U.S. devises scoring system for school reform contest

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, shown in a September photo, called the program a "game-changer."
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, shown in a September photo, called the program a "game-changer." (Matt Rourke/associated Press)
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009

Educators argue endlessly about the merits of one idea or another to improve schools. But with billions of dollars at stake, the Obama administration Thursday will lay out a novel federal system for keeping score.

Making education funding a priority? Good for 10 points. Demonstrating significant progress in raising achievement and closing gaps? That's worth 30. Developing and adopting common academic standards, turning around the lowest-achieving schools and ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charter schools: Those are worth 40 each.

But improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance is worth more than any specific improvement: 58 points.

Those are the priorities in the Education Department's rulebook for the unprecedented $4.35 billion Race to the Top reform competition. States and the District of Columbia are invited to compete. Bids will be rated on the point system, which Education Secretary Arne Duncan approved. A perfect bid will score 500 points and could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The call to action on teacher-principal improvement, which means factoring student test score growth into job evaluations, is likely to draw intense scrutiny from unions.

"We're saying student achievement matters and teachers and principals make a huge difference in students' lives," Duncan said in an interview. "That has never happened in the history of this country before. We're getting a lot of pushback on this, but it is a game-changer."

The fund, created through the economic recovery law, is unique. No education secretary has ever had so much money for school improvement with so few conditions from Congress. Proposed rules, announced in July, drew significant criticism from teachers unions and stirred debate in the education world because they offered a window into Obama's thinking about how to move beyond the No Child Left Behind era. Officials said they drew up final rules with that feedback in mind but kept the essentials intact.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, who had criticized major elements of the proposed rules as "Bush III," praised the final version. She said the administration made changes to ensure that teachers are included. She also cited the addition of a key qualifier -- that teachers should be evaluated on "multiple" measures, including, but not limited to, student achievement.

"They worked hard to find the right balance. I see a real culture shift in these regulations from what we had seen in the previous administration," Weingarten said. "At the end of the day, the culture shift is about can we collaborate, work together to make schools better."

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, with 3.2 million members, said the final rules were better. But he said he was disappointed by the continuing focus on tying test scores to job evaluations. "I think they missed the mark," he said.

Maryland and D.C. officials said Wednesday that they plan to compete in the first round, with bids due in mid-January. Virginia officials did not commit to a timetable.

"We've got great conditions on the ground that make D.C. a really interesting competitor," said D.C. State Superintendent of Education Kerri Briggs. She cited the city's growing charter school movement and a new teacher evaluation system. "We're on board."

At stake for the District is $20 million to $75 million. For Maryland and Virginia, awards could range from $150 million to $250 million each.

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said the state is seeking help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to draft a bid. The funding, Grasmick said, "serves as a catalyst for a visionary approach to where are you going in this 21st century and how can you use the money to leverage very significant changes. That's what we want to do."

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