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We read the Race to the Top application so you don't have to

Raise your hand if you know what the state’s 450-page Race to the Top application actually says. Besides, of course, “We raised the cap on charter schools and came up with a new way to evaluate teachers.”

Here’s a quick-and-dirty guide to what the application actually proposes, including some details about the proposal that I hadn’t heard before I read it. The application is divided into four main goals. You can find more background on Race to the Top here, and a copy of the state’s second round application is here.

Making better tests and curriculum:

National reading and math curriculum standards are coming, and New York education officials plan to opt in to them. The state wants to spend $26 million to write curriculum based on the new standards, which will show up in classrooms beginning in February 2012. Another $40 million would be used to create new tests, including a way to judge kindergartners through third-graders’ progress in learning to read. Students would start to take initial versions of those tests in January 2012. The final versions of exams based on the new standards would be due in 2015.

Building new databases to track student progress:

By “data systems,” the state means a program that can track students’ academic progress from the very beginning of their education to the end. The state wants to spend $50 million in Race to the Top funds to help build a program that will be used state-wide. Another $10 million would go toward linking information from grade schools to information from New York’s colleges and universities. The application describes a future data system that sounds a lot like ARIS, the city’s $81 million data system launched in 2008.

State education officials also envision a program that included an “early warning system”: by keeping track of things like attendance problems, disciplinary actions, grades and test scores and the language progress of students learning English, the system will be able to alert schools to students who are at risk of dropping out.

Training teachers and judging them:

Much of this section of the application centers around the new law that incorporates student achievement data into teacher evaluations. Some uses of the evaluations are pretty obvious: schools will use them to figure out which teachers need more training and which should be removed. Others are less intuitive. For example, the application proposes a new program where teachers who have been highly rated under the evaluations for three years running can get a $30,000 bonus for transferring to teach in a high needs school.

The application also mentions that 20 New York City schools are currently experimenting with the best ways to evaluate teachers and figure out what tools are needed to do it fairly. This pilot is separate from the Measuring Effective Teaching research project that the city is running with the teachers union and the Gates Foundation.

Improving low-performing schools and letting charter schools thrive:

The application’s plan to improve failing schools centers around creating what state officials are calling “partnership zones,” which are very similar to the city’s system of support networks for schools. Each school that is targeted for turnaround would get a total of $3.6 million over three years to support its efforts.

State officials also emphasize in the application that they believe charter schools — particularly the large, well-established charter networks like KIPP and Uncommon Schools — would play a large role in re-making schools. To encourage the growth of charters, the state is proposing a fund that will help “high performing” charter operators reduce the interest on debt they owe from building their own facilities.

The application also gives some clues for where to look to figure out how the state’s new Request for Proposal system of opening new charter schools might work: the RFP process will be modeled after similar programs in New Orleans, Chicago and Denver.

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