Race to Top Revisions Slightly Better for Rural Schools

Last Updated: December 30, 2009

This article appeared in the December 2009 Rural Policy Matters. 

New guidelines for Race to the Top grants were issued by the U.S. Department of Education in November and are somewhat better for rural schools than were the proposed priorities for the program published in July. The new guidelines respond to public comments about the original priorities.

Race to the Top (RTTT) is a portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (generally referred to as the stimulus program) that will provide $4.35 billion in a competitive grant program to “encourage and reward States that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform…”
The conditions states must create are spelled out in the guidelines according to 19 criteria in six categories. Each criterion is assigned a number of points ranging from 5 to 65 for a total of 485 points. An additional 15 points is available for states that emphasize science, technology, engineering, and math in thier proposals. Grants will be awarded based on the number of points the state earns.
The first round of grant applications is due January 19, 2010. States that do not apply in the first round may apply in the second round, due June 1, 2010.

Controversy Over Basic Criteria

Controversy has followed RTTT guidelines from the beginning, primarily because the guidelines force states to adopt specific policies that are themselves widely controversial.

Garnering the most attention has been the RTTT requirement that states must have a liberal charter school law, one that provides funding commensurate with traditional schools and allows an unlimited number of charter schools and students. But many states have no charter law. Others place restrictions on how charters are authorized, funded, governed, or how enrollment is determined. Research on charter schools has not proven them to be more successful than traditional schools. Nevertheless, states that wish to apply for RTTT funds must pass and/or adapt charter laws; some states will not be able to apply for the grant until their legislatures address the charter requirement in their upcoming sessions.

Also controversial is an RTTT requirement that states create an extensive tracking system to keep up with individual student data and tie student test scores directly to teacher evaluations, tenure decisions, compensation, and professional development. Critics charge that students’ standardized test scores are an insufficient way to assess teacher competence or commitment and that linking tests to teacher pay and retention will drive many teachers away from the most challenging schools and students. Several states have laws prohibiting the use of student test data in evaluating and paying teachers. Those states must remove these restrictions to be eligible for RTTT funding.

Finally, there is resistance in some quarters to the RTTT requirement that states adopt uniform curriculum standards and assessments, preferably in collaboration with other states. The most vocal critics suggest this requirement will lead to a national curriculum and test and will stifle innovation and flexibility at the local and state levels. Forty-eight states (all except Alaska and Texas) are currently part of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is working to establish common standards for English/Language Arts and math, but K-12 standards are not yet finalized and it is unclear how the Department will rate states on this criteria.

Changes to Criteria

None of these controversial requirements are altered substantially in the new RTTT guidelines. However, changes to some guidelines will make them a bit more appropriate for rural schools.

Clarification of the role of charter schools.
The most significant change in the new guidelines is a clarification of the charter requirement. States are no longer required to provide a charter school option as the first or main alternative to persistently low-achieving schools. Instead, districts have several options including school “transformation,” in which the troubled school remains open but makes significant changes. This option is important for low-wealth or small rural districts where a requirement to create a new charter school would put an impossible strain on the budget, staffing, or other resources of the local district. The new guidelines also allow local school districts to operate “innovative, autonomous public schools” other than charters. It is not yet clear how these autonomous public schools would differ from charters or whether this provision could substitute for the charter requirement.

Multiple measures of teacher and principal performance.
RTTT guidelines define an effective teacher or principal as one whose students make at least a year’s worth of progress as measured on standardized tests. The new guidelines emphasize student growth (improvement) rather than raw achievement level. They also allow for “multiple measures” to be used in evaluating teachers and principals. And, the new guidelines urge districts to be transparent and fair in using student data in making tenure and certification decisions.

Even so, requirements remain in place to tie teacher and principal pay, evaluations, tenure decisions, and professional development to the scores of students.

States must use student test data to determine teacher effectiveness and track whether ineffective teachers are disproportionately in high-poverty/high-minority schools. Yet there are no provisions to encourage teachers to work with the most challenging students or in schools with the fewest resources. In fact, the underlying inequities that create significant barriers to learning for particular groups of students are not addressed. Nor do the requirements acknowledge the fact that poorly resourced districts have well-documented competitive disadvantages when it comes to hiring and retaining teachers. The requirement to tie teacher evaluations and hiring to student scores remains likely to exacerbate teacher recruitment and retention obstacles in the schools and districts where the strongest teachers are most needed.

Funding equity.
The new criteria include a small provision to encourage state policies that promote funding equity between and within districts. This is an important addition for rural districts, which generally receive significantly less funding than suburban and urban districts. But only 10 of the 500 points on which RTTT grant decisions will be made relate to funding, so this slight nod to equity won’t do much to push states to improve their finance systems.

Click here to see the RPM chart that interprets each RTT criteria.

Watch for more RTTT analysis in the January edition of Rural Policy Matters.

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Read more from the December 2009
Rural Policy Matters.