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DFER Weighs In on Which Race to Top Plans Shine

Welcome to State EdWatch, the latest addition to edweek.org's blogroll, where I will be your host and guide to gubernatorial elections (we've got 39 this year!), budget battles, and education policy sausage-making by legislators, state superintendents, and various state boards of education.

Let's kick this thing off with an item on Race to the Top, that $4 billion economic-stimulus money competition that we are all so weary of, but also can't seem to get enough of.

As I worked on a story for this week's issue of Ed Week about the concrete details that made it into states' final pitches for RTT, I got my hands on a "model" application that the folks at Democrats for Education Reform put together to advise states on what it believes should be the sine qua non features. DFER ("dee-fer"), as most of you know, is a 5-year-old political action committee that has been expanding its school reform agenda tentacles—more charter schools and differential pay for teachers—from New York to states like Michigan, Missouri, and Colorado.

For starters, says DFER, a state has got to have a "critical mass" of participating school districts where achievement gaps are the biggest and where large numbers of under-performing students are enrolled. That means full commitment by the three largest school districts in a state at a minimum. By that standard, California comes up short because San Diego Unified, the state's second-largest district after Los Angeles Unified, passed on the state's RTT proposal.

Another key ingredient of a strong application, so says DFER, are teacher evaluations that will count student academic progress for at least 50 percent. Illinois, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee, and Indiana will get high marks from DFER on that piece.

When it comes to turning around low-performing schools, DFER says a state with the best of intentions would not use the so-called "transformation" model on campuses where some version of that approach—which generally avoids drastic actions such as firing teachers or converting to a charter—has already been tried and failed.

So by DFER standards, how do the RTT applicants (40 states and D.C.) stack up? Charlie Barone, DFER's director of federal policy, tells me that Rhode Island, with aggressive proposals around training new teachers and assigning the best teachers to the neediest schools, looks good. Another standout? Illinois. And the biggest failure? New York, says Barone; its lawmakers balked at repealing the state law that blocks using student achievement data at all to evaluate teachers.

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