The spotlight in school reform turns now to school districts instead of states with the U.S. Department of Education’s release Friday of its invitation for a new $383 million Race to the Top competition. Districts can compete for up to $40 million each, with awards based on their sizes and abilities to personalize learning for students, become transparent in how they are spending money, engage community groups and implement systems for evaluating teachers and leaders based in part on student test scores.
The department, which said it would make 15 to 25 awards, asked districts to let it know by August 30 if they intend to apply. [UPDATE: On September 4, the department announced that 893 districts said they would.] Applications are due October 30 and winners announced in December.
The competition provides openings for school districts that recognize the need to pay more attention to the PreK-3rd grade years. Preschool through third grade is spelled out as an area for potential focus. And personalizing learning (providing better learning opportunities for children through one-on-one interactions, small-group instruction and center-based activities, for example) is something that teachers in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms, especially, have been doing for years.
Districts will gain 10 extra points if they can show how they will partner with public or private organizations to augment schools’ resources and track the partnerships’ progress. Early learning programs are among the examples.
One section of the application for the competition also makes distinctions in measuring student performance at the PreK-3rd grade level, at the 4th-8th grade level and at the 9th -12th grade level. (This may be the first time the department has documented different ways to measure outcomes for different age groups.) For the PreK-3rd grades, applicants must “propose at least one age-appropriate measure of students’ academic growth” and one age-appropriate “non-cognitive” indicator for health or social-emotional well-being. Examples given for the former include “language and literacy development or cognition and general learning, including early mathematics and early scientific development.” For the latter, the department mentions “physical well-being and motor development, or social-emotional development.” Indicators of health and social-emotional growth are also required for the later grades.
These performance measures are not the same, however, as the measures of “student growth” that the application requires in teacher-evaluation systems. Student growth based on scores from state-level standardized tests are required for evaluations of teachers in the 3rd through 8th grades; alternative measures such as pre- and post-tests at the end of courses are allowed for the other grades.
It may take creative and ambitious school districts to craft an application that focuses on the early grades while also adhering to those requirements. Districts must, by 2014-15, put in place new evaluation systems for teachers, principals, and superintendents that rely in part on student test scores. Some districts are already well on their way to creating these new evaluations but it's an open question whether districts are seriously grappling with how to evaluate teachers in the PreK-3rd grades -- most of which do not feature state-level standardized tests. And as we found in our report late last year on the use of observation tools such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), few systems seem to look closely at teachers' actual competence in teaching. One exception was the District of Columbia Public Schools, which though not perfect modified its IMPACT evaluation system to better account for appropriate teaching practices in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms.
In that report, we did find districts using observation tools for professional development – including Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, and several districts in Michigan and North Carolina – but leaders we interviewed said they were reluctant to use observation-based tools for high-stakes evaluations. This new competition’s emphasis on evaluations, however, may push that issue. It may be time for districts to come up with ways to borrow from the individualized feedback that comes with teacher-observation methods for professional development programs and apply those lessons to evaluation systems as well.
Unfortunately, the competition does not address how to ensure that teacher evaluation systems reflect the teamwork necessary to help students achieve. For example, the PreK-3rd Grade National Work Group, an ad-hoc organization of researchers and policy analysts focused on alignment and improvement across those grades, recommended that districts be rewarded for evaluation systems that recognize the importance of collaborative work among educators across a school. The group also urged the department to take note of the impact of a child’s positive preschool experiences on teachers’ effectiveness. As the group wrote:
In addition to the effectiveness of the lead teacher, performance reviews at all grade levels should take note of how teachers, paraprofessionals, librarians, and other school staff work in teams, as well as the contribution of reading and math specialists and other interventionists in improving children’s outcomes. In the early grades, PreK-3rd grade, reviews should also incorporate information on the classroom composition, such as the ratio of children to adults and the proportion of children who have been enrolled in a high quality early learning setting before arriving in those classrooms (e.g., pre-K and full-day kindergarten).
The competition also opens up new questions about principals and superintendents, who are required to be evaluated in new ways under the competition’s rules. How exactly does one measure good and bad leadership in principals and superintendents? Which districts have already tackled this and how?
The use of technology is also favored in the application, and yet digital learning and online assessment systems are not typically a mainstay of education for younger students. (However, as discussed at a FutureTense event last week at the New America Foundation, there is new potential for inclusion of digital learning in elementary schools through e-books, multi-player virtual worlds, self-leveling software, the use of body movement to manipulate on-screen characters and more.)
Given all of this, one big question this fall will be how many districts decide to apply and what proportion of them zoom in on the preK-3rd grades. The competition may have its flaws, but school leaders should look seriously at the potential new funding that it could provide, especially given uncertainty for federal levels of education funding in the coming year amid increasing rates of child poverty.
UPDATE 9/4: The U.S. Department of Education announced that 893 school districts submitted notices that they intend to apply.