Department of Education Prepares for Districts to Race to the Top

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Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education released the final criteria for the Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D) competition, whereby the department expects to award grants totaling nearly $400 million to local education agencies (LEAs) and consortia of LEAs to implement personalized learning environments for all students. Targeting each student’s needs is a necessary step for raising achievement and closing gaps. Improperly done, however, focusing on personalization risks growing — rather than narrowing — gaps between groups, and distracting districts from other critical change levers. Applicants and reviewers must see to it that proposals for personalizing learning are tightly connected to the aim of college- and career-ready graduation for all students, and must ensure that districts are utilizing the full spectrum of available means for raising achievement and closing gaps.

In the spring, the department proposed a draft plan for the RTTT-D competition, which generated approximately 475 public comments. While the final application is very close to the original draft, the feedback inspired some changes. For example, in response to concerns from the country’s largest districts about whether the grants would be big enough to support real change, the department created a new, larger award category for the biggest LEAs — up from $25 million to $40 million over four years. And in response to concerns that the smallest districts could be excluded, the department lowered from 2,500 to 2,000 the number of participating students required, with additional exceptions for consortia that include at least 10 small LEAs. It also removed the requirement for implementing evaluations for school board members.

In their applications for RTTT-D funds, LEAs must outline their plans to build on the assurance areas from the main Race to the Top competition — college- and career-ready standards, longitudinal data systems, effective teachers and leaders, and turnaround of the lowest performing schools — to create personalized learning environments. These environments must be tailored to individual students’ needs and goals, improve teaching and learning, expand access to highly effective teachers and principals, and promote college and career readiness for all students.

LEAs will also be rated on the goals they set for student achievement and success; their history of improving student achievement, narrowing achievement gaps, and turning around low-performing schools; and their plans for sustaining changes after grant funding expires. As one of the conditions for receiving a grant, LEAs will also be expected, by the 2014-15 school year, to implement teacher, leader, and superintendent evaluations based, in part, on measures of student performance.

As they develop their plans to personalize learning environments, LEAs should be careful to make sure they are not just slapping new technology or “individualized learning plans” on top of an unequal educational base. To help all students graduate ready to succeed in college and careers, LEAs must use all the policy levers available to them. This means equitably funding schools, ensuring that low-income students and students of color get their fair share of the best teachers, developing and enforcing fair and consistent discipline policies, and ensuring that all students have access to — and are successful in — the courses they need to be ready for college and careers.

—Allison Horowitz