Running the Race

Delaware scored a coup when it won millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top funding for education reform. So what’s the plan?

Illustration by Scott BrundageIf you’re wondering where all the much ballyhooed Race to the Top money is going, don’t worry—officials say it won’t be squandered.

“We are not going to invest money in places where we don’t think there’s a strong possibility of real education reform,” says Secretary of Education Lillian Lowery.

That means school districts and charter schools must present comprehensive plans for reform and prove universal buy-in before they can lay claim to a portion of the $119 million in federal money. And that’s a good thing.

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“Race to the Top represents a cultural shift,” says Diane Donohue, president of the Delaware State Education Association, the teachers’ union. “Collaboration is the key to much of this being successful, and that’s something that teachers have wanted for a long time.”

The Race to the Top Fund is a $4.35 billion federal fund to support school reform in four key areas: adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace; building data systems that measure student growth and retention and give educators feedback on how to improve instruction; recruiting, developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially in high-needs schools; and turning around the lowest-performing schools.

Receiving funding in the first round of the Race to the Top competition was a coup for Delaware—one of only two states able to prove it had both a workable reform plan and a good chance of success. Delaware’s plan, says Governor Jack Markell, evolved out of “a road map for the next generation of education reform in Delaware” that he had asked Lowery to put together in the summer of 2009. That early work, combined with public-private buy-in from stakeholders and a two-decade legacy of academic innovation, helped push Delaware to the top, Markell says.

Now it’s time to begin implementing the plan. Half of Delaware’s $119 million allotment, paid out over four years, will go to the state Department of Education, half to Delaware’s school districts and charter schools (known as local education authorities or LEAs).

The state has announced detailed plans for its half of the money. More than $12 million, for example, will be used to enhance Department of Education data systems. It also will pay to send data coaches into the schools to show teachers how to use the information for developing lesson plans. Professional development will get a bump of $4 million, and more than $3 million will go toward training for new teachers.

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Targeted high-needs schools will get $2.5 million to entice highly effective teachers and principals to sign on, $7 million to pay retention bonuses to highly effective teachers, $2 million to train principals, and $1.65 million over five years for 100 teacher residents specializing in science, technology, engineering and math.

Another $8 million-plus will go to the highest-needs schools, those that have failed to make adequate progress toward improvement according to the standards of No Child Left Behind. About 10 schools will participate in a turnaround program called Partnership Zone over the four-year period of the Race to the Top grant. The first three entered the program in September. They have one year to detail a turnaround plan. The next seven schools will enter next fall, with the same one year allotted for planning.

College readiness gets a boost, too. Beginning this year the state will pay for 11th-grade public school students to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test. AP Summer institutes will train more than 180 teachers to teach AP courses. All eighth-graders in public schools will have access to SpringBoard, the College Board’s pre-AP program.

The state plans to continue funding these programs after Race to the Top funds run out in 2014, which, with start-up costs already paid, should cost significantly less. Markell says that $8.5 million will be enough to cover the new programs and should be no problem to work into the state’s $1 billion annual education budget.

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Delaware’s 19 school districts and 18 of 19 charter schools submitted preliminary reform proposals at the end of June. (Charter School of Wilmington is ineligible because it receives no Title 1 funding.) They have until next year to complete their plans for the final three years of the Race to the Top program. All schools will receive some start-up funding this year, Lowery says.

“We wanted to use the first year for LEAs to work with their local boards, superintendents, teachers, teacher associations and support staff, to make sure everyone clearly understands the governor’s reform plan for public education and how these Race to the Top monies can help us to bring it to scale, but also to get the flexibilities that are needed to do the work,” Lowery says.

“In other words, the local bargaining units are going to have to say, ‘We’re willing to work a longer day. We’re willing to have a longer year. We’re willing to give up some time here so we can do more for students there, and we’re willing to look at how we get compensated so we can get highly qualified teachers in our high-needs schools and incentivize them to stay there.’”

The state’s Department of Education took a cue from the federal government’s requirements for funding: Before they can claim a share of the funds, local districts and LEAs must prove their plans are worthy.

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Donohue says she is “not sure that people are comfortable with the competitive nature of the grants,” but that everyone has agreed to work through the Race to the Top process. “The positive thing is that LEAs have time to work through the scope of their plans,” Donohue says.

DSEA members also appreciate being a part of defining what sufficient student growth means, because teacher performance will soon be evaluated in part by whether or not students are making adequate progress as judged by several measures, not one standardized test, Donohue says. She notes that teachers applaud greater access to professional development that is tied directly to classroom needs, as well as more time for collaborative planning.

The LEAs’ half of the money is apportioned according to a federal formula. The formula is based on the percentage of low-income students in the school district or charter school—provided the state approves their reform plans. If any district’s or charter school’s plan is not approved, the money that would have gone to them will be distributed to the remaining LEAs using the same federal formula.

Individual LEAs have considerable leeway in deciding how to spend their money in order to meet the state’s established reform priorities. LEA plans were to be posted on the state DOE Website sometime in August. Of the state’s 12 reform priorities, LEAs were asked to select four to six to concentrate on this year.

Indian River School District, for example, chose five: supporting development of new standards, building a culture of college and career readiness, implementing strategies to engage families and communities, adopting a model for professional development, and developing instructional leaders. Indian River got a jumpstart last summer by using federal stimulus monies to fund development of 50 teachers who will go out into the schools and pass that training to others. In the future, Race to the Top funds will be used for training.

“The state’s plan gives each of us the opportunity to customize what will work best for our own district,” says Indian River superintendent Susan Bunting. “This is a golden opportunity to extend education reform in Delaware.”

Among Brandywine School District’s plans is beefing up instruction in science, technology, engineering and math. Lowery also spoke approvingly of Caesar Rodney’s plans to begin instruction in Chinese, Japanese and Arabic languages. Learning such complex languages will encourage development of higher-order thinking skills and make students globally competitive, she says.

Markell and Lowery both say that the goal is for Delaware schools to be the highest ranked in the country by 2014.

“In the end, the only thing that really makes a difference is the achievement of the students,” Markell says. “There are the four main elements to the plan: high standards, data, teacher development and linkages of student achievement with teacher evaluation, and addressing low-performing schools. It is our judgment that when we do a good job on those four things, that’s going to lead to higher student achievement. The inputs are a whole lot less important than the outputs, and that’s going to be whether student achievement improves.”

Having the best schools in the country is a lofty goal, Markell says, but absolutely an attainable one.

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