How to Help Your State Get Race to the Top Money

Educators can be coaches in the contest for stimulus-package funding for innovation.

August 27, 2009

Wondering how you can help your state get Race to the Top funds? Here's a primer to help you have the most influence.

What Is Race to the Top?

Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion piece of the stimulus-funding package the federal government will divvy up to states for being reform minded and forward thinking. States that win this money should use it to create changes other schools and states can replicate -- especially if those changes relate to using more advanced data, improving bad schools, and strengthening teacher quality and academics.

Applications from governors likely will be due in December for the first round of grants -- an exact date hasn't been set -- and a second round of money will go out in 2010.

In what's expected to be a heady application process -- one estimate suggests it will take 675 hours to complete a credible application -- and with grant money eventually trickling to the classroom, teachers have a real stake in helping their state make the case.

What You Should Know

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are clear that not every state will win grant money. To win, states must commit to advancing four core reforms:

  • Creating data systems that includes linking student progress to individual teachers.
  • Improving bad schools.
  • Creating tougher academic standards.
  • Boosting teacher quality.

States also need to be receptive to charter schools and alternative teacher pay. An emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) also will get extra credit. The proposed guidelines are online at the Federal Register.

Some states already have been singled out as falling behind because they have laws that hinder data linking students and teachers, including California and New York, or don't have charter school legislation, such as Maine, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Others, like Alaska, South Carolina, and Texas, haven't signed onto the national standards movement, which is another barrier. You can find breakdowns of the proposed guidelines, including which states face stumbling blocks, from the New Teacher Project and the Data Quality Campaign.

What You Should Do

Take a targeted approach to influencing your state policy makers:

Take Stock

Consider your own views on performance pay, whether student achievement should count in your performance review, what type of data will help your instruction, and how you want to be evaluated. Once you know where you stand, you can decide how you want to speak out on state policies that might hurt chances of getting Race to the Top money.

Toot Your Own Horn

Got a technique that improved test scores? Don't hide it. Talk to your union representatives and school district leaders about how to promote your innovations to state leaders and how it can be scaled up to illustrate its effectiveness outside your classroom door.

Focus on the Guidelines

Figure out how what you're doing can address one of those four reforms, and whether it has legs outside your classroom. Frame your program in terms of how it can improve standards through interim assessments, engage students at risk of dropping out, or improve teacher quality.

Insert Yourself into the Conversation

Find out who is holding discussions about Race to the Top. Beyond union and district officials, check with education activists and reform groups in your state. (In Illinois, for instance, the education advocacy group Advance Illinois is in the know.) Many similar groups will likely be collecting input to aid state officials on the Race to the Top applications. Teacher blogs and message boards -- specific to your state -- also give you a place to connect and chime in: If you're in Wisconsin, try Blogging MPS; in New York, check out Gotham Schools.

Find out How Your State Plans to Reach out to the Public

In Colorado, for instance, Lieutenant Governor Barbara O'Brien started getting feedback on the state's application by creating work groups on the four reforms, and other citizens can submit ideas in writing to her office anytime. O'Brien says plans include using Google groups and wikis to get more input.

Your district and union leaders might know your state's plans, or you can contact the state board of education -- besides the governor, the state's schools chief and the president of the state board of education sign off on the applications, so those offices and their Web sites may have information. For example, Florida's state education department has a way to submit feedback.

Be an Activist

If no one seems to be listening yet, start your own discussion, write letters and encourage parents to speak out. Contact your state representative, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, or connect with church groups and grassroots activists who can help influence state leaders. Even better, start a blog that lists resources and promotes community involvement and invites others to share ideas.

The Bottom Line About the Race to the Top

Promote your school, your ideas for innovation, and your opinions. The money to further these ideas could follow.

Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.

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