Race to the Top: For Minnesota, figuring out new federal education plan is far from elementary

President Barack Obama sits next to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as they visit the Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisc., last fall.
REUTERS/Larry Downing
President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visiting Wright Middle School in Madison, Wis., last fall.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It might be easier for everyone concerned if Minnesota employed Sherlock Holmes to decipher the clues contained in the federal Race to the Top funding rubric. He’d sift through the Department of Education’s guidelines and tell everyone how “elementary” the criterion of “Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals” was.

As is, the amateur detectives at the state level are left to guess as to how effective their solutions, designed to address those nebulous goals, will be perceived by the judges — with literally hundreds of millions of dollars to gain for those who guess correctly — and lost for those who don’t.

“The details aren’t going to come from us, the details are in the state plans,” Duncan said. “There’s three things we’re looking at — real courage, a commitment to these things and a capacity to get real results.”

Minnesota plan to get $330 million in federal Race to the Top [PDF] funds is buoyed by support from 300 school districts and 116 charter schools that the state Department of Education says represents more than 93 percent of Minnesota students.

That number may be higher than the number that would actually participate if Minnesota won. School districts and participating charters were encouraged to opt in early to the state’s bid, with the understanding that they could back out later if they don’t like the terms of the federal funding.

“Once you see what’s required to do and how much money comes along with it, then you can make a decision, and I think that’s what a lot of people are looking at right now,” said Charles Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, which represents district superintendents and cabinet-level administrators.

Of course, that all may be moot unless those judging the Race to the Top applications see enough courage, commitment and capacity in Minnesota’s 260-page grant application.

Duncan said the finalists will be made known in March, when administrators from those states are brought to Washington for interviews before a final decision is made and announced in April.

Successor to No Child Left Behind
Say what you will about No Child Left Behind, and many have, the signature education reform of the George W. Bush administration left little question about what was expected from school districts. Students were expected to score at a certain level on standardized tests.

If enough students scored at or above grade level, your school passed. If not, they failed — simple as that. Fail enough times and your school or district could be taken over by the state.

“If you think of a carrot-and-stick approach, they used the stick,” Kyte said.

Contrast that with Race to the Top, the signature education reform pushed by the Obama administration, about which little is known beyond a few broad outlines. Figure out the feds’ formula — and hit it — and millions on millions in grant money could be yours.

“What I’m thinking they’re trying to do now is use the carrot,” Kyte said, adding that he doesn’t think the Department of Education has figured out exactly how much local control they’re really looking for.

Duncan said the overall goal is to improve children’s education by channeling innovation from districts to reward best practices, especially when it comes to improving education for children who aren’t currently achieving.

For example, currently under No Child Left Behind, if an eighth grader reads at a fourth grade level entering the year and improves two whole grade levels, the school district would still be penalized as failing that child — despite the vast improvement. Duncan said Race to the Top would change that, by tracking a student’s year-by-year progress and encouraging schools to use that data to improve their own performance.

That sort of tracking system is in use in many districts across the country — Duncan cited Louisiana as an example — though school districts in places like Pomona, Calif.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Lansing, Mich., have all seen vast improvement from aggressive student testing and using that data to adjust teaching.

Duncan is scheduled to testify before the House Education and Labor Committee Wednesday, where he’ll be asked about those details. The leading Republican on that panel, Rep. John Kline, said he planned to press Duncan on how Race to the Top would be implemented.

“I appreciate much of what Secretary Duncan is trying to accomplish with the Race to the Top Fund, but I continue to have doubts about some of the specific tactics being used to get there,” Kline said Monday.

“For example, I think the Secretary deserves a lot of credit for his willingness to so aggressively take on the special interests — whether by offering support for high-quality charter schools or using performance pay as an incentive to improve teacher quality and removing ineffective instructors from our classrooms.”


“I’m concerned about the sheer number of federal guidelines, parameters, requirements, and priorities included in the Race to the Top program, and what all this federal intervention will mean for creativity and innovation at the local level,” Kline said.

Minnesota’s plan has faced opposition from within state borders.

Education Minnesota, the statewide teacher union, distanced itself from the state’s bid over what would be mandatory participation in the state’s Q Comp performance pay system and linking student test scores to teacher evaluations — both things that would be required in any district that signed on to a successful Minnesota Race to the Top bid.

“Education Minnesota enthusiastically endorses the goals of the Race to the Top program: making substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps, improving high school graduation rates, and preparing students for college or career,” wrote Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, in a January 15 letter to Duncan. “However, we cannot endorse the non-student-centered path the Minnesota Department of Education has chosen to attain those goals.”

Will we win?
All those concerns become moot in Minnesota to some degree should Minnesota’s bid not get selected. And that’s a big question.

No one seems to know how many winners there will be, or at least they’re not saying. Basic math suggests 20 or fewer, because 40 states and the District of Columbia applied, and Duncan has said several times that “there will be more losers than winners.”

The actual number of winners is expected to be less than that, though estimates vary. The state Department of Education estimated 10 to 15 while the state’s top teachers union, Education Minnesota, said there could be as few as six.

It all hinges on how well districts fit the Department of Education’s many criteria — nebulous though they are.

Consider the issue of charter schools.

