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Proposed rules for new Race to the Top pose issues for NYC

In the beginning, there were charter schools, data systems, and teacher evaluations. Then, there was early childhood education. And now, the Obama administration wants to reward individual school districts for tailoring their offerings to individual students.

“Personalized education” is the emphasis for the U.S. Department of Education’s third iteration of Race to the Top, a competitive grants program that launched in 2009. New York State won $700 million in the first year after legislators approved new teacher evaluation requirements and allowed more charter schools to open.

It’s an approach the city has embraced for years, providing data tools for schools to zoom in on each student’s weaknesses and creating an “Innovation Zone” that allows schools to restructure their space and time in a bid for stronger scores. The principal of Olympus Academy, an Innovation Zone school that allows students to progress at their own pace, appeared in Washington, D.C., today as part of the competition announcement.

But some of the federal government’s proposed eligibility criteria — including a requirement that school board members undergo formal evaluations — could make it tough for the city to qualify for the grants. Large cities could receive up to $25 million, or about .1 percent of the city Department of Education’s annual operating budget.

Perhaps most crucially, the city and its teachers union have spectacularly failed to adopt new teacher evaluations, despite commitments set out in the state’s first Race to the Top bid and in an application for a different federal program, School Improvement Grants. The latest competition requires that districts commit to having new evaluations in place by the 2014-2015 school year.

In line with previous Race to the Top rules, the proposed requirements also call for districts to get local union sign-off on their applications — something New York City has not been able to muster as the state has parceled out its federal funds. “If folks are at each other’s throats, we think it’s probably not the best investment to make,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a call with reporters today.

The proposed eligibility criteria also call for districts to commit to putting evaluation systems in place for superintendents and school boards — a requirement that would be anathema for districts, such as New York City, where those officials serve at the whim of the mayor.

When Mayor Bloomberg gained control over the city schools in 2003, he restructured the longstanding school board so that he appointed a majority of members and christened the new body the Panel for Educational Policy. Since then, the panel has served as a rubber stamp for Department of Education policy proposals.

Patrick Sullivan, a panel member who was appointed by the Manhattan borough president and regularly opposes mayoral policies, said state law requires school board members to advise the chancellor on policy matters.

“If a member simply shows up and votes as requested by the DOE without investigating the matter under consideration or even speaking at all then they’re not fulfilling their role,” Sullivan said. “Most mayoral bloc members would fare poorly on any real evaluation rubric.”

The eligibility criteria are not set in stone. City officials said today that the Department of Education would submit feedback about the proposed criteria by the June 8 deadline and would wait for the final eligibility rules before deciding whether to apply.

Even though the Obama administration has just $400 million to hand out — a fraction of the $5 billion it awarded in 2010 — Duncan said the promise of the new program is “infinite” because districts would lay the groundwork for change during the application process, not upon receiving an award. To apply, districts will have to “scour their ranks” for top teachers, build consensus around new approaches to boosting student achievement, develop strategies to target every student population, and form implementation teams, he said.

At least 30 legislatures changed teacher evaluation laws during or after Race to the Top’s first two rounds in 2010, in which 11 states and Washington, D.C., ultimately took home federal funds.

The proposed rules for the latest competition make it open to any “local educational authority” with more than 2,500 students. Charter schools are LEAs but would have to band together in what the U.S. DOE is calling “consortia” to apply. The consortia can cross state lines, some some city schools might apply as part of their nonprofit networks, but others would have to work together if they want to seek the federal funds.

U.S. DOE officials said that while the technology-infused approach that Olympus Academy uses is one way to achieve the personalized learning requirement, creative uses of technology are by no means required to win. Neither is adoption of the Common Core learning standards, which 46 states have said they will begin using in the coming years. The only non-negotiable is that districts be willing to craft reforms that strike at the classroom level.

“We need to take classroom learning beyond a one-size-fits-all model and bring it into the 21st century,” Duncan said.

At the panel, held in Washington and broadcast online, Olympus’s principal, Seth Schoenfeld, said district-level support was crucial to carrying out his vision for a school based on a “blended learning” model. The city successfully lobbied the state to eliminate a longstanding “seat-time” requirement for blended learning courses.

“Without the whole city and state support we couldn’t be doing what we’re doing right now,” Schoenfeld said.

But he cautioned districts against rushing into the new opportunity without fully thinking their plans through. “Without a plan for scalability, there will be a lot of money used for four years without a lot of gain from it,” he said.

The Obama administration is aiming to release the application with final eligibility rules in July and will give districts until October to apply. It anticipates making 15 to 20 grants by the end of 2012.

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