If school districts want to win between $15 million and $25 million in the next Race to the Top competition, they will have to focus on personalized learning, according to draft guidelines released by the U.S. Department of Education today. They will also need to come up with a way to link student performance to the evaluation of teachers and school leaders, such as principals. And they will need to have a system for tracking data on children’s academic growth from pre-kindergarten programs up through post-secondary education.
The emphasis on personalized learning -- named as an “absolute priority” for competitors to address -- could provide an opportunity for districts that are leaders in early education, depending on how personalization is defined. For example, school districts that want to include more small group instruction and project-based learning – two approaches mentioned during an event at the U.S. Department of Education today -- could learn a lot from teachers in pre-K, kindergarten and the early grades, where these types of instructional approaches are more common.
In a conference call this afternoon with reporters, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said personalization could also include parental engagement strategies and after-school activities for children.
Another encouraging sign is the aspect of the competition’s design that allows districts, or consortia of school districts, to focus on a particular subject area or band of grade levels they believe need additional focus. Significantly, one of the examples grade-level band spelled out in the report is “preschool through third grade” as a grade-level band. At today’s Department of Education event, Anne Whelan, director of the RTT-D program, mentioned “math in grades pre-K through 3” as an even deeper example.
The focus on using student-outcome data in teacher evaluations, on the other hand, may lead to questions about how districts will apply these criteria in the early grades of elementary school where standardized, end-of-year assessments are rare. Most states require state tests starting in third grade, and many early childhood experts have concerns about the unreliability of one-time snapshots of skill levels when children are 5, 6 and 7 years old.
It’s important to remember, however, that in the past year, new approaches to appropriate assessment of young children have emerged, led by states that won the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge and are designing systems to measure a child’s readiness for kindergarten. It will be interesting to see whether the competition leads districts to start collecting more comprehensive data on child outcomes (not simply relying on simple tests of whether children know their ABCs) in the early years and grades.
Another opening for early education leaders may come in assisting with the design of teacher and administrator evaluation systems, which could include more robust and reliable observation tools such as those described in our recent Watching Teachers Work paper and in the Gates Foundation’s Gathering Feedback for Teaching report. (Important information can also be gathered from Teaching Children Well, a new publication from the Center for American Progress that highlights the need for professional-development systems that feature valid observational assessments of teaching.)
It’s also encouraging to see that districts with comprehensive longitudinal data systems -- tracking students from pre-kindergarten through to their post-secondary experiences -- will be rewarded for this work. It is not easy to collect comprehensive data on students as early as pre-K, or, preferably even earlier, to ensure attention to how much support children have received in their infant and toddler years. Our 2010 report Many Missing Pieces described the challenges inherent in gathering data from the many different types of programs children may attend before arriving in elementary school.
The public has until 5 p.m. EDT on June 8th to submit comments and recommendations for tweaking the competition criteria.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said his department plans to award “about 20” grants, making this a prize for a select few of the 13,000 school districts across the country. Each application must be from a district or group of districts serving at least 2,500 students, and 40 percent of those students must be low-income. The applications would be posted in early July, completed applications would be due in October and awards announced by the end of the year.
Since 2010, 21 states and D.C. have been awarded more than $4 billion in grants through three rounds of the original Race to the Top, and nine states have been awarded $550 million worth of Early Learning Challenge grants.
The funding for today’s new district-level competition came from $549 million that Congress approved for fiscal year 2012. Duncan has been talking about the potential of a competition for school districts for more than a year, as superintendents from large urban districts in Houston and Los Angeles have lobbied for the chance to compete even though their states opted to bow out. (See articles in Ed Week’s Politics K-12 blog and the Huffington Post for more background.)
The other $133 million is reserved for the second round of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, which invites five “runner-up” states to compete this year: Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin.
As predicted, the parameters of the new competition align with many of the reform areas that characterized the state-level Race to the Top. The original Race to the Top asked states to develop plans to improve standards, turnaround struggling schools, support and evaluate teachers and develop and implement statewide data systems. In this competition, school districts are being asked to describe how they are addressing those four areas.
Here at the New America Foundation we plan to submit recommendations for strengthening this competition. Children’s first eight years set the foundation for how well they do in school and life. At-risk children especially will need support in those earliest years, when they are first grasping the building blocks of speech and language, up through third grade when they should be fluent readers of fiction and non-fiction materials. We welcome ideas from our readers for ensuring that PreK-3rd grades are not forgotten.