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Race to the Top: Do California, Florida have a chance?

The Education Department has released the scores and reviewer comments from Round 1 of the Race to the Top competition. One aim is to help states improve their applications in the next round.

By Staff writer / March 30, 2010

On Monday, a happy Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen listens to the applause as he meets with members of the media to discuss the Race to the Top announcement at Eakin Elementary School in Nashville. Does California and Florida have a chance for Round 2?

Larry McCormack/The Tennessean/AP

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For states hoping to get a portion of the $4 billion that the federal government is offering to spur education reform, the announcement of the Round 1 winners Monday produced both guidance and questions.

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Just two states – Delaware and Tennessee – were awarded grants worth $600 million total in the first round of the Race to the Top competition. That leaves the bulk of the pot (about $3.4 billion) for Round 2, which has a June 1 deadline for applications.

The similarity of the two winners’ applications has led some observers to speculate about the elements that seem most important – such as sophisticated data systems, broad buy-in from state unions and districts, and a focus on linking teacher evaluations to student gains. Observers have also questioned whether it will be possible for other states, particularly ones that are larger and more complex, to win without those elements.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has posted all 41 of the initial applications, together with their scores and reviewer comments, in hope of providing transparency and helping states realize what steps could improve their applications.

To some education experts, the decision to limit the first-round payout so much seems an attempt to gain as much leverage as possible from the competition, placing pressure even on those states with already-strong proposals to fine-tune their applications.

“It seems [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan wants to establish a very high bar and then have the rest of the states compete further,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. “The question has to be: Can the large states benefit from this program? Or just because of their size and complexity, will they be at a disadvantage?”

Others question the quality of the reviewers’ scoring, noting that they didn’t always reward states for particularly bold or innovative plans. And the scores and comments didn’t always take note of possible deficiencies. (Delaware, for instance, will allow a teacher to be labeled “effective” even if his student’s don’t achieve a year’s worth of growth.)

Delaware and Tennessee were among the few states to have both ambitious plans for reform combined with near universal support from districts and teachers unions, notes Andy Smarick, a fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “How many states are going to be able to replicate what Delaware and Tennessee pulled off?” he asks.

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