Race to the Top Funds Help Spur Reform, May Offer Some Budget Relief

Race to the Top (RTT) is a $4.35 billion program administered through the Department of Education. Funds for the program are part of the ED Recover Act, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

States applied for funds based on criteria set around reforms in four specific areas outlined on the Department of Education’s Website:
  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy;
  • Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction;
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and
  • Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.
States were scored out of 500 points, with the winners of the funding (done in two phases) being those states that offer the best plans for reform. Phase 1 winners were announced March 29, 2010 and Phase 2 were just recently announced August 24, 2010. The program is intended to not only help fund school reforms in the states that received money, but to also have those schools serve as examples to other districts and states across the nation seeking to make improvements and transform their schools.

We spoke with Bill Floyd, principal of Ocoee High School in Ocoee, Fla.; Ron Pagano, principal of Atlantic High School in Volusia County, Fla.; and Paul Shaw, superintendent of White County Schools in Cleveland, Ga., about the importance of RTT funds and their proposed uses of the money.

Why are RTT funds so important for schools right now?

Bill Floyd:
Well, we’re a facing budget deficit at virtually every school district across the nation. Speaking for my particular high school, I know that just last week I reduced five individuals from 12-month to 10-month positions to save money and then I laid off two teachers and four para-professionals just to balance the budget. And that was after school started.

So, right now we’re looking for any funds that we can get because the state tax base is drying up.

What types of reforms were made in your state because of the application process or will be made because of applying to the RTT program?

Bill Floyd: Teacher evaluations will be more closely tied to student performance, and that’s the essential one. Everything else is pretty much in place in the state of Florida.

How are the funds going to be divided in your state?

Bill Floyd: I haven’t heard any specifics coming from the district office yet.

What specific plans do you have for the money your school might receive?

Bill Floyd: If we were to receive the money, I would use it for some additional technology for the school and probably the personnel to man that technology. So specifically, we’re looking for compensatory ed programs.

Why are RTT funds so important for schools right now?

Ron Pagano:
I think the main thing that’s happening [with] Race to the Top is that it is going to allow additional dollars to flow into some school districts to be able to work with schools that have been identified as in-need, and I think that’s where a lot of the dollars need to flow. If the money is channeled into the right spot and teachers and school districts are allowed to be flexible to use the money for some targeted interventions, then I think we can definitely make a difference in what’s happening with some of our kids that are identified as struggling learners.

How are the funds going to be divided in your state?

Ron Pagano: Florida was awarded the second round, and it is based on the districts that applied… We’re coming in on it, but I’m not sure exactly how much is coming the way of Volusia County.

What specific plans do you have for the money your school might receive?

Ron Pagano: We are a Title I school, and so right now we do receive some dollars through Title I. What we’ve been trying to do is utilize the talent that’s in our building. We have some academic coaches and some intervention coaches that work very well with key strategic staff development — and I think that’s one of the keys is providing that staff development on our campus.

We’ll be targeting some specific things for reading strategies across the curriculum areas, and focusing on the writing process and looking at our targeted interventions for our lower quartile students in reading, math and also science. Science is a huge piece that’s going on in our state. We’re trying to target those highly tested areas but give our teachers the staff development to support them in the classroom.

Why are RTT funds so important for schools right now?

Paul Shaw:
Well the funds are important now because the economy is suffering and all of us are looking for additional funds in order to provide a strong education for kids, to keep people employed and to continue to move forward and ensure children are learning.

What types of reforms were made in your state because of the application process or will be made because of applying to the RTT program?

Paul Shaw:
Well as far as Race to the Top goes, we don’t have any low-performing schools, so that was not an issue. We have been using a growth model for student growth and measuring teacher performance for four years now, so we feel like we were already doing that but probably just wanted to do a better job of it and get more focused there.

We certainly have been using data… The only thing we really haven’t done is do merit pay for individual teacher performance and that’s something we may have to address at some point in time. I really prefer a school-wide approach, where if a school achieves certain goals, everyone benefits, but I’m not so sure I’ll have that opportunity as we… implement the state plan.

Do you know how the funds are going to be divided in your state?

Paul Shaw:
No I don’t, but we have a meeting scheduled for October 4th in Atlanta, and I would assume at that point in time they would. I can tell you that I’ve been vocal, and that I would like every school district to get a base amount and then divide the rest by Title I allocation but don’t know if that will be done. We have a smaller district, and if we just get a small amount of money, I’m not so sure we can compete with the large districts that will get gobs of money. And we all have to do the same work.

What specific plans do you have for the money your district might receive?

Paul Shaw: Well depending on how much we will get… assuming that we can have flexible guidelines, I’d like to utilize a portion of the money to pay some of my current employees who are already in involved in the teacher evaluation and with working with data and things of that sort. I think probably depending on the amount of money I’d be willing to employ one person to head up the movement as we move to Race to the Top and attend the meetings and make sure we follow all the guidelines.

The rest of it — we’d want to put in technology and materials and student learning.

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