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Race to the Top Round Three: Can We Avoid the Implementation Troubles of the First Two Rounds?

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In a few months, applications for the third round of Race to the Top will be due to the U.S. Department of Education. This round will reward districts that move past a "one-size-fits-all" model of schooling to provide personalized instruction to meet the needs of every child. Additionally, the third round provides an opportunity to put a stop to the punitive rhetoric that has categorized union/district relations. Instead of trying to circumvent the unions, districts should see Race to the Top as an opportunity to learn from those who are knowledgeable about instruction. Likewise, unions should capitalize on the administration's open-minded proposal to put forth new ideas for differentiating instruction. Combined with community partnerships, Race to the Top can provide a model for how stakeholder collaboration can improve educational outcomes.

Pundits who criticize Race to the Top as federal overreach are right to be skeptical. Almost all previous winners pushed back their timelines for implementation, and many states, such as Hawaii, changed important aspects of their plans in response to stakeholder concerns. In particular, unions have objected to the administration's emphasis on growth in student test scores as a significant factor in teacher evaluation, a condition that will again be included in the third round application.

In previous rounds, states responded to this condition by passing laws to create new teacher evaluation systems. Interestingly, while the traditional politics of education suggests that states with strong unions would be able to block these reforms, in my own research I found that states with strong unions (as measured by the percentage of teachers unionized and the state's collective bargaining laws) were actually more likely to pass these laws, suggesting that many states passed laws in order to circumvent union power.

However, case studies of Race to the Top winners suggest that states had trouble implementing their proposals. For example, in Delaware, the state legislature passed regulations to reform their teacher evaluation system. However, the evaluation specifics would be determined after receiving the grant. Therefore, the union was able to prevent student test scores from informing staffing decisions in the first year. Most notably, Hawaii's ambitious teacher evaluation system was subject to interest-based bargaining with the state's teachers union. When contract negotiations broke down, the state was unable to follow through and now risks losing its Race to the Top grant.

Based on these experiences, stakeholders should consider three lessons learned:

Districts should engage "teacher voice" in all aspects of the application process: Teachers should be at the table in creating and negotiating the district's application through their unions, as well as through "teacher voice" organizations such as Teach Plus, VIVA project, and Educators 4 Excellence. Teachers can provide important classroom-level input on strategies and challenges for engaging all students. Ideally, the district and the union should agree to all aspects of the proposal before submitting the application.

Districts should consider partnering with community organizations: The Department of Education has offered competitive preference priority to districts that partner with community organizations to deliver comprehensive academic and social support services. The most successful proposals will acknowledge that education is a community-wide issue, and will take advantage of the opportunity to create and develop these partnerships. Partnerships will also provide accountability for districts to ensure that plans are implemented.

The Department of Education should be cautious of stipulations in districts' applications: As seen in the aforementioned cases, many states left key aspects of their Race to the Top proposals to the collective bargaining process. Therefore, strong unions signed on to proposals knowing they would have input into evaluation systems specifics after receiving the grants. The Department should encourage districts to provide concrete plans in their applications, and not to leave important aspects to collective bargaining.

Districts and unions can agree that personalizing learning is integral to improving our education system. Therefore, districts should not try to circumvent union power, but instead should include unions in the planning and application processes. Districts will not only benefit from engaging teacher voice, but will also avoid problems in implementation. If districts take the lead in engaging stakeholders, the Department can prevent the difficulties that plagued the first two rounds.