371 Applications Received for District-Level Race to the Top

The U.S. Department of Education received 371 applications from 1189 school districts all racing to the trough to receive a slice of the $383 million pot.  Unlike last time the district-level Race to the Top required union officials to agree to the school district’s reform plan.  Which pretty much guarantees it’ll be worthless.

Jackie Zubrzycki pointed out that just because the union officials signed off it doesn’t mean the union members are happy.

A number of districts had trouble getting their unions to sign off on the Race to the Top proposals, which I wrote about for this week’s issue of Education Week. (You can find more details about those squabbles here.) Two California districts, Glendale and Los Angeles, submitted applications anyway. The requirement for union sign-off was new to this iteration of the competition, and may have been a lesson learned from previous federal grant programs, including Race to the Top: When unions don’t agree to grant requirements beforehand, programs sometimes don’t get implemented as intended.

In an interesting twist, in the Central Unified school district in California, the union’s president Gaye Lewis signed off on the district’s application—and then stepped down because the union’s members were upset with the decision.

Of course, some districts also didn’t apply for reasons unrelated to unions. Burlington, Vt., superintendent Jeanne Collins said that her district had simply decided that “jumping through the hoops” and spending time and money on the complicated application was not worth it. And some districts where there’s been notable district-union contention—Chicago, for example—did submit applications with union sign-off.

The Superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, Jonathan Raymond, gave a sharp critique of the program in a recent column.

I would argue that Race to the Top is hardly innovative – government using “carrot and stick” incentives to spur change is a centuries-old concept.  In fact, I would go a step further: Race to the Top’s heavy-handed, top-down mandates create division and derision within the public education community at precisely a time all sides should be coming together…

…Meanwhile, school districts that are making real, tangible strides to increase student learning are left behind in this “race.” In Sacramento City Unified, we are turning around seven low-performing schools (called Priority Schools) through research-proven strategies for raising student achievement. Six of the seven schools have shown dramatic increases in student achievement and dramatic improvements in school culture and climate. These strategies include relevant professional development for principals and teachers; collaborative teacher planning time; data analysis and inquiry; and building strong family and community engagement. With federal funding, we could take this pilot program to scale statewide. California districts could build on each other’s successes and the gains of districts across the country. This is exactly what federal dollars should be spent on.

Yet Race to the Top’s scripted approach effectively discounts these reforms because they do not fit into the neat categories created by the prescriptive program. Moreover, forcing school districts to compete for badly needed resources is like offering a starving man food but only if he agrees to whatever strings may be attached. This is certainly the choice that school districts like ours face in California.

Those are interesting objections.  He also objects to teacher evaluations being linked to assessments.  I’ve stated my opposition before and would like to reiterate that this program bypasses states.  Christel Swasey today reminded me that this program could push schools in states that rejected the Common Core, like Texas, to embrace the Common Core.  Federal involvement in education should be extremely limited (if not non-existent) and they should be dealing with states, not bypassing them to accomplish their goals.

After all of this time and effort is spent only 15-25 grants will be awarded of $5-40 Million each.