Data, partnerships boost Race to the Top winners past the finish line

Delaware and Tennessee were the only recipients of money in the first round of funding available through Race to the Top’s $4.3 billion purse. Central to the two states’ strategies was commitment to data-driven reforms, officials say, by both school administrators and unions. Additional factors included a public-private partnership in Delaware to develop a 2015 plan (in 2006) and Tennessee’s plan to share educational data with welfare and childcare agencies.

According to this morning’s Tennessean, the state has been collecting detailed records and statistics on its students and teachers for some time. Using what is known as a state longitudinal data system, or SLDS, Tennessee and other states can track students from as early as pre-Kindergarten through college. But after receiving $500 million, the state can turn its database into a user-friendly tool for educational diagnostics and collaboration efforts.

In the future, Tennessee Education Commissioner Tim Webb said, a teacher would be able to look at the data on a student and recognize that she is struggling in one subject area — say, linear equations. The database would help the teacher find a school on the other side of the state where a teacher has had success teaching linear equations to students who have the same background and challenges as the student in Nashville. The teachers could then share lesson plans.

The Tennessee system, for the first time, will link educational data to the state’s Human Services and Children’s Services departments. Ideally, this will help schools better handle those students who are recently placed in foster care or are with families struggling to make ends meet.

The Delaware application boasted a legacy of reforms, officials in that state boasted, to win $100 million in Race funds. In 2006, the state developed plans to construct Vision 2015, a privately funded coalition of business, community and education officials. The group charted a path towards reforms using technology, including a computer-adaptive test tracking students’ improvements over time, a system designed to give teachers immediate feedback on students’ needs and a system of “data coaches” intended to help schools use the information they are already collecting.

“Some states were starting this summer,” Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware and a major backer of Vision 2015, told the News Journal. “We had a four-year head start.”

“This will allow us to try things that we never had the implementation money for before,” he said. “It will continue to be a long process. This is just a huge step.”

There wasn’t even a bronze medal awarded in the Obama administration’s education Race to the Top. But administration officials maintain the importance of setting high standards and pledge to fund as many strong applications as possible in round two.

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