RttT has already had biggest impact of any grant program

Race to the Top strikes again!  The mother of all grant programs has produced more reform than any grant program in history.  And the feds haven’t spent a dime yet.  Three quarters of the states have indicated that they’ll be applying for phase 1 grants in January and most have improved their plans, policies and laws in preparation.
This week the New York State Board of Regents passed a wide ranging set of reforms that improve the state’s odds of winning a giant federal Race to the Top (RttT) grant. As Tom Carroll’s NY Post article details, the Regents’ reforms will

  • Redesign the state testing system to incorporate classroom assessment
  • Improve teacher preparation with an emphasis on classroom instruction over theory
  • Improve teacher evaluation, add incentive compensation for advanced courses and high need schools
  • Ensure equitable distribution of teachers
  • Build a preschool to college data system that will monitor student growth
  • Improve college and career readiness and setting graduation rate goals
  • Build capacity to improve low performing schools and take over failing school districts
  • Lift the cap on charter schools and provide more equitable funding
  • Expand online learning opportunities

With only 12 weeks on the job, Chancellor David Steiner and his talented staff outlined these sweeping reforms with the full support of Chancellor Merryl Tisch.  Steiner is an unusually competent guy, but it is clear that the RttT framework and timeline helped accelerate this package of reforms.
The Regents need supporting action by the legislature on the charter cap, school and district takeovers, and an early sunset of the firewall between student data and teacher tenure decisions.  The Assembly’s support for these reforms could determine whether New York wins a monster grant.
I’ve spent much of the last 10 years thinking about how to construct grant and prize incentives that create leveraged impact.  Small grant programs typically seek to demonstrate a successful intervention and encourage subsequent adoption.  Race to the Top operates more like a prize—a compelling goal with a big reward—seeking to mobilize and ultimately transform an entire sector.
The Department of Education has suggested that few of the 37 states will win first phase grants.  If they are successful keeping the bar high, RttT will mobilize another round of improved plans and policies prior to phase two awards next summer.
Lots of the $4 billion will be wasted on ineffective deployment.  It’s also fair to say that RttT is more about bringing up the rear than advancing the front.  But that said, we can already say with confidence that Race to the Top has had the biggest impact of any education grant programs in history.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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