Evaluating the RTT Finalists

The Race to the Top finalists – 15 states plus the District of Columbia – do not have an equal chance of actually winning a Round One grant in the $4 billion competition.

Like a presidential candidate who interviews many more vice presidential candidates than actually are under serious consideration, I suspect the Education Department was intentionally over-inclusive.  A likely scenario is for a half dozen or so winners in the end, with the rest invited back to apply in Round 2, for which applications are due by June 1, 2010.

The Education Department tipped its hand when it indicated today that “no more than half of the money will be awarded in phase 1 to ensure a robust competition in phase 2,” a practical consideration I predicted in a pre-announcement analysis in City Journal.

I would sort the finalists in three groups: three “highly competitive” states (Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee), three “competitive” states (Colorado, Georgia, and Delaware), and 10 likely Round 1 losers (D.C., Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina).

The “highly competitive” and “competitive” applications alone could use up almost $2 billion of the $4 billion available.  Another small state might be squeezed in, but it would be difficult to grant full awards to these six states and also award a large state like New York $700 million or so.

Highly Competitive:

Over the past decade, Florida has consistently been among the nation’s most aggressive education-reform states. Among the pluses: Florida’s excellent accountability system for schools; a longitudinal database containing student data from pre-K through age 20; a strong charter-school law; special-education vouchers; and a tax-credit program for corporate donations to private-school scholarship programs. Florida’s application also provided the best “gap analysis”—that is, it identified precisely the next steps that the state would need to take to meet its Race to the Top expectations.

Louisiana, meanwhile, has been using a value-added model to track student achievement for three years. It has also participated in the development of the Common Core Standards initiative; created alternative-certification routes that allow organizations other than education schools to give teachers credentials; improved its teacher pipeline through strong partnerships with the New Teacher Project and Teacher for America; and experimented with performance-based compensation in 41 school districts.

The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) has amassed 18 years of longitudinal data on student progress—an important advantage, given the importance that Race to the Top places on data. Tennessee Governor Philip Bredesen, a Democrat, also pushed through a strengthened charter-school law and a law requiring districts to base at least 50 percent of their teacher evaluations on student test results and 35 percent on data from TVAAS.


Colorado, already had a number of innovations in place before applying. They included Denver’s Pro-Comp plan, widely viewed as the nation’s most comprehensive teacher-performance pay system; statewide open enrollment (meaning that students can attend public schools in other districts); a standards-based assessment and school accountability system; and a strong charter-school law with no cap and with funding for charter-school facilities.

Georgia has a strong track record of reform, including an overhaul of the state’s performance standards; redevelopment of state exams; uniform standards for high school graduation; and a law that has led to the approval of 27 alternative providers of teacher certification. Georgia also has one of the strongest charter-school laws in the nation, including no cap.

Delaware offers an opportunity to implement Race to the Top reforms in a relatively small state, with just 126,800 students. One of just 11 states that meet all ten of the Data Quality Campaign’s “essential elements” for state data systems, Delaware already has a longitudinal system in place that links student test results to individual teachers. The state also has a uniform system for evaluating educators, providing consistent ratings across districts.

Other States:

The remaining states are not out of the running, but they clearly are less worthy than the top six states.  D.C., and Rhode Island offer charismatic educational leaders but weak track records.  Massachusetts has strong standards and high NAEP test results, but a weak charter-school law with multiple levels of restrictions.  New York has a very strong application, but it’s data firewall is still on the books and it has been unable to lift its charter-cap in the midst of various unrelated but distracting political scandals.  Ohio has failed to ensure quality in its chartering authorizing.  Illinois may be home to the President and where the Education Secretary cut his teeth, but it simply is not a first tier state in this application process.

Thomas W. Carroll is President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability.

[Please see the blog entries here and here and here and here and here and here for more discussion of the Race to the Top finalists.]

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