Since the creation of the U.S. Department of Education in 1980—if not long before—policymakers, educators, and the public have debated how involved the federal government should be in shaping the schools that children across the nation attend. The articles, reports and other materials in this section of Story Starters examine the recent impact of federally driven efforts to reform elementary and secondary schools.
The Obama administration has made competitive grant programs—designed to encourage states and districts to adopt what the administration regards as research-based innovative practices—the centerpiece of its K-12 reform agenda. Four programs, two of which were created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, have helped the administration advance these goals. The programs include the Race to the Top competitions, the School Improvement Grants, the Investing in Innovation Grant program and the Teacher Incentive Fund.
The Race to the Top program initially was funded at $4.35 billion under the ARRA, a sweeping package of economic-stimulus measures. Race to the Top rewarded states that embraced the four key goals of the law for K-12 schools: bolstering state data systems to better track student outcomes from prekindergarten to college, upgrading standards and assessments, turning around low-performing schools, and improving the distribution of teachers to ensure that high-poverty schools are given access to effective educators. The department used $4 billion for a state grant competition, and $350 million for an assessment competition.
The rules for the contest took into account everything from how friendly each state’s laws are to charter schools to whether the state allowed students’ performance data to be linked to individual teachers. States received points for getting buy-in from districts and unions for their plans. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia each applied for a four-year grant. Delaware and Tennessee were the first winners in spring 2010. Nine states plus the District of Columbia won grants ranging from $75 million to $700 million in August 2010. The program’s proponents say the contest helped spark reforms, even in states that did not secure grants.
The Education Department set aside $350 million in Race to the Top for an assessment competition, designed to help states create tests that emphasize higher-order thinking skills. Two separate consortia won: the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers Consortium, or PARCC, which includes 26 states; and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, which includes 31 states. Some states are in both groups.
In 2011, Congress provided additional funding for the program and it has become something of a franchise. In fall 2011, as part of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Fund, the department offered $500 million to nine states to bolster the quality of their early learning programs. Also, in fall 2011, the department gave $200 million to seven states that narrowly missed winning a regular Race to the Top grant in the initial round. The states could use the money to implement a piece of their original Race to the Top plans. Another round of the Race to the Top competition, worth $550 million in 2012, is intended chiefly for district-level grants.
Nearly all states that received funding under the original competition have had trouble implementing their plans. In January 2012, for example, the department threatened to withhold nearly all of Hawaii’s money because the state was unable to deliver on a new teacher-evaluation system .
The School Improvement Grant program was initially created as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 to help fix schools that perennially failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress under the school accountability scheme instituted by the far-reaching federal law. In 2009, Congress supercharged the SIG program, providing $3 billion from the ARRA for the grants. Up to that point, the program had only received as much as $491 million a year, with little oversight or direction for states and schools.
With the new money came new strings. Schools applying for the grants had to choose one of four improvement models: closing down altogether; the “restart” model, which involves turning over the school to a charter management or education management organization; the “turnaround” model, which requires schools to remove half of their staffs, implement a new or revised instructional program, and adopt a new governance structure; and the “transformational” model, considered by experts to be the most flexible and toughest to implement with fidelity. The “transformational” model involves a basket of strategies, including using student achievement growth to reward and dismiss teachers, extending learning and teacher planning time, and providing operational flexibility.
In nearly all cases, schools were expected to replace their principals. However, principals that were in their jobs for less than three years were allowed to stay if the state determined they were the right leaders to oversee their schools’ transitions. As of early 2012, the most popular model was the “transformational” model, used by about 74 percent of schools, according to a survey conducted by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. Few schools had been closed .
The first round of schools began implementing the three-year grants in the 2010-11 school year. Schools reported widespread implementation issues, including difficulty in finding teachers and leaders with backgrounds in turnarounds. Problems arising with the transformational model included difficulties in providing extended learning time and developing new teacher evaluation systems. Teachers’ unions and principals’ groups continue to oppose the program’s requirements to remove teachers. Charter management organizations have been reluctant to participate in the “restart” model.
