Feds poke holes in DC Race to Top bid
The District may well end up with a piece of the Obama Administration's Race to the Top action when the grant competition moves to its second round later this year. Especially if, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan indicated Monday, the next group of winners will be considerably larger -- as many to ten to 15 states. After all, $3 billion is a lot of coin to unload, and Obama has proposed adding another $1.3 billion to fund.
If D.C. prevails, it's likely to be in spite of the weaknesses in its application, as outlined in reviewer comments posted Monday afternoon after announcement of the first round winners. Tiny Delaware, not a part of the pre-announcement chatter that was dominated by states such as Florida and Louisiana, came in first with 454.6 points out of a possible 500. Second-place Tennessee tallied 444.2 points.
The District, which came in last among the 16 finalists with 402.4 points, got hurt in four areas: no union support; lack of an evolved data collection system; questions about the sustainability of its gains in test scores and the narrowing of the achievement gap, and a tone in some passages suggesting that it is more intent on making a big national splash than putting human capital systems in place that will produce great teachers and school leaders.
The District received just 22.4 out of a possible 30 points in the category called "Building strong statewide capacity" to implement reforms, chiefly because the Washington Teachers' Union (WTU) did not sign off on the application. WTU president George Parker declined because he opposes the new IMPACT teacher evaluation system that requires reading and math teachers in grades 4 through 8 to have half of their appraisals weighted toward annual growth in standardized test scores. Teachers with weak overall assessments will face dismissal this summer.
An Education Department review panel said the union's refusal to sign on "creates a concern" and "may create barriers and challenges to getting teachers to make the essential instructional changes" to reach its goals.
The District earned just six out of a possible 24 points because its education data system is much less robust than those in Tennessee and Delaware. The District's fledgling effort, known as the Statewide Longitudinal Education Data Warehouse (SLED), has been plagued by problems, including the dismissal last year of its main contractor.
Despite recent positive news on NAEP math and reading scores, the panel says a closer look the data "show mixed results and continuing and sizeable achievement gaps." The District earned 21.6 out of 30 points in this area. Officials raise the question of whether the gains reflect an initial shock of reform that will fade over time, or something more permanent:
"The number of points awarded to this section is due to the concern that the quick gains may be the result of the newly imposed expectations rather than proven instructional practices that will need to be sustained over time. The District would need to analyze the achievement data and explore the connections between the data and the sustainable actions that have contributed to sudden academic gains to determine if the projected goals are fully attainable."
Finally, the District's application took a hit for its tone and approach in the section entitled "Great Teachers and Leaders." Overall, it garnered 111.8 of a possible 138 points. Reviewers took exception to the District's assertion that a Race to the Top grant would be a vindication in light of the political resistance to some of Rhee's personnel moves, and would position DC "to ensure that its cutting edge human capital work can be accelerated and become a national model for innovative human capital."
Reviewers questioned whether the District was more interested in showcasing its "speed in achieving results and to become a national model" or in committing to the "detail and attention needed to build the capacity of staff to become great teachers and leaders."
The District aced other portions of the application, including plans to turn around its lowest achieving schools and development of high quality standards and assessments.
Rhee steered away from discussing the particulars of the application Monday, and in a statement said:
"It was a great honor to be chosen as one of the RTTT finalists --only two states were selected as winners, and just advancing this far was an important validation that DC is on the right track with education reform. We're confident about our future prospects and we're eager to reengage all of our partners as we prepare for Phase 2."
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