Of the 500-point Race to the Top assessment rubric, a category titled “Ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools,” can earn a state up to 40 points. In Duncan’s last job, as superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, he gained a reputation for being a champion for charter schools. In fact, he told a group of reporters on Thursday that “removing restrictions on charter schools” is one part of the selection criteria.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools rated Minnesota’s charter law best in the nation, and the state has no caps on the number of charters that can be founded.

So that has to be good for the state, right? Charters will almost certainly be a necessary component of any successful bid, right Mr. Secretary?

“What we’ve said is that we want innovation,” Duncan said. “Charters are a piece of that but there are other types of innovative schools that aren’t charters, and so charters don’t have by any means a monopoly of innovation, great neighborhood schools, magnet schools, gifted schools, so what we want folks, again, it’s replicating — if something’s working we want more of that — and so charters are a piece of the application, but there’s no one factor that’s determining.”

Someone call Mr. Holmes.

Derek Wallbank is MinnPost’s Washington, D.C., correspondent and can be reached at wallbank[at]minnpost[dot]com.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 02/09/2010 - 03:59 pm.

    No Child is/was a mandated but poorly funded program, so the state had to make up the difference while also coping with schools (justly?) being called “failures.”

    If Pawlenty insists on using all the funds from the new program for Q-comp, I sincerely hope the legislature refuses to apply for any funds.

    The money saved from not having to supplement No Child or fuss with Q-comp could be used to hire more teachers, thus reducing class size, thus improving every child’s chances for success. Right?

  2. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 02/09/2010 - 04:53 pm.

    Not sure what Derek Wallbank’s problem is. Secretary Duncan said that there is no one factor that determines whether a state receives Race to the Top funds. That includes whether it has a strong charter public school law, as Minnesota does. Minnesota also has Post-Secondary Options, a new site governed school law, a program that helps reward schools that make progress (Q-Comp) -o all of which are ideas that Duncan has said are helpful.

    So no state, including Minnesota is guaranteed funding.

    Is Wallbank’s goal here to provide accurate reporting, or add to public cynicism and mis-understanding?

  3. Submitted by Joel Gingery on 02/10/2010 - 07:59 am.

    I share Mr. Wallbank’s concerns about RTTT, primarily because it reflects one persons’s ideas on how to improve student performance and in my view these ideas are incomplete and while well meaning are misdirected.

    One example is “pay for performance”. Although many people, including Mr. Duncan, accept the notion that rewarding teachers for improved student performance will improve teachers’ performance and select out better teachers, on further consideration it becomes evident that incentives skew individual teachers attention toward fulfilling these goals, i.e. test performance, rather than the ultimate goal of fulfilling students’ desires for learning. Incentives rob teachers of the professional satisfaction and self worth of doing their job by taking the decision making of how to meet the needs and desires of each individual student out of their hands (resulting in lower, not higher, student achievement). As a professional, how would you like to be told how and what to do? Its demoralizing.

    The fact is that teachers need to be recognized for the crucially important professionals they are, and need to be included in developing the high performing school system we are working toward.

    For comparison, teachers play a role in education similar to the one played by physicians in health care: they both are responsible for assessing the needs of the student or patient and mobilizing the education or health care system, respectively, to satisfy those needs and desires.

    I won’t go into a comparison of our education and health care systems except to state the obvious: they are both dysfunctional to the extreme, primarily because we have “command and control” organizational views of them vs “systems” views.

    “Pay for performance” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding that believes individuals can make the difference in performance. In reality the “system” determines how people perform. The only way to improve performance is to change the system, and to change the system we have to change the way we think, from “command and control” to “systems thinking”.

  4. Submitted by Tom Miller on 02/10/2010 - 09:25 am.

    In any competitive situation, there are winners and losers. In Education, which sets of children should be losers?

    There are a couple of assumptions built into RTTT that have never been proven. One is that teachers are motivated by money. The law implementing Q-Comp had no provision for studying the program to make sure it was effective. The assumption that teachers are motivated by money was enough to get the bill passed; the legislature and governor didn’t feel that objective proof would ever be necessary. When Q-Comp was eventually reviewed by the legislative auditor, it found that both high- and low-performing teachers benefited equally from the additional Q-Comp money given to districts.

    The other questionable assumption in RTTT is that innovation in and of itself automatically produces a better result than the status quo. Studies of charter schools have shown that the student achievement results of charters vary widely, from vastly underperforming to outperforming public schools. On the whole, though, public schools have slightly higher student achievement that charters. It seems foolish to construct a massive spending program on an assumption that, so far, has no solid evidence to support it. And that assessment doesn’t even consider the fraud in charter school building projects that has recently been in the news here in the state with the “best” charter laws. How much of the RTTT spending on charters would be spend fraudulently?
    Race to the Top will produce an abundance of losers. Subtract the number of states that receive grants from fifty to know how many states lose. If teachers are paid on students performance, how many teachers will lose? (Teachers, like anything else, fall in a bell curve, with a small number outstanding and a small number of stinkers. Will only the outstanding be rewarded? We do need to weed out the few stinkers; but then everyone else should share in any rewards.) Even in the states that “win” RTTT funding, we can’t be sure that the students will benefit, since the programs may not be based on proven practices.

    A better approach would be for the federal Department of Education to look at innovative programs currently in place, select the ones that work best, and offer all states support in implementing them.

    In my school district, federal funds account for 3% of the revenue spent on actually education students. This doesn’t come close to covering the cost of federally mandates programs. Federal funding on education would be better spent paying for what are already federal requirements.

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