Friday, May 14, 2010


By John Fensterwald  in The Educated Guess 

May 13th, 2010 -- California’s forthcoming second-round application for Race to the Top may be a long-shot, but the half-dozen districts behind the effort sure aren’t treating it as such.

Staffers in the districts and consultants writing the application are working round the clock in shifts to get the document ready for submission in late May, Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson told a legislative hearing on Wednesday. And  he expressed confidence that additional districts will sign a memorandum of understanding, committing them to the plan that is now in the works.

California placed 27th out of 41 applications in the first round, with glaring weaknesses in two priority areas that knocked points off the state’s score. Its statewide student data system is still in its infancy, beset with delays and technical problems And the participation of districts in the first round was low: 47 percent of districts encompassing 58 percent of the state’s students but only a quarter of its local unions.

But Education Secretary Bonnie Reiss said that personal calls form U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to her and Gov. Schwarzenegger persuaded the state, however belatedly, to reapply. Duncan kept saying, “Read Georgia’s application,” she told legislators.

Georgia landed third, with 433 points out of 500 – just out of the money and 97 points ahead of California – even though only 13 percent of its districts and no local unions signed on. But those were large districts, representing nearly half of its minority and low-income students.

In his statements since the two winners, Delaware and Tennessee were announced, Duncan has vacillated – or been intentionally ambiguous – between praising states that recruited most districts and unions to participate and citing states with strong reforms but little buy-in from districts. He has implied that either option could win the second round.

California is taking an unorthodox tack of having a half-dozen districts, not the state, take the lead in crafting the proposal. Reiss calls it a “bottom-up approach.” The six unified districts – Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, San Francisco, Sanger and Clovis – have close to a million students.

Reiss said that the application will make up for lost points by emphasizing how the individual districts already are vigorously using use their own data systems for student improvement. This will be combined by creating effective teacher and principal evaluation systems, using a number of measures, including scores on the California Standards Tests. None of the districts are talking about a straight merit pay based on that annual test, Reiss said, although all are talking about alternative pay systems, locally negotiated, using other factors. Teachers in a failing school who have been evaluated more than once as ineffective will be required to transfer to another school, she said.

Hanson endorsed the reforms – expanding the use of data for student improvement, turning around low-performing schools and creating more effective teacher evaluations – that Race to the Top is promoting. While not expressing confidence in winning, he did say that districts are benefiting already from working together on the application process.

The state’s application will be completed May 28. MOUs for districts to consider signing will be ready next week.

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