Rhee reaches high in District's 'Race to the Top' plan

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010

D.C. officials described Race to the Top this month as a chance to help their long-troubled school system avoid "reform fatigue" and produce gains in student achievement that are "dramatic, positive and sustainable."

Maryland officials said winning a prize in the $4 billion federal contest would help their highly regarded public schools move to the next level. "Getting to world-class status means that Maryland, like all states, will have to pick up the pace of its reforms significantly," they wrote.

Virginia, however, withdrew after the contest's first round, as state officials said their federal counterparts had imposed too many mandates. "We want to work with them, and hopefully they will see the light and provide more flexibility in the future," said Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

Sifting rhetoric from reality can be difficult in education reform. That is especially true for President Obama's Race to the Top, which has unleashed a torrent of debate in the past year over plans to improve public education. Delaware won $100 million and Tennessee $500 million in March.

In the second round, 35 states and the District are competing for the remaining $3.4 billion. Winners are expected to be announced in September. Here is a primer on what the contest has revealed about education agendas in the Washington area.

The District's plan is probably the most innovative, by necessity, because its schools on average score far below the nation in reading and math. If the city wins $75 million, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee would target aid to improving the lowest-performing fifth of the schools under her oversight. That is an aggressive strategy; many states aim to rejuvenate only the lowest 5 percent.

Some of the prize money would be invested in data systems to help track student achievement and teacher effectiveness. The D.C. plan includes performance pay for teachers and stipulates that 50 percent of a teacher's annual evaluation be based on student achievement.

The District finished 16th in the first round and hopes to move up in the second. Its chances might be aided by the labor contract the city's teachers union ratified recently. Participation in the plan from the District's robust charter school sector should also help. But the city is by no means a shoo-in to win a grant.

Maryland, with up to $250 million at stake, would use the grant to expand a "breakthrough center" that aims to coordinate aid for low-performing schools. The state also would gradually introduce new evaluations for teachers. The goal, as in the District, would be for student achievement to count for 50 percent of a teacher's rating. There is some dispute in Annapolis about exactly how that shift would occur because some legislators say the 50 percent threshold is too high.

Maryland officials also aim to invest in data tracking, teacher training and curriculum and assessments to align with new academic standards for English and math known as the "common core." Maryland did not compete in the first round. Its chances of winning are difficult to gauge. Some analysts say the state could be a contender.

Virginia, which finished 31st out of 41 competitors in the first round, has given up on trying to win as much as $250 million. The state's plan had called for some expansion of charter schools, improvement of data tracking systems and certain steps to experiment with performance pay.

But by and large, Virginia officials concluded that their schools did not need a significant overhaul because they have a solid track record nationally. So the state did not propose major innovations. It is worth noting, though, that some prominent Virginia educators disagree with policies in Richmond.

For instance, Stephen Jones, superintendent of Norfolk public schools, joined with 54 other urban schools chiefs to endorse the new common core academic standards released June 2 by the National Governors Association. McDonnell has opposed adoption of those standards, saying Virginia's benchmarks are good enough. He cited that issue as a key reason for dropping out of Race to the Top because the federal contest encourages states to adopt common standards.

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