First take on Race to the Top-District results

This afternoon, Sec. Duncan announced the winners of RTTT-D. The results are quite surprising.* Though the official announcement is noticeably devoid of both specifics and overarching themes, four things jump out immediately.

While some of the nation’s largest urban districts made the 61-member finalist list, virtually none of them won.

The first is that while some of the nation’s largest urban districts made the 61-member finalist list, virtually none of them won: Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Nashville, New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, and St. Louis all came up short. (Miami is the lone representative of big-city school systems.)

This is a bit puzzling because large districts generally fare well in these grant competitions. They have more central-office staff to task with grant-writing, they can more easily raise private funds, and so on.

It is conspicuous that they got boxed out.

Some might argue that, assuming scale is among our considerations, their exclusion from the winner’s circle is lamentable. They serve many students, so the types of changes envisioned by this grant would have touched more kids had these big urbans won.

The counter argument, of course, is that city districts get plenty of money and attention as is, so no one should cry them a river for losing. Moreover, if the lessons of these grants are ultimately disseminated widely and adopted elsewhere, the same kind of scale can be accomplished, though over a longer period of time.

Smaller districts, consortia, and charters did quite well.

The second thought to jump out is that smaller districts, consortia, and charters did quite well. The superb charter networks KIPP D.C., IDEA, and Harmony won. Consortia of small districts in Washington state and Kentucky were awarded grants. And several districts generally unknown to inside-the-beltway types also came out on top (e.g., Iredell-Statesville Schools in North Carolina and Galt Joint Union School District in California).

Though I’m familiar with a number of the applications, I’ve not yet gone through those submitted by all of the winners, so I’ve been unable to tease out commonalities or big differences. I’ve very curious what they share. Maybe they’re already off and running on hybrid? Maybe they’ve begun dissolving grade spans, moving toward mastery?

There are some scoring curiosities.

Third, as is always the case with RTTT competitions, there are some scoring curiosities. Not long ago, USED announced the 61 finalists. I assumed that they were the 61 top-scoring applicants.

But in the final scores announced today, some of the finalists were not in the top 61. For example, finalist Baltimore ended in 109th. How did they drop so far?

And Lane County School District 4J wasn’t a finalist but ended in 52nd. How did they jump so far?

It will be interesting to see how the hitherto-veiled re-scoring process is explained. Did judges convene and get rid of outliers? Did they find mistakes in their first scores?

I suspect folks at the Department are pretty pleased with the final results; and they should be.

Fourth, I suspect folks at the Department are pretty pleased with the final results; and they should be. Though I’m sure they would’ve preferred more large urban winners, the fact that unusual suspects, including some smaller, more rural districts, get to enjoy the RTTT bounty surely elicits some smiles in the administration. Moreover, as Ed Week’s Michele McNeil’s very good initial take notes, a majority of winning districts are in states that didn’t win previous RTTT competitions.

The big challenge now is implementation. Since many of the winners are relatively small in size, will they be able to build internal capacity quickly enough to execute? Will the leaders of the winning consortia be able to herd their cats and have them marching in formation?

The Obama Administration has a fascinating K–12 theory of action: They’ve used federal funds to catalyze action in under-developed areas.

One final point merits mentioning, and I’ll spill more ink on this later: The Obama Administration has a fascinating K–12 theory of action—one that historians will have to judge years from now. They’ve used federal funds to catalyze major action in under-developed areas.

I think this tack in educator evaluations, though not without bumps in the road, was a massive success. Though we’re still working out thorny implementation issues, we’ve certainly moved in the right direction. Kudos to Sec. Duncan and his colleagues for that.

On the other end of the spectrum is the SIG program, which flooded a failed field with funds, spawning a bevy of false turnaround experts and leading to the funneling of staggering amounts of money from dysfunctional districts to unprepared organizations to dysfunctional schools. And in year one, a third of participating schools got worse.

Only time will tell what effect RTTT-D will have on “individualized learning”…and whether individualized learning itself was all that it was cracked up to be.

 * Disclosure: Bellwether assisted a number of districts in the application process.

Andy Smarick
Andy Smarick is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Senior Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute