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City's Race to the Top-District bid centered on iZone expansion

Pitting itself against school districts across the country, the city has asked the U.S. Department of Education for $40 million to expand and augment its existing education technology programs.

The city’s biggest commitment in its application for Race to the Top-District, which city education officials filed last week, is to add as many as 100 schools to its three-year-old “Innovation Zone.” The application also promises to build innovative schools from the ground up and train teachers on how to use technology to improve instruction.

Race to the Top-District is the latest effort by the Obama administration to entice state and local education officials to adopt its preferred policies. In the first Race to the Top grant competition, in 2010, New York State netted $700 million to overhaul teacher evaluations, add more charter schools, bulk up teacher preparation programs, and develop a statewide data system. Last year, the state fell short in its bid to win Race to the Top funds earmarked just for early childhood education. The current round — the first open to individual districts — is focused on “personalized education.”

City Department of Education officials say the Innovation Zone, which this year contains nearly 250 schools, makes the department uniquely positioned to turn federal funds into higher student achievement.

“It’s something that we’ve been doing for three years,” said David Weiner, the Department of Education deputy chancellor in charge of innovation. “We really believe that that puts us in a great place to capitalize on what we’ve learned.”

The U.S. Department of Education announced today that it received 371 applications for the competition, representing more than a thousand districts because many worked together.

The city filed its application Nov. 6, one day before an extended deadline for districts affected by Hurricane Sandy. When the hurricane hit Oct. 29, a day before the original deadline, the application was nearly complete, according to city and union officials. It just needed a handful of signatures, including one from UFT President Michael Mulgrew, whose office and home borough were both hit hard by the storm.

UFT Secretary Michael Mendel said the union worked with the city to refine the application over time. But he said Mulgrew’s sign-off should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the city’s Innovation Zone, which some have criticized as overly expensive and unproven. Instead, Mendel said, the union wanted to facilitate efforts to boost student achievement, even if its not clear whether the efforts will ultimately pay off.

“I really do believe that we should we be experimenting with different things,” Mendel said. “If they don’t work, shut it down. If they do work, then expand them.”

The State Education Department has declined to award New York City some grants carved out of its coffers from the first Race to the Top competition because the city and UFT have not yet agreed to adopt evaluations for teachers that weigh student performance. But to be eligible for Race to the Top-District, the city and union had to promise only to implement new teacher evaluations by the 2014-2015 school year.

The application asks for $40 million over four years, the maximum available to a district of New York City’s size, to build on the programs the city already has in place. If it wins, the city would have to do at least one brand-new thing, too: Evaluate its superintendent according to public feedback and student achievement.

Right now, about 50 schools participate in an initiative the department calls iZone 360, in which schools redesign their schedule, curriculum, assessments, and staffing arrangements to capitalize on new technologies and approaches to delivering instruction. The Race to the Top funding would allow that number to rise by as many as 100, depending on schools’ interest and capacity, Weiner said, with the largest uptick coming in the first year of the grant. The Innovation Zone’s website currently says its programs will expand to 400 schools by 2014.

The department would also provide additional training for teachers in those schools about how to use new technologies effectively. Teachers might get specific training, Weiner cited as an example, in how to “flip” their classroom, a trend in which direct instruction takes place via technology at home while class time is devoted to group work, getting questions answered, and other activities that require in-person interaction. Extra support would also go to schools that have online courses or that use “blended learning” classes that mix online and offline instruction.

And the funding would also support the creation of as many of a dozen schools built from the ground up on the principle of personalized learning, Weiner said. Until now, the department has encouraged existing schools to tweak their approach or adopt new programs, but it has never created a school with personalization as a goal, he said.

Districts were permitted to work together, but Weiner said the city had declined invitations to join multiple consortiums, preferring instead to focus on its ongoing initiatives. But he said education officials from several other districts, including Denver, Chicago, and Houston — had visited the city to inform their own Race to the Top-District applications.

If New York City wins, the Department of Education will have to do at least one new thing: evaluate superintendents based on feedback from educators and the public and on student outcomes, such as test scores. Currently, public sentiment and student achievement do not play a role in whether the chancellor or the department’s dozens of district-level superintendents retain their positions. (The U.S. Department of Education dropped a proposal to require similar evaluations for local school boards.)

Federal education officials are supposed to name the winning districts — it says there are likely to be about 25 winners — before the end of the year.

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