The Investing in Innovation (i3) program was created under the ARRA to scale up promising practices among districts and nonprofit organizations. The program, which offers five-year grants, was initially funded at $650 million. More than 1,600 organization and schools applied for funding, and 49 winners were chosen. In 2011, the Education Department held a second round, financed at nearly $150 million, and 23 winners were selected from a total of 587 organizations that vied for the grants . The i3 program offers three categories of grants: “development” grants of up to $5 million for programs that have “reasonable research-based findings or theories” behind them; “validation” grants of up to $30 million for programs supported by “moderate” evidence; and “scale up” grants of up to $50 million for programs that can demonstrate “strong” evidence of success and can be expanded at the national, regional, or state levels .
Some critics have argued that the i3 program should be extended to for-profit organizations, not just nonprofits. Others have charged that it does not find truly innovative approaches, because many of the winners—such as Teach For America, a nonprofit organization that helps train new college graduates to work in under-resourced schools—have been operating for a decade or more. There will be a third round of the i3 program; in 2011 Congress allocated nearly $150 million, slated for distribution by the end of 2012.
The Teacher Incentive Fund was created in 2006 to allocate five-year grants to districts that want to create pay-for-performance programs for teachers and principals. Districts can elect to include other staff members in the program, such as social workers and librarians. The program was first created under the Bush administration , but the Obama administration has pumped money into the program, bringing it to a high of nearly $400 million in federal fiscal year 2011.
TIF grants can go to districts, states, nonprofit organizations and charter schools. Grantees must use the money to create performance-based compensation systems that take into account student achievement, as well as evaluations conducted multiple times during each school year. Grantees must also provide educators with incentives to take on additional responsibilities and leadership roles. Prospective grantees have to demonstrate in their applications that teachers, principals and other personnel gave input into the plans. They’re also asked to show that unions were involved in and support the plans. As of early 2012, there were more than 65 grantees, including urban school systems, such as the in Austin, Texas, district; universities, such as Arizona State University; and nationally known nonprofit organizations, such as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards .
The impact on student achievement of TIF—and of merit pay more broadly—is an open question. As of February 2012, the Education Department was conducting a study of the TIF program’s effectiveness.
For journalists, TIF is a relatively little-covered area of federal reform; the impressions of local teachers and administrators participating in the program are fertile territory for news stories. — Alyson Klein, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
Nowhere else in California has the debate over the use of student test scores to grade teachers gained more attention than in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The second-largest school district in the nation at more than 640,000 students, Los Angeles Unified has become a testing ground to increase accountability for teachers, a movement that has gained speed across the nation. (The Hechinger Report/Center for Investigative Reporting)Read More »
Tea party groups over the past few weeks have suddenly and successfully pressured Republican governors to reassess their support for a rare bipartisan initiative backed by President Obama to overhaul the nation’s public schools. (The Washington Post)Read More »
The lawsuit filed by seven Florida teachers last month, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s new teacher evaluation system, was touted as the first of its kind, but it’s unlikely to be the last. (Governing)Read More »
Education issues—which haven't gotten a lot of attention from Congress over the past four years—may have picked up an unlikely but powerful advocate: U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor. (Education Week)Read More »
To date, the Department of Education has approved waivers from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for 34 states and the District of Columbia. These waivers allow states to set new academic performance targets for their students, as long as they make substantial gains in reducing the achievement gap in six years. Because of this, 23 states have now set targets that vary by race. (NBC News/Education Nation)Read More »
To address these and other issues, the White House is considering a major step to boost early childhood education. According to sources close to the administration, Duncan and the Department of Health and Human Services are outlining a plan to create universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds from low- and some middle-income families -- approximately 1.85 million children. The plan, which is projected to cost as much as $10 billion to implement in full, is still under review by the White House, but sources said that last Tuesday, Linda Smith, an HHS official, discussed the proposal at a meeting of early childhood advocates. (The Huffington Post)Read More »
Judging from students’ initial experience in a new math course, Georgia’s move to a common core of academic standards shared by 44 other states won’t be painless. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)Read More »
The grant funding announced is part of "Race to the Top" money aimed at early childhood education programs. Colorado and four other states are getting the funding because they were finalists in last year's competition.
