Race to the Top

The largest federal discretionary program for education in history could spur innovation through state grants


Teachers will have an opportunity to make their voices heard on key education issues over the next month. That's the period during which educators and other interested parties can submit comments on draft regulations tied to the $4.35 billion federal Race to the Top fund, a new program the Obama administration hopes will spur school innovation through competitive state grants.


The fund is intended to reward innovation in education focusing on four main areas: teacher effectiveness/distribution, standards and assessments, data systems, and struggling schools. It is part of the nearly $100 billion set aside for education in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.


A peek at the draft reveals preference for grant funding is likely to go to states that ease limits on charter schools, use student achievement data in the evaluation of teachers and administrators, and move toward common academic standards.


NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, who attended the event at the Department of Education along with other NEA leaders, applauded the Obama administration for showing a significant financial commitment to creating great public schools for every student and for its willingness to include teachers in the discussion about how 'Race to the Top' can accomplish that goal.


"We are going to use our own four criteria when reviewing the department's plan," says AFT president Randi Weingarten. "They are: Does it help kids? Is it fair and helpful to educators? Is it transparent to educators and the public? And does it require shared responsibility among all stakeholders? If the answer is 'yes' for each, then we have a real chance of improving the quality of teaching and learning, and raising student achievement."

Educators know better than anyone what does and does not work in the classroom and what will improve teaching and learning. The regulations for this historic grant program should be measured by that yardstick.

The draft regulations will be published in the Federal Register on July 29, which will begin the formal 30-day comment period. The AFT is preparing summaries of the regulations, which will be posted soon, along with information about how to submit comments.


But some of the draft details for the grant plan are cause for concern, said Van Roekel. "If we continue to focus narrowly on test scores, then students in need of the most support will continue to get more test prep rather than the rich, challenging, engaging education they deserve," he said. As for those student test scores being used to evaluate teachers, "they should be evaluated on their practice using multiple criteria, not just one."

Which is not to say that NEA opposes states' gathering and use of student data. Such data is essential for teachers developing students' instruction and curriculum. When it comes to evaluating the teachers themselves, multiple criteria should be used.


In announcing the release of the draft regulations, both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan made clear they understand that teachers and their unions are essential to education reform, and that their voices need to be heard for this important initiative to be successful and sustainable.


The Education Department audience also heard from Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, a joint affiliate of the AFT and the NEA. Clements and her local have collaborated with the district on such initiatives as performance pay systems and career ladder programs, and she used the opportunity to focus on the need for strategies that go beyond the quick fix.


"There is no 'one thing' that will improve teacher quality or student achievement," said Clements, who detailed some of the supports that helped make Hillsborough's quality initiatives a success. They include high-quality mentoring and coaching, well-trained principals who work collaboratively with teachers, adequate resources and professional-growth opportunities at all career stages.


"So much is said about teacher quality and the need to improve it—and clearly, there is room for improvement," the local union leader said. "But in all of this discussion, I don't want any of us to forget the women and men—the public school teachers—who do an outstanding job of educating our children every day. Listen to them and work with them. We're ready to work with you."

Beginning July 29, 2009 and for the next month teachers, ESP, and other education shareholders will have the opportunity to comments on the plan.

You can find out more at http://www.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/index.html

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