Washington State Has Work to Do For Next Round of Race to the Top

March 2010

This commentary by Christine Campbell appeared in The Seattle Times March 31, 2010.

WASHINGTON was one of only 10 states that did not enter the Obama administration's $4 billion education competition, Race to the Top. While disappointing, it was realistic. An analysis showed Washington scoring 150 points, out of a possible 500. All 16 finalists scored above 400, and only one applicant scored below 200. Washington needs to act fast if it hopes to compete in the next round.

States had to show a history of funding and implementing education reform; they also had to develop ambitious but achievable goals for the next four years. States were scored on four priorities:

  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college, the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals;
  • Building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how to improve their practices;
  • Turning around the lowest-performing schools.
  • The winning states, Tennessee and Delaware, are impressive in what they have done and will do.

With $3.4 billion left, the second round of competition starts in June. Washington just passed important legislation to intervene in low-performing schools and took positive steps toward including student growth in teacher evaluations, allowing alternative routes to teacher certification and committing to national standards. These actions might raise Washington's score, but we are unlikely to beat any of the first-round finalists.

What else can Washington do? Leaders and educators should read the top applications. It is easy to see what the winners proposed and how reviewers awarded points.

For example, the winning states worked closely with teachers unions, which agreed to systems in which 51 percent of a teacher's evaluation is based on their students' annual growth gains.

Some states had supportive charter-school laws, while others, including Tennessee, quickly passed laws that made them competitive by the application deadline. Washington does not have a charter-school law, which will cost our application a minimum of 45 points.

Winners built and use sophisticated data systems. Tennessee has been using value-added models — in which student scores are linked to teachers — to track student achievement for 18 years. Delaware's system is rich and aggressively used.

Many finalists have robust alternative teacher and principal certification options targeted to schools where skills are scarce, and partnerships with organizations like The New Teacher Project and Teach For America. Some compensate teachers for performance, not seniority.

More than 70 points are tied to building and using stakeholder support. Winning states took their applications to every district and local teachers union, listened to comments and got commitments. Tennessee pushed challenging reforms while getting support from 93 percent of its teachers unions.

Teachers and principals unions have an important role to play. They can reject ideas and torpedo the application, or they can join, as their counterparts in winning states did.

Washington did not enter the first round of the competition, and we have a long way to go, but this is a critical opportunity to learn about cutting-edge reforms that can help our students keep pace with the rest of the country. The analysis prepared by the Partnership for Learning is a great guide to what must be done.

The rewards for candor and bold action are huge: Tennessee, with a student population smaller than Washington's, just won $500 million.

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