New Race to the Top for Districts: Experts React

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education announced a second Race to the Top competition for school districts. Districts with ideas for improving education (with a focus on personalized learning) can compete for $120 million in grants. Education Next asked three experts, Andy Smarick, Paul Peterson and Michael Horn, for their initial responses to the annoucement, and in particular:

A) Is shifting the focus of Race to the Top from states to districts a good idea?

B) What do you think are some good ed reform ideas for the federal government to fund at the local level?

Here are their reactions:

Andy Smarick:

Is shifting the focus of Race to the Top from states to districts a good idea?

No, it’s a very bad idea, and, worse, it’s another example of Secretary Duncan’s ill-advised overturn of longstanding policy and practice regarding the federal government’s role in our system of K-12 schooling. In short, the Secretary is undermining states–the governments constitutionally responsible for primary and secondary education–by creating a new relationship between the US Department of Education and districts. To the extent the federal government is engaged in schooling, it should, in all most every instance, work through states. To do otherwise weakens the states’ ability to have coherent agendas and priorities. The first three Race to the Tops recognized this, and provided grants to states, which then worked with districts. In this program and its predecessor the state is on the periphery. And this is part of a troubling pattern. For example, the SIG program was written such that SEA had no power to tell districts which of the four “turnaround” models to use (and of course, most districts then chose the weakest models). And now the Secretary is on the verge of giving a group of districts an ESEA waiver, which would overturn decades of state-led and controlled accountability policies. Perhaps it’s because he was a district not a state leader; perhaps it’s because he had a not-so-hot relationship with his SEA; or perhaps it’s because he doesn’t appreciate the long-term problems he’ll cause by weakening the state’s role in K-12; whatever the cause, the consequence is serious and deeply problematic.

What do you think are some good ed reform ideas for the federal government to fund at the local level?

I’m generally opposed to the federal government funding districts directly, that is, without the mediation of the state. So for example, I like that federal charter school grants work through the state. The only area that seems natural for a direct federal-local link is a program like the Teacher Incentive Fund. Union contracts are negotiated locally, and still in many states, issues related to evaluation and compensation are driven locally. So a federal incentive grant for districts to adopt better practices related to educator effectiveness is fine by me…as long as the program’s features support state laws.

Paul Peterson:

I applaud the move toward individualized learning that RttT is supporting.  Although many glitches need to be worked out, online and blended learning systems provide the tools that can accelerate learning and make each and every student’s educational experience more meaningful.

I suggest the Department shift its language, however.  According to our 2013 Education Next poll, whose full results will be released this fall, only 20 percent of the public likes the term personalized learning as applied to “learning materials that are created specifically for each student.”  Although 36 percent of the population could not care less what the phrase is, 30 percent prefer “individualized learning,” the term used in the first sentence above. Only 9 percent of teachers like “personalized” learning as the descriptive phrase, while 55 percent like individualized learning.

Still, either is a better option than “customized learning,” which seems to invoke visions of expensive kitchens, teenage hot rods, and luxury vacations. Only 14 percent of the public and the teaching force liked to think about “materials created specifically for each student” as being customized.

Michael Horn:

The jury is still out on whether the Race to the Top competitions will have the ability to help districts to make meaningful changes in school operations. What we’ve seen is that Race to the Top is very good at changing the market conditions within states, but not necessarily at helping states execute on specific plans or operations.

That said, what this Race to the Top very clearly does is signal to districts that moving away from our current factory-model schools toward personalized learning designs powered by digital learning is critical for student success. That is a wise aim and a good use of the bully pulpit. Districts do need help and funds to make this transition, so if the Race to the Top spurs that to happen, that would be a big success.

—Education Next

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