The Race Officially Begins … Now

At 9 p.m. this evening, the starting gun for the Race to the Top officially started.  While many states are already laps into their applications (and many may even be running in the right direction), the U.S. Department of Education officially released the RFP, along with some interesting insights as to how applications will be scored moments ago.

So what are we looking at?  We’ve essentially whittled 80 pages of a draft RFP into an “easy-to-read” 14-page summary.  The four pillars of the Duncan regime remain the same (standards, assessments/data systems, teacher quality, and school turnaround).  To win, states must have no barriers to linking student achievement data to teachers and principals for the purpose of evaluation.  The timetable is as projected back in the early fall, with Phase One applications due in mid-January (to be awarded in April 2010) and Phase Two apps due June 1 (to be awarded September 2010).  But we’ve added two bidders’ conferences scheduled for next month in Denver and DC.  So there are some new factoids here.
In addition to the four pillars, RttT lays out six additional priorities:
* Comprehensive approach to education reform (an absolute priority)
* Emphasis on STEM (a comprehensive preference priority)
* Innovations for improving early learning outcomes
* Expansion and adaptation of statewide longitudinal data systems
* P-20 coordination, vertical and horizontal alignment
* School-level conditions for reform, innovation, and learning
Of these priorities, only STEM is worth extra points on the scoring, offering an all-or-nothing 15-point bonus to those states with both a clear record and clear plan for STEM education.  (That 15 points represents 3 percent of the total score.)  The others are general value-adds or reflected in other larger scoring buckets.  
So what does that overall scorecard look like?  What’s the rubric on which states will be evaluated?
States are working toward a max of 500 points (including STEM emphasis).  “State success factors” represent 125 points, or 25 percent of the total score.  These factors include how well the state’s reform agenda is articulated, whether the state has infrastructure to implement the agenda, and its ability to demonstrate success in raising student achievement and closing the achievement gap.  “Standards and assessment” is good for 70 points, or 14 percent, essentially measured by adopting common core standards and developing the assessments to measure against those standards.  “Data systems to support instruction” is worth 47 points (9 percent) and is focused on the longitudinal data systems all are talking about.  
“Great teachers and leaders” are worth 138 points, or a whopping 28 percent, and while it continues to focus on teacher quality and effectiveness, this time around it has a far greater emphasis on principal quality and effectiveness.  “Turning around the lowest-achieving schools” is worth only 50 points, or 10 percent of the total.   “General” collects the remaining 55 points (11 percent), with most points coming from ensuring conditions for high-performing charter schools “and other innovative schools.”  
As these 500 points are broken down, ED is giving slight emphasis to what states have already done (52 percent of the score), or their “Accomplishments” versus 48 percent of the score coming for “Plans” for the future.  So that’s an interesting wrinkle for those who are trying to build a new reform city on their old education hill.
In announcing the RFP, ED says it reviewed the nearly 1,200 responses (1,161, actually) that were submitted to the draft, and made changes reflecting the ideas put forward by those concerned citizens and groups.  But despite a 12-page document prepared by ED on the “major changes” that have been made to the RFP, the final looks remarkably similar to the original draft that sparked so much interested many months ago.  Yes, there are some changes, including the highlight that states should use multiple measures to evaluate teachers and principals.  School district buy-in also plays a larger role in the final than it did in the draft.  But while some of the definitions have changed, the overall goals, tenor, and vision remains whole.  It seems ED has clarified some of the gray areas from the first go-around, but hasn’t quite changed those issues that many found objectionable or fraught with potential problems.  Based on many of the comments Eduflack has read, there are going to be a significant number of disappointed organizations out there, even among the traditional ed reform circles.
So what do we make of all of this?  First off, it is clear that those with the dreaded teacher firewalls are going to have a hard time meeting the point threshold.  So California, Nevada, New York, and possibly Wisconsin may have some problems.  Signing on the dotted line for core standards is also a must, so Texas and South Carolina may be on the outside looking in as well.  But it seems ED has softened its overall approach to “my way or the highway,” making firewalls and common standards the only true non-negotiables for winning a grant.
Eduflack is most interested by the emphasis on accomplishments, though.  We’ve heard a great deal about what states are doing right now to better position themselves for Race.  The thought seems to be that a new coat of paint on the ole education system would provide more curb appeal and give the impression that a state is “reform minded.”  But with the final scoring, ED is making clear that Race states are those with both a strong track record on improvement and innovation and a desire to ratchet up current work to the next level.  This is not a start-up enterprise, with states needing to demonstrate a proven and ongoing investment in the four pillars prior to the RttT announcement.
And what does this mean for the total number of winning states?  We’ve heard everything from four or five total winners to upwards of 40 states getting a taste of the winner’s circle.  Based on the summary and documents circulating this evening, Eduflack suspects it will be somewhere in between.  In Phase One, we’re likely to see four or five winners, stacked mostly by those states in the Gates Foundation’s Top 15 list.  Phase Two will probably see another dozen or so, giving us 20 or so total winners.  Interestingly, there will be time for Phase Two applicants to see who wins Phase One and make some final changes to their apps before submitting in June.  (And we should also note that ED cites $4 billion available for RttT, with the remaining $350 million going to support the development of assessments aligned with core standards, funding that is being discussed at ED-sponsored public forums this month.)
Regardless, the 500-point scorecard is going to have many states (particularly those Gates-incentivized states that have been feverishly writing their apps believing the draft RFP would be final are going to be scurrying the next two months to revise and extend their remarks.  Teacher and principal quality is priority one, with strong explanation of state success factors a very close second.  The two represent more than half of the total score.  Standards, assessments, and data systems clock in for nearly another 25 percent.  School turnarounds are worth only 10 percent, with charter school conditions worth almost the same amount as overall commitment to turnaround efforts.  And those states that are already invested in STEM (like Colorado, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) need to take advantage of the 15 percent bump their track record provides.
How many points will it take to win the Race?  That’s to be determined.  We still don’t know what curve states will be scored on.  But at least
we are now clear on distance, terrain, and other Race conditions.  The gun has officially sounded …

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