Analysis: Colorado’s lost points in Race to the Top

Colorado’s failed bid for $175 million in federal Race to the Top funding was hampered by concern about the state’s flat achievement data and fear that union opposition would prevent the spread of reform.

Evaluators also docked points for what they describe as the state’s vague plans to ensure effective teachers and principals are in the neediest schools.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday announced winners of the federal grant competition, awarding nearly $3.4 billion to nine states and the District of Columbia. Colorado placed 17th out of 19 applicants for Round 2 of the Race to the Top; the state also was a finalist, but not a winner, in Round 1 of the contest earlier this year.

Race to the Top
See EdNews’ complete coverage of Tuesday’s announcement, including video of Gov. Bill Ritter’s press conference.

Education News Colorado analyzed detailed scores and reviewers’ comments, released Wednesday, for Colorado and the winning states.

“The applicant’s record of improving student achievement is weak and there is little information describing lessons learned from previous reforms,” wrote the toughest of five reviewers of Colorado’s application. “Implementation of successful reforms appears to be weak.”

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That reviewer repeatedly noted the lack of support from the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Colorado Education Association, which drew comment from all five evaluators.

“Without the support of the CEA, the applicant will predictably face difficulties in the implementation of its multifaceted reform effort, which must depend heavily on the goodwill and commitment of the majority of the state’s teachers,” one reviewer wrote.

Only 5 percent of local unions signed on to participate in the reform plan after the CEA withdrew its support over Senate Bill 191, now a state law linking student academic growth to teacher evaluations.

“There is a notable absence of formal support from the Colorado Education Association,” wrote another reviewer. “This is a serious issue and threatens to compromise a full and successful implementation of the applicant’s RTTT agenda.”

Little impact seen from Senate Bill 191

Several reviewers referred to Senate Bill 191 in flattering terms – one called it a “bold strategy” – but it does not appear to have dramatically increased the points awarded Colorado’s application.

Of the seven areas in which states can win points, Colorado’s second-poorest showing came in “State Success Factors,” which considers the likelihood a plan will have successful and widespread impact.

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Colorado received only 78 percent of 125 possible points, with markdowns for years of flat achievement indicators and for little union buy-in.

But the state’s poorest showing – or 76 percent of 138 possible points – came in the area of “Great Teachers and Leaders,” which looks at educator preparation, development and distribution.

The biggest ding was in the category of “ensuring equitable distribution” of effective teachers and principals in high-poverty or high-minority schools.

Unnamed reviewers
Who are they? Their bios are here but names aren’t attached to specific states.

“The application acknowledges a lack of success in the area of access and there is no data to demonstrate or review their progress,” wrote the reviewer who gave the state its highest overall score. “The state method to determine distribution is unclear … the plan to move forward in this area is not considered ambitious.”

Another reviewer wrote that the state “does not currently have a methodology to determine the distribution of effective teachers and principals in high poverty/high minority schools.”

A third reviewer remarked that a state council must first define effectiveness, as required by Senate Bill 191, before any plan to distribute teachers and principals can begin:

“The September 2011 adoption date for the definitions places the true starting gate for this initiative on a somewhat distant horizon, which suggests an absence of a sense of urgency here.”

Comparing Colorado and Massachusetts

Colorado’s application is in stark contrast to that of Massachusetts, the state that will take home up to $250 million after achieving the highest overall point total of the ten Race winners announced Tuesday.

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Reviewers laud that state’s progress on national and international tests, noting its students ranked first on all four National Assessment of Educational Progress exams in 2005, 2007 and 2009.

One reviewer called Massachusetts “an unquestioned leader in the nation” on the NAEP.

Like Colorado, the state did lose some points for union participation – 56 of 276 union leaders, or 20 percent, did not sign on, including Boston.

Another reviewer gushed about Massachusetts’ plan for the equitable distribution of teachers in the most challenging schools, describing it as “visionary and catalytic”:

Learn more
To see the applications, scores and reviewers’ comments for all 19 finalists, visit the Phase 2 section of the U.S. Department of Education website.

The state allows principals of its lowest-achieving 4 percent of schools to require all staff to reapply and it has lessened the “just cause” requirement of teacher dismissal to “good cause.” It also allows the principals to choose staff without regard to seniority.

Both Colorado and Massachusetts received high marks for developing and adopting common standards and for making education funding a priority.

But they differed again where charters are concerned – Colorado fared well for enabling high-performing charters, for equitably funding charters and for providing charters access to facilities.

Massachusetts just lifted its cap on charter enrollment in January but still restricts the number of charter schools to no more than 6 percent of public schools statewide, which cost the state some points.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at

How the five reviewers scored Colorado’s application

Use the right and bottom sliders in the graphic below to see Colorado reviewers’ detailed scores in each Race to the Top application category. Or click “here” to go to an easier-to-read spreadsheet format:

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call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”