Obama Hopes 'Race' Spurs Changes In Education

President Obama's "Race to the Top" initiative offers $4 billion to states committed to making changes to education. However, the pot of money will be relatively small once it's divided among states expected to win grants. States face a key deadline to have their applications in Tuesday, but some districts say the program is too burdensome and they're refusing to sign on to their states' efforts.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne. Its a race to the deadline today for states competing for federal education money known as Race to the Top. The fund is for states that can shows theyre embracing the Obama administrations education platform. Many educators say theyre disenchanted with the competitive process and won't take part. Overall though, the race is driving a huge wave of education measures, as NPRs Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Four billion dollars is a lot of money, until you divide it up among the handful of states that are expected to win grants. Nebraska is asking for $122 million, which amounts to a measly $100 per student for the next four years. Still, education commissioner Roger Breed has had his staff working full-time on the states application.

Mr. ROGER BREED (Education Commissioner, Nebraska): Well, its pretty much been nonstop since November 19th.

ABRAMSON: Breed says though the grant is small, it would allow him to enact changes hes wanted for years. Nebraskas application envisions joining a national effort to establish common educational standards, improving the states ability to track student progress, and developing annual teacher evaluations that could track student achievement.

Roger Breed says hes also proposing to develop an online virtual school that would help school districts in small places like Axtell, Nebraska, where he used to be superintendent.

Mr. BREED: Then youre dealing with a school district of 270 students, K-12. When the math department meets at Axtell High School, its literally one person. So a virtual school would have a significant positive impact for Nebraska statewide.

ABRAMSON: If the Department of Education finds that other states are more deserving, Nebraska could end up with nothing to show for its efforts. Education commissioner Roger Breed says thats okay. The whole exercise has helped him figure out what the state should be doing.

The area getting the most attention in Race to the Top applications is teacher evaluation. The Department of Education is pushing for more rigorous evaluations tied to student achievement. Tim Daly, of the teacher training program the New Teacher Project, says the application process has already sowed the seeds of massive change.

Mr. TIM DALY: (New Teacher Project): Weve never tried to change teacher evaluation this much this fast. Its probably going to change more in the next five years than in the previous fifty.

ABRAMSON: Last week, the head of the American Federation of Teachers announced her union support for better evaluations. Tim Daly says this is an example of how states have used the application process to revise outdated policies.

Mr. DALY: This is about a recognition that weve done far too little for decades to improve outcomes for poor minority students in that this contest gave us a chance to look inward. And I think that states are not liking what theyre seeing when they look inward. They see policies that don't make any sense.

ABRAMSON: But many are not excited about all this self-analysis. Race to the Top requires some local buy-in. But Martin Brook, president of the school board in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, says his district would only get pennies if Michigan won the prize.

Mr. MARTIN BROOK (School Board President, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan): About $45,000.

ABRAMSON: The district calculated that complying with any Race to the Top grant would cost more than that and that kids in their district are doing just fine. So, like many other districts around the country, Bloomfield Hills refused to join the state effort to get that cash. In addition to all the compliance work, Martin Brook worried that his affluent district was being asked to endorse Race to the Tops emphasis on standardized tests.

Mr. BROOK: If were going to be measuring student performance and teachers based upon standardized test scores, then you're going to get teachers that just teach to standardized tests. And our district values comprehensive education above all else.

ABRAMSON: Other districts object to what they see as another Washington education power grab and refuse to sign on. The many strings attached to the Race to the Top money, however, have not deterred most state education leaders who kept polishing their applications right up to the deadline. One education commissioner said: If you find a federal program that comes without any strings, please tell me about it.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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