MIAMI -- Nearly 900 school districts across the nation intend to apply for a slice of close to $400 million in grants that the U.S. Education Department will distribute in support of local initiatives that help close achievement gaps and prepare students for college and a career.
The department announced Friday that 893 applicants are slated to participate in the Race to the Top-District competition.
"I believe the best ideas come from leaders at the local level," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
The Obama administration has already awarded more than $4 billion to 18 states and the District of Columbia through its Race to the Top competition. The federal funding spurred a wave of reform across states, encouraging the growth of charter schools and changing how teachers are evaluated.
Critics of the program have said it is overly prescriptive and pushes reforms that are not research-based.
The new Race to the Top competition encourages districts to create learning environments that are aligned with college and career-ready standards, accelerate student achievement and expand access to the most effective teachers.
The guidelines do not advocate a single approach but require applicants to design a personalized learning environment that uses data-based and digital tools to meet the needs of individual students.
In order to qualify, at least 40 percent of participating students must come from low-income families. The districts also must put into place teacher, principal and superintendent evaluation systems by the 2014-15 school year and be able to provide instructors with data on student growth.
The Education Department expects to give 15 to 25 districts four-year grants ranging from $5 million to $40 million, depending on their size. The districts that have applied include some of the nation's largest – including New York City, Miami-Dade and Boston – as well as smaller, rural ones. There are more than 14,000 public school districts nationwide.
Duncan said he hopes the response will build on "this nationwide momentum by funding districts that have innovative plans to transform the learning environment, a clear vision for reform and track record of success."
While the competition focuses on locally-designed initiatives, it incorporates many of the same core priorities of the state Race to the Top.
Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the research is mixed on many of the competition's core goals, including creating new teacher evaluation systems.
"We don't know a lot about the specifics of what a good system looks like in different settings," Loveless said.
Education historian Diane Ravitch said she has the same concerns about the district-level competition as she did the state Race to the Top.
"It's turning education into a competition," she said. "It's not a competition. It's a slow developmental process that involves everybody."
Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools in Florida, one of the states awarded Race to the Top funds, said the district competition would give "the ability to achieve rapid and catalytic transformation at the local level without a state process to be navigated."
The district's application will focus on personalizing education for students based on how they best learn, rely more on digital content and changing the learning environment and outcomes of middle school students who have fallen behind.
"This is a creative and effective way of spurring reform from the bottom up," he said.
Carvalho said he wasn't daunted by the idea of a superintendent evaluation, especially given that teachers and principals are now given them as well.
"I think it is fair it is extended at all levels of the organization," he said.