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Out of the Starting Gate

Today, the Department of Education released its final application rules for the much-touted Race to the Top (RTTT) program. Next year, $4.35 billion in competitive RTTT grants will be doled out among the states based on their commitment to education reform and innovation. The new rules governing who will qualify for the money are drawing some praise. A New York Times article published this morning quotes union presidents, think tank leaders, governors, and school district chancellors as being generally pleased with the guidelines, which, after being released in draft form in late summer, garnered comments from some 1,600 people. Other education experts, however, are criticizing the rules for watering down RTTT's reform agenda.

A few highlights from the final guidelines:

--Broad visions clarified: The Department added a new category called "State Success Factors" to the guidelines. This component demands that each state clearly and fully articulate its reform agenda and demonstrate that it can get buy-in from local groups (like unions and boards of education). “It became clear that a lot of states were treating [the criteria] as a checklist. There was no big picture,” Joanne Weiss, the Department's RTTT director, tells EdWeek. “Now this is where they build their case.”

--Teachers matter most: Applications will be scored on a 500-point system, and the reform priority with the most weight (138 points) is improving teacher quality, which I wrote about after attending a conference on the issue just last week. Among other things, states must develop teacher evaluation systems that "take into account data on student growth (as defined in this notice) as a significant factor"--or, in other words, tie student achievement to assessments of a teacher's effectiveness.

--Good news for the national standards movement?: States wishing to receive RTTT money are encouraged to adopt common K-12 standards by August 2, 2010. Those that "cannot adopt a common set of K-12 standards by this date will be evaluated based on the extent to which they demonstrate commitment and progress toward adoption of such standards by a later date in 2010." But the development of these common standards counts for only 40 points in the overall scoring of applications.

--Charters? Not necessarily: In response to complaints from some reviewers that the initial RTTT rules focused too heavily on charter schools as vehicles for change, the Department will now assess how well states and districts enable "innovative, autonomous public schools … other than charter schools." N.C. Governor Bev Perdue tells the NYT, "We like charters in North Carolina, but we like other methods of innovation, too. So I can see that Secretary Duncan listened to us, and that’s phenomenal."

But other response to the rules aren't as positive as Perdue's. Some people see omissions and loopholes, while others see too much structure. Andy Smarick of the Fordham Institute worries on the think tank's blog that "the increased weight now given to 'multiple measures' in teacher evaluations" could "mean that student performance data—the real reform element—might get crowded out." He also points out that "[a] section on performance pay, tenure reform, and teacher dismissals fails to even reference union contracts. In most places (and in all major cities), you simply can’t address any of these issues without fundamentally altering collective bargaining agreements." (He's right--archaic union contracts, which I've written about, can't be ignored in the push for better teachers.) On the flip side, Amy Wilkins of Education Trust tells EdWeek that the rules are so clear-cut and carefully quantified that there is "no incentive for states to be particularly bold."

The various reactions to the RTTT guidelines remind me of the Goldilocks fairy tale: Depending on who you ask, they're too big, too small, or just right. The first round of applications is due on January 19, and money won't start flowing until the spring. So it'll be months before we know exactly how well these rules fit, and fulfill, the country's desperate need for education reform.