Funding Survival Toolkit | Viewpoint

What Race to the Top-D Means to You

The latest Race to the Top competition will have a long-lasting impact on federal funding.

This article and an accompanying podcast originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's October 2012 digital edition.

You may not be one of the 893 districts that submitted an "Intent to Apply" to the Race to the Top-District (RttT-D) grant competition at the end of August--or one of the fewer brave who will actually submit an application at the end of October. Even if you sat this one out, you need to pay attention to RttT-D, because the priorities expressed in its requirements are very likely to be harbingers for other competition requirements. If you think you might apply for any type of competitive federal funding in the future, knowing about RttT-D could help you prepare in advance.

RttT-D Basics
On May 22 the Department of Education announced a new phase of the Race to the Top competition in which districts--not the states--will compete for close to $400 million. It is expected that approximately 15-25 grants will be awarded and they will be in the range of $5  million to $40 million, depending on the number of students being served. Awards are expected this December , so winning districts will be able to begin spending in early spring. Schools can spend this money ("allowable expenses") on content, technology, infrastructure, and professional development, as long as these are tied to the personalized learning environment (see below) and as long as they are part of an integrated solution.

The application is nothing if not daunting. It is 117 pages long, and contains all the expected requirements of past Race to the Top competitions:

  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace
  • Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals how to improve instruction
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most
  • Turning around persistently lowest-performing schools

However, the program also includes some very rigorous new requirements, including a commitment to implement an evaluation system for teachers, principals, and superintendents by 2014-2015, as well as sign-offs (read "buy-in") from stakeholders like the school board and the teacher's union. The mayor's office even gets to comment on it, as does the state education agency at large. Perhaps the most demanding new requirement: Applying districts must have a four-year track record showing the ability to improve student achievement.

If you are not one of the districts who are going to submit an application for these monies, you might be thinking, "Phew! Escaped that one!" But you would be mistaken to relax. Because the kinds of requirements and rigor that are being asked for in this grant program are surely going to show up in subsequent programs coming out of Washington.

But you needn't despair. In this Funding Survival Toolkit we look at five requirement areas that are likely to appear in future competitions and offer some advice about how to get ready in advance.

Personalized Learning Environment: RttT-D places a strong emphasis on what it calls "personalized learning environments," where classrooms employ collaborative data-based strategies and 21st century tools in order to maximize student achievement. All applicants must demonstrate their vision for the personalized learning environment in their application.

The definition of "personalized learning" is still emerging, which makes your job of proving that you are doing it a bit more challenging. A good place to start is with the definition provided in the National Education Technology Plan, which says that personalization "refers to instruction that is paced to learning needs, tailored to learning preferences, and tailored to the specific interests of different learners." So while it includes differentiation--which takes into account students' learning styles--and individualization--in which students learn at their own pace--personalization goes beyond both because it empowers students to also make their own choices in what they learn, even as they work toward mastery of academic standards.

The promise of personalized learning is right now greater than the reality because even folks at the US ED will admit (privately) that available technologies that help schools personalize the learning environment are not all that plentiful. But more and more vendors are climbing on the personalization bandwagon and your job is to make sure that they really meet the complex requirements of personalization--not just one aspect of it. Similarly, personalization depends on a judicious use of learner data; you should be talking to your SIS or LMS provider about how the data in their systems can help you create personalized learning experiences for your students--and how to document the results (see Research, below).

Competition: We already know that states and schools having to compete for federal money is a trend--and it's a trend that is likely to continue. The prediction is that there will be fewer formula funds and more competitive funds. And when the fund is competitive, it's not enough to have a good plan; you have to have an ultra-correct plan that is detailed, complete, and meets all deadlines.

The smartest thing your district can do to be competitive is to have a group in the district that can specialize in funding. Their job is to stay on top of new funds coming up, know the requirements inside and out, and become experts at filling out these complex federal forms to ensure all the I's are dotted and T's are crossed.

Teacher and Leader Development and Evaluation: Research shows that academic success is closely tied to teacher and leader quality and building great teachers and leaders is a top priority at the federal level.

A number of issues are involved in the federal grant requirements around professional development. One is teacher and leader evaluation that includes measures of student improvement as evidenced in high stakes testing results. A second is providing teacher and leader financial incentives for improved student achievement. These are highly provocative measures (witness the recent Chicago teachers' strike) and you may meet with resistance to them from your local teacher's union or other groups. It's one of the reasons the new requirements require a signature from the teacher's union and other local stakeholders--have they bought into the vision?

Your district needs to develop its own vision for professional development for both teachers and leaders that is consistent with federal requirements (or why bother applying?) but it must also come from your teachers and schools leaders. Every stakeholder needs to be on board or you will jeopardize your application--not to mention student success. A survey of teacher and leader needs is a good place to start. Once the vision starts to take form, make sure these leaders are part of the design of the program and make sure that online professional learning communities are a part of the mix, as PLCs are a big priority with the ED.

Research, Research, Research: We've said this before, but it's worth repeating. The government doesn't want to spend dollars on things that are unproven. Virtually every new funding program has a requirement that any programs included in an application have a history of success with the target population.

So, if you aren't already, be sure you are keeping really good records and that you can demonstrate a track record of success. The strongest evidence comes from scientifically based studies that use randomized treatment and control groups and standardized measures of achievement. Randomized studies, however, are very hard to do in schools (especially on your own) but you can use pre- and post-test measures of a group participating in the program. If you are located near a college or university, see if any of the faculty--or their doctoral students--are looking for a research project. And don't just limit yourself to the college of education. Business schools, sociology departments, psychology departments--any of these may have an interest in the kind of work you are doing at your district.

The other group to reach out to for research assistance is vendors, but be careful! The vendor has to be as committed as you are to doing legitimate, valid educational research.

Collaboration With Other Entities: There are many new government requirements for collaboration--with unions, other school districts, other governmental units, private and non profit partners, and parents. All of these collaborations will take time to negotiate and approve. Building and maintaining relationships now with potential partners is good preparation for funding opportunities that may arise in the future. These partners can also bring a breadth of service that will serve your students well.

Full information about the competition, including a detailed list of those submitting "Intent to Apply" documents, may be found at on the Department of Education's web site.

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