitive funding to advance education goals.

In whole, however, NEA supported expanding the competition to the district level, and strongly supported the requirement that “key stakeholders, such as educators and their representatives,” must sign off on districts’ plans.”

NEA is “sympathetic to the broad concept of advancing personalized learning” that drives the competition, “as long as it is promoted without unnecessary requirements, and with sustained fiscal support, a clear chance of success, and local stakeholder support,” wrote Donna M. Harris-Aikens, NEA’s director of education policy and practice.

NEA took issue with two aspects of the eligibility criteria: (1) the 2,500-student minimum per district would require some small districts to seek out consortia partners, which could create complex data sharing problems, as well as force districts to gloss over their unique challenges and priorities; and (2) the requirement for districts to demonstrate prior commitment to RTT goals tilts the scales in favor of states that already follow RTT.

Like the AFT, the NEA also expressed concern about charter schools’ eligibility for RTT-D grants. NEA suggested several policies that could improve transparency and oversight of charter schools, such as ensuring rigorous review at regular intervals of charter schools, and requiring charters to provide “meaningful measures of academic performance.”

Small districts at a disadvantage

The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) praised the expansion of the RTT program to the district level, and the option for districts to apply in consortia, as “a positive step toward making competitive grants more accessible to all schools.”

However, like the teachers’ unions, AASA expressed fundamental disapproval of RTT for “reinforcing the positions of ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’” AASA asserted its belief that federal funds would be better spent through the Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) programs.

AASA also urged an elimination of the 2,500-student enrollment threshold. Because more than two-thirds of the nation’s districts enroll fewer than 2,500 students, such a requirement would establish this as a district consortia, rather than a district-level, competition. Instead, AASA suggested that the competition encourage, but not require, and “enrollment target.”

In response to the draft’s strong focus on creating a personalized learning plan (PLP) for every student, AASA questioned how PLPs will be defined in relation to similar concepts such as “differentiated learning, response to intervention, or individualized learning/instruction.”

“The definition within the criteria is vague and not common in the school/educator community,” wrote the organization.

AASA also sought clarification as to who would be responsible for developing, reviewing, and updating PLPs, and at what interval—as well as to how schools would handle PLPs in tandem with the Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) required by IDEA.

Although AASA expressed strong reservations about the competitive aspect of the RTT program as a whole, it acknowledged the program’s potential to serve as “a catalyst for innovation.”

Because “much of the content within the criteria represent[s] uncharted territory … the success of this round of [RTT funding] will hinge largely on how much the department adopts feedback from the field,” it wrote.

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