Sunday, August 29, 2010


Washington Post Editorial

Friday, August 27, 2010 | WITH RACE TO THE TOP money now awarded, it is clear that some states that lost out were more deserving than some that won the much-coveted grants. Yet, overall, the program has been a success in driving school reform.

When Congress allocated an enormous pot of dollars for K-12 education in the stimulus bill last year, the Obama administration sequestered about one-twentieth of it to distribute on merit rather than use the usual automatic formulas. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made clear that in this case "merit" would mean commitment to reform. This spurred states to make important changes in K-12 education, such as moving toward paying teachers based on their ability to raise student achievement. In the event, the competition was not staged perfectly. But it helped transform the national discussion on education.

The 10 winners of the second round of Race to the Top will share grants totaling $3.4 billion: the District of Columbia and Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island. Delaware and Tennessee had snared $600 million in round one. Some of the winners make total sense: Massachusetts, for example, which has been a leader in measuring and improving student performance, and the District, where Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is setting a new standard for change. But the selection of Hawaii, Maryland and New York, with middling records on reform, over predicted winners Colorado and Louisiana, which fought hard battles to change how teachers are evaluated, raised questions about the process.

The competition relied on a complex evaluation system, with outside judges examining 19 criteria and grading on a scale from zero to 500 points. Once he set the process in motion, Mr. Duncan was wise not to overrule individual judges to select candidates he deemed more worthy.

But it probably was a mistake not to have refined the judging system after the first round revealed its flaws. Much of the problem centered on discrepancies among judges; if their recommendations had gone to another, smaller panel for final review, the vagaries might have been reduced. It's important that such issues be examined in an after-action review because, even though Race for the Top is over, the administration aims to apportion more federal dollars competitively.

Even in states that failed to win additional money, students will profit from newly implemented reforms, and that's the most important result. Still, Mr. Duncan should find a way to keep faith with state leaders who fought valiantly to toughen academic standards, link student achievement to teacher pay or lift restrictions on charter schools.

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