"Colorado is committed to helping ensure every child is ready for kindergarten and reading by the third grade," Hickenlooper said.
Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin are also receiving funds. (The Record)Read More »
"They have the opportunity to come back and talk with us about making bold changes that would allow us to free that money up. But we have to have a much better understanding of and support for what they are doing" for the funding to be restored. (Denver Post)
On the issue his campaign has been most silent on — the fate of the waivers the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan have granted so far from NCLB—Handy didn't outright say Romney would get rid of them. But he broadly hinted at it.
The waivers are "not about flexibility. They're very prescriptive. We think they have led to a very unfortunate result: ... many of these states are setting different accountability standards for different constituencies of children," said Handy, a former chairman of the Florida State Board of Education. "I think it's wrong." What he's referring to—different school performance standards for different groups of kids—is becoming a big policy issue in many states, and a messaging problem for the Obama administration. (Ed Week)Read More »
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in his most detailed comments about education spending yet, pledged during Wednesday night's debate with President Barack Obama in Denver that he would not cut federal education funding if elected—even as he made the case that he's the best choice to rein in a mounting deficit. (Ed Week)Read More »
If Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wins the November election, his ascension could endanger—or dismantle—key Obama administration education initiatives and lead to a slimmed-down and less activist U.S. Department of Education. (Ed Week)Read More »
At least half the schools in Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and West Virginia are considered rural by the National Center for Education Statistics. Alabama also has a high number of rural students, while Hawaii's single, state-run school district educates some students who live in remote island areas. (Ed Week)Read More »
During the recently concluded presidential nominating conventions, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney offered stark choices on K-12 policy while downplaying areas of agreement between their two parties—and the tensions within each party on education issues. (Ed Week)Read More »
College affordability, global competitiveness, and Republican threats to education spending were consistent themes for governors and other high-profile speakers on Tuesday's first night of the Democratic National Convention.
"You can't be pro-business unless you're pro-education," declared San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who gave the keynote speech, in drawing a sharp and critical contrast between President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney on support for schools. (Education Week)Read More »
Of the 12 states that won the first round of Race to the Top grants, three were on schedule to implement their plans, six were experiencing delays, and three were significantly behind on their plans. (Associated Press)Read More »
EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner. Of the many problems turnaround schools face, the intersection of finances and performance goals is often at the heart of what make or break them. Many of these schools face a dilemma: They need students to keep their budgets and staff intact, but find it tough to improve academics with too many low-achievers. (Catalyst Chicago)Read More »
A shortage of principals could undermine the U.S. Department of Education’s plans for improving the academic performance of some of the nation’s low-performing schools. (The New York Times)Read More »
In choosing the slate of winners for innovation grants totaling $650 million, the U.S. Department of Education decided to invest heavily in big-name teacher-training and school turnaround organizations while reserving one-fifth of the money for more-experimental programs. (Education Week)Read More »
A behind the scenes look at the efforts that led to this federal grants competition, featuring interview with several key players. (The New York Times)Read More »
This article, published as the application deadline for the Race to the Top approached, looks at the different approaches states took toward the federal education grant competition. (Washington Post)Read More »
The U.S. Department of Education announces plans to demand radical steps—such as firing most of a school’s staff or converting it to a charter school—as the price of admission in directing $3.5 billion in new school improvement aid to the nation’s 5,000 worst-performing schools. (Education Week)Read More »
EWA 2010 National Reporting Contest winner. This investigative report examined the reasons Alabama’s 2010 Race to the Top application scored the fewest points of any state. It dispels the rumor that the status of charter schools hurt the state’s bid for federal money: Only 40 points were at stake if the state heralded in more charters, which would have helped the state finish second to last in the RTT competition instead of last. The article concludes that the state’s application writers missed many steps, and failed to consult key constituent groups, including labor organizations. (Press-Register)Read More »
