Student, teacher performance central to Dept. of Ed’s Race to the Top

Nearly $70 billion in education funding for K-12 and higher education has been obligated to states around the country since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed in February. The largest portion of that money went to states in the form of emergency education funding, as State Fiscal Stabilization Funds (SFSF) and Student Financial Assistance programs, like Pell Grants and Federal Work Study. But a timeline for one of the largest blocks of discretionary funding has just been announced.

The Obama administration today announced the rules for states looking to land nearly $5 billion in education grants. The program is called Race to the Top and it uses a complex scoring system to reward states who take steps to improve their school system. Critics argue the money will be used for school budget gaps and that too much power is reserved for the Department of Education to make subjective point allocations.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his staff said they weigh states’ applications based on more than 30 criteria, including how friendly their charter school climates are, if the school system has developed common academic standards, and if lower achieving schools have made significant improvements. Observers say one of the most important is a criteria that is based on improving teacher and principle effectiveness based on performance, by tying student test score growth to job evaluations.

“We’re saying student achievement matters and teachers and principals make a huge difference in students’ lives,” Duncan said in an interview with the Washington Post. “That has never happened in the history of this country before. We’re getting a lot of pushback on this, but it is a game-changer.”

And one way to help understand that kind of complex relationship is through technology. The use of data to improve instruction is also one of the many criteria in Race to the Top, and earlier this year, the Department of Education released a document (.doc) describing how schools could use Recovery Act funds to drive school reform and improvement through technology.

“At the heart of improving schools and school districts are systems to gather and analyze data and provide feedback to educators, students, families, and the community in order to improve student and teacher performance continuously,” the document says.

One major Department of Education initiative is known as longitudinal data systems – a data system capable of tracking student information over multiple years and even multiple school systems. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, twenty-seven grants were awarded in March of 2009 to implement Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS). Since 2005, 41 states and the District of Columbia have received at least one SLDS grant, most of which have been between $1 and $3 million.

Through the Recovery Act, an additional $245 million was made available for SLDS grants and according to the National Center for Educational Statistics website, the submission deadline for the fourth round of Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems Grants has been extended to December 4, 2009. The Institute estimates that individual grants will range from $2 million to $20 million for the entire grant period, not to exceed 3 years. The average award is expected to be for approximately $10 million.

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