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Delaware, Tennessee win education awards in first Race to the Top competition

By Nick Anderson and Bill Turque
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; A03

Delaware and Tennessee won the first shares of President Obama's $4 billion fund for education innovation and reform while the District of Columbia came in last among 16 finalists, federal officials announced Monday.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan picked the winners after judges in the Race to the Top competition gave tiny Delaware the highest ranking, with Tennessee close behind. Delaware won as much as $107 million and Tennessee could get $502 million.

The grants are the latest major move by the Obama administration to place its stamp on education reform, an issue that has edged nearer to the top of his domestic agenda with the passage this month of landmark health-care legislation. Obama has also proposed an overhaul of the federal No Child Left Behind Law, the signature education initiative of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

In a conference call with reporters, Duncan acknowledged that the small winner's circle was designed as an incentive for other states to continue revamping their education policies. It also deflects suggestions that the administration would seek to spread the money around as quickly and widely as possible to help Obama win favor in key political states.

Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois, among the other finalist states, came up short. Although Delaware is the home state of Vice President Biden, the administration has little at stake there politically.

Duncan praised Delaware and Tennessee as committed to reaching all of their school districts with programs designed to turn around struggling schools and install meaningful teacher evaluation systems linked to student achievement.

"They have demonstrated the courage, capacity and commitment to turn their ideas into practices," Duncan said.

Georgia placed third in the contest, followed by Florida. More than $3 billion remains in the fund, and they could win money in the next round later this year. Duncan said he expects a significantly larger number of winning states in the second round, possibly 10 to 15.

Virginia, one of 41 first-round applicants, did not make the final 16. Maryland skipped the first round but is planning to compete in the second round.

Duncan said no one factor was decisive for Tennessee and Delaware, but it was apparent that buy-in from teachers' unions and other key stakeholders was important. Florida and Louisiana, which had been favored to win but fell short, did not have broad union support.

The national competition generated its own version of "March Madness" among competing states. Lured by the prospect of tens, and even hundreds, of millions of dollars at a time of acute fiscal stress, some statehouses have moved to ease limits on autonomous public charter schools, revamp teacher pay and evaluation, expand the collection of student achievement data and take other steps in line with Obama's agenda.

Some states favor a tuneup, rather than a shake-up, for schools, a strategy that appears to weigh against them in the competition. Virginia proposed a modest expansion of charter schools and experiments with performance pay but was told to reapply. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) has proposed tighter rules for teachers to gain tenure, but it remains unclear how much that would help the state's chances.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) refused to apply, calling Race to the Top an unwarranted federal intrusion.

In the District, the public school system and public charter schools banded together to build on initiatives launched by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. D.C.'s application said a grant award would be "a political win," signaling endorsement of the work Rhee has done in rolling out a rigorous new teacher evaluation system that will make it easier to remove ineffective teachers.

But on the 500-point scale used to assess applications, the District lost support because of lack of union support, poor data collection and questions about the sustainability of its test-score gains.

Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker declined to sign because he opposed the new IMPACT teacher evaluation system, which requires reading and math teachers in grades 4 through 8 to have half their evaluations weighted toward annual growth in standardized test scores. Teachers with weak overall evaluations face dismissal.

An Education Department review panel said the union's refusal to sign on "creates a concern" and "may create barriers and challenges to getting teachers to make the essential instructional changes" to reach its goals. Negotiations between Rhee and the union on a new contract have dragged on for more than two years, although both sides say they are close to a tentative agreement.

The District lost points because its education data system is much less robust than those in Tennessee and Delaware. The District's fledgling effort, known as the Statewide Longitudinal Education Data Warehouse (SLED), has been plagued by problems, including the dismissal last year of its main contractor.

The District's application received 402.2 points out of a possible 500.

In a statement Monday, Rhee did not address specific issues with the application and said it was "a great honor" to be chosen as a finalist. "Just advancing this far was an important validation that DC is on the right track with education reform," she said. "We're confident about our future prospects and we're eager to reengage all of our partners as we prepare for Phase 2."

Delaware, with fewer students statewide than Montgomery County, received 454.6 points out of 500. It has a new state law that bars educators from receiving "effective" ratings unless their students demonstrate satisfactory levels of growth. It also offers bonuses of as much as $10,000 a year for teachers and principals willing to transfer to high-needs schools. Schools in "turnaround" because of poor performance must show improvement within two years.

The state plans to send "data coaches" into schools to help teachers track student performance and target lessons where needed. The state is to begin new tests in the coming school year that will generate achievement data to help evaluate teachers and principals.

Tennessee, which received 442.2 points and was backed by 93 percent of its teachers unions, was one of the first states to begin using value-added assessment. The data, which have been collected since 1992, will be used, by law, as a significant part of teacher evaluations beginning in the 2011-12 school year.

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