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Race to the Top District Winners Already Changing Their Plans

Nine months after the U.S. Department of Education named 16 winners to share $400 million in the first Race to the Top for districts, change orders already are being approved.

The 16 winners have pitched ambitious plans to dramatically improve their districts, with a focus on personalized learning (a top priority of the department's). Already, the Education Department has approved eight amendments ranging from technical to more-significant as the districts seek to fine-tune their projects. If the Race to the Top state contest is any guide, there are many more district amendment requests surely in the pipeline.

Most of these changes are minor, such as in North Carolina where Guilford County wants to  include more schools in its evaluation of their work. Or Harmony Science Academy in Texas, which wanted immediate access to $7 million of its grant so that it could buy technology upgrades. And the Puget Sound Educational District in Washington wants to hire more contractors and staff to help with its work.

Some changes are more significant. Lindsay Unified in California has decided to use central office staff, rather than contractors, for portions of its grant, including professional development and a digital learning platform. Now, teams of teachers will be tasked with developing curriculum and delivering professional development, according to the approved amendment. The district also will not hire a Race to the Top project director; instead, the superintendent will assume that role.

Warren Township in Indianapolis plans to delay when it will seek peer review of its online courses because district officials didn't think the courses would be up to standard immediately. The district is also delaying by at least five months the implementation of an extended-learning opportunities pilot program, and changing its parent-engagement strategy.

Also, it's important to note that the Education Department's website shows only two of the 16 districts have approved "scopes of work." The scope of work is an important document that serves as a contract of sorts between the department and each winner. This contract establish timelines, key deliverables, and detailed budgets for the four-year grant period—and federal officials judge progress based on whether winners hit those milestones. Clearly, it's taking months to hammer out the fine details of this new Race to the Top work.

In the $4 billion state Race to the Top, delays have plagued the dozen winning states, which often overpromised. Georgia, for example, is set to lose nearly $10 million of its grant after it decided against implementing a piece of its teacher-evaluation plan.

As the department tries to expand its education-improvement efforts into the district level, it will be interesting to see if these Race to the Top winners face the same problems as their state counterparts. After all, the district winners also made big promises to win their grants.

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