Researchers, district administrators and federal officials debate whether tying teacher performance pay to their students’ academic achievement can improve schools’ academic success. (Education Week)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
This series of three special reports examines implementation of the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. The first special report, Schools with Federal Improvement Grants Face Challenges in Replacing Principals and Teachers, looks at how states, districts, and schools are addressing challenges related to SIG staffing requirements. The second special report, Increased Learning Time Under Stimulus-Funded School Improvement Grants: High Hopes, Varied Implementation, highlights key findings about state, district, and school experiences related to the requirement to increase student learning time in SIG-funded schools. Findings in these first two special reports draw on survey data from 46 responding states and case study research in Idaho, Maryland, and Michigan, published in earlier CEP studies. The third special report, Changing the School Climate is the First Step to Reform in Many Schools with Federal Improvement Grants, examines the positive changes in school climate experienced by six case study schools that received the federal grants in Idaho, Maryland, and Michigan.Read More »
Lists of all of the applicants for the program, includes project and scores. (U.S. Department of Education)Read More »
Lists all of the schools in the program nationally. (U.S. Department of Education)Read More »
This report offers a look at the teacher evaluation policies across the country with specific analysis of the development and implementation of performance-based teacher evaluations. (National Council on Teacher Quality)Read More »
This report examines how have states that received SIG grants administered the grants starting in school year 2010-11, what factors influenced the implementation of SIG interventions in selected schools and how has the U.S. Department of Education provided oversight of SIG implementation and measured performance to date? (Government Accounting Office)Read More »
Supporting and Scaling Challenge: Lessons from the First Round of the Investing in Innovation (i3) PJuly 1, 2011
This report seeks to assess the initial effect of the first round of the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) initiative on key players in education innovation “ecosystem,” including the private and philanthropic sectors. (Bellwether Education Partners)Read More »
This report, which includes case studies of three schools, looks at Michigan’s early implementation of programming made possible through the federal funds. (Center on Education Policy)Read More »
An analysis of why Delaware and Tennessee were the first two states to win awards in the federal grant competition. (New Teacher Project)Read More »
Five Questions To Ask
- Do schools and districts in your coverage area feel that they have the capacity to apply for some of these competitive grants, including Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation grant program?
- Race to the Top, the School Improvement Grants and the Investing in Innovation Grant program require districts or states to create new evaluation systems. How are officials in your district or state handling that challenge?
- How is the federal government monitoring your state’s or district’s implementation of the grant? What sort of support is being offered?
- In the case of Race to the Top and SIG, what sort of student achievement goals did nonprofits or school districts in your coverage area agree to in their applications for the grants? How close is the grantee to making good on their promises?
- What timeline did schools or organizations promise to fulfill their promises? Are grantees on track?
The Center on Education Policy is an independent, nonpartisan organization that researches many key topics in education reform with the goal of acting “as a catalyst to improve the academic quality of public education through working with states, school districts, and others.”
Mass Insight is a nonprofit organization based in Boston that offers research and consulting services intended to “to transform public schools into high performance organizations and close the achievement gaps.” Their studies on School Improvement Grants are particularly notable.
The National Council on Teacher Quality is a nonpartisan research group offering a wealth of information about how education reform policies might affect teachers.
The New Teacher Project is a nonprofit “committed to ending the injustice of educational inequality.” They can be a particularly helpful resource in researching Race to the Top.
Big Education Grants Threatened By Teacher Spats
In several states—including New York, Hawaii and Tennessee—disagreements between teacher unions and policy makers are putting federal funds at risk. NPR, All Things Considered, Dec. 30, 2011
Tennessee Teachers Find It Hard to Make the Grade
An overhaul of the teacher evaluation process in the Volunteer State has discouraged teachers. NPR, Morning Edition, Oct. 20, 2011
U.S. Education’s Race to the Top
The governors of Delaware and Tennessee discuss why their states were the first Race to the Top federal grant recipients. On Point by WBUR in Boston, March 31, 2010
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.