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Department of Education Releases Race to the Top Application

Published:  November 13, 2009

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education released the application and notice of final priorities for the Race to the Top competition, a $4.35 billion grant program that rewards states that have shown the most commitment to and progress on education reforms to improve student achievement. The final priorities and application reflect a number of changes from a draft the department released in July that drew more than 1,100 comments.

The change of greatest interest to the early education community is probably the addition of a new invitational priority specifically focused on improving early learning outcomes. As we reported previously, a number of RTT commenters, including major associations and several major foundations that invest in early childhood, urged the Education Department to place greater emphasis on early learning in designing the grant program. The addition of the new invitational priority for early learning doesn’t give these groups everything they wanted. An invitational priority means states don’t get any extra points for including early ed in their applications. But it does indicate that the Secretary believes early childhood is an important component of a larger education reform agenda and wants states to include reforms that address or integrate school readiness and linkages between preschool and elementary schools in their RTT applications.

Colorado Lieutenant Governor Barbara O’Brien, who’s been tasked with leading her state’s efforts to secure RTT funding, and is generally regarded as leading the pack on RTT reforms, clearly knows this. She’s been a strong advocate in her state for both early learning and what is often called a “P-20” approach to reform – one that integrates early childhood with K-12 school reform efforts and the elementary years. As other states start working on their RTT applications, they could do worse than follow O’Brien’s lead.

Here at Early Ed Watch, we’ve promoted these kind of linkages as well, often couched in terms of a PreK-3rd approach – the creation of a seamless system from pre-K up through the early elementary grades. In fact, we see several ways that states could integrate early learning programs and PreK-3rd reform to address the other RTT selection criteria, as well as ways that states could use the reforms encouraged by RTT to support a PreK-3rd approach.

For example, take one of the selection criteria: a state’s commitment to turning around the lowest-achieving schools. A growing number of schools and districts, including Union City, N.J. and Montgomery County, Md., have used PreK-3rd approaches (like comprehensive literacy programs that span pre-K up through 3rd grade) to dramatically improve results in low-performing, high-poverty schools. States and school districts could make implementation of comprehensive PreK-3rd reforms an important part of their strategy for turning around low-performing elementary schools, particularly now that these final priorities give districts greater flexibility to implement district-driven “transformational” interventions in these schools.

Requirements to “provide effective, data-informed professional development, coaching, induction, and common planning and collaborative time” for teachers could also support PreK-3rd alignment and reform. More broadly, states that are serious about improving student achievement and narrowing achievement gaps will include a variety of policies and steps that support PreK-3rd reforms in their RTT applications, because providing children with high-quality, seamless PreK-3rd early learning experiences is essential to driving student learning gains over the long term.

For folks who are following this issue more closely, here are some other key changes in the final RTT priorities:

  • <!--[if !supportLists]-->Creation of a new section at the beginning of the selection criteria in which states are expected to lay out their coherent, coordinated, statewide reform agenda, and provide evidence of buy-in to that agenda from school district in the state, state capacity to implement the agenda, and the ability to significantly improve educational outcomes. Some criteria in this section previously appeared in other sections in the proposed priorities.
  • <!--[if !supportLists]-->Extension of the deadline by which states must commit to adopting new, common K-12 standards, because some states found the previous timeline too short to be feasible. Under the final priorities, states must adopt common standards by August 2, 2010, or demonstrate commitment to doing so at a later date in 2010.
  • <!--[if !supportLists]-->Increased emphasis on use of data at the local level to inform professional development and improve instruction, in addition to the creation of statewide longitudinal student data systems.
  • <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->Clarification that “teacher effectiveness” should be measured by multiple measures, including, but not limited to, gains in students’ academic achievement over time. Other factors might include high-quality teacher observations. While this change is getting a lot of attention from RTT watchers and the media, it’s not clear whether it’s actually that much of a change. While the proposed guidelines emphasized the importance of linking student performance data to individual teachers and including student achievement in measures of teacher effectiveness, Education Department officials have been publicly saying for some time that multiple measures, including observation, should be used to measure teacher effectiveness.
  • <!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->Increased emphasis on and clarification of points related to professional development and support for teachers and other educators.
  • <!--[if !supportLists]-->A variety of changes related to requirements to turn around low-performing schools. The proposed priorities included four turnaround strategies, but they limited school districts’ ability to use the fourth strategy, “transformation,” other than as a last resort when other, more aggressive models could not be used. That limitation has been lifted, but districts with more than nine persistently low-achieving schools may not use the transformational approach in more than half of their schools. In addition, some provisions relating to creating a hospitable state policy environment for charter schools have been moved from the “turning around lowest-achieving schools” section to the “general” section, to clarify that the Department does not see charter schools as the sole or chief remedy for turning around low-performing schools, but views improving such schools as a competency all districts should have.
  • <!--[if !supportLists]--> <!--[endif]-->Addition of a new criterion inviting states to describe how they allow school districts to operate innovative, autonomous schools other than charter schools.
  • <!--[if !supportLists]--><!--[endif]-->Expansion of the invitational priority for P-20 coordination, to include not just vertical coordination from early childhood to K-12 and up through higher education, but also horizontal coordination between schools and other agencies and organizations providing comprehensive services for children.

The final priorities have been getting lots of comment, from education policy experts, advocacy groups, and bloggers. Here’s some other coverage and analysis worth reading:

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