Ohio's path to Race to the Top success

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the winners of the federal Race to the Top education sweepstakes. Delaware took home $100 million and Tennessee was awarded $500 million. Ohio placed 10th among 16 finalists with a score of 419 out of 500, beating Louisiana by a hair and falling just below Rhode Island and Kentucky.

The fact that Delaware and Tennessee, states with high levels of district and union buy-in, snagged first round awards has set off a flurry of speculation about the extent to which stakeholder participation is critical for Race to the Top phase two. On the surface, their wins may seem attributable to the fact that “these two states were touching every single child” (i.e., broad district participation) and had widespread support from teachers unions. And Ohio would certainly be better off if it could “include more people and interests across the political spectrum in writing the application,” as the Columbus Dispatch recently argued.

Gov. Strickland was spot on when he said that nonparticipating districts should explain to taxpayers why they rejected the chance to win Race to the Top dollars, especially since nearly half (49 percent) opted out (we took a similar stance when the Dayton Education Association, despite the district facing a $5 million budget deficit, refused to sign on).

But lack of stakeholder involvement is not the primary reason Ohio lost in the competition. Ohio’s application’s scores, and the feedback from reviewers, show that the state had several major weaknesses in its proposal.

Ohio lost significant points in the section, “Great Teachers and Leaders,” with even the most generous reviewer (who gave Ohio a score as high as Delaware’s) docking points for the state’s inability to ensure equitable distribution of teachers in hard-to-staff subjects, specialty areas, or in high-poverty or high-minority schools. Ohio lost a total of 35.2 points in this area – seven percent of the total application, and ranked second to last in this section (ahead of only Massachusetts).

Reviewers noted that in Ohio “processes to remove ineffective educators are not provided” and “Only half of the LEAs committed to using evaluations to inform compensation and promotions.” Ohio also got dinged for failing to close achievement gaps between poor students and their wealthier peers (a loss of 12.4 points), inadequate data systems to support instruction (8.4 points), failing to turnaround the lowest-performing schools (7.2 points), and not ensuring successful conditions for charter schools (6 points).

In comparison, failing to secure LEA commitment to Ohio’s reform agenda and translating this into statewide impact lost the state only 6.4 points. Worthwhile changes in the areas of teacher and principal quality, school turnarounds, and data could garner a significant amount of points for Ohio’s application in the next round, whether the unions sign on or not.

Even states with high academic performance, like Massachusetts, scored poorly in the “Great Teachers and Leaders” section. A recent report from The New Teacher Project calls it a “myth” that states cannot win round two funding without full buy in from districts and unions and points instead to bold teacher-related reforms as a strategy for states to become more competitive. For example, Delaware passed a state law that prevents educators from being rated “effective” if their students don’t show satisfactory academic growth. Tennessee also passed legislation allowing value-added data to be used for teacher and principal evaluations, and for state intervention in the lowest-performing schools.

Any reforms related to the teaching profession will face tough resistance from the teachers unions. But if Ohio hopes to win round two funding – and more importantly, improve student achievement in the long-term – it will have to take seriously the way it evaluates, rewards, retains, and distributes teachers and school leaders.

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