So the Race to the Top finals are FINALLY here. All the hype, hoopla, and hysteria is about to reach its peak in a day or so when the Education Department reveals which states have made the finalist cut for Round One of the $4 billion contest for the coveted economic-stimulus grants.
Michele McNeil (of Politics K-12 fame) and I thought we'd use some NCAA-like bracketology in honor of the fast-approaching March Madness tournament to make our picks for finalists and winners.
You can see our lineup in the snazzy graphic that Laura Baker of the EdWeek art department designed for us. We hope you'll put in your finalist/winner picks in our comments section.
LM: So, Michele, why do you give Florida the top seed in this?
MM: Florida's got a great reputation for being on the forefront of education trends and will earn a ton of points for its existing track record. They're strong on data systems, teacher evaluation systems, and school-choice options. What about Louisiana?
LM: Louisiana has several things going for it, too. One is experience using value-added data to size up teachers who've been hired in the last three years. The state has no limits on charter schools and is one of a few that has committed fully to using growth in student achievement as half of a teacher's annual evaluation. Louisiana is also aggressive on school turnarounds, through its Recovery School District. What makes Massachusetts stand out?
MM: The Obama administration seems to love Massachusetts! The president compliments this state's education reform initiatives all the time, and the Bay State, like Florida, earns a lot of attention for its track record so far. The state has also lifted part of its cap on charter schools and has made it easier for itself to intervene in low-performing schools.
Why don't you tackle the strengths of Illinois and Tennessee?
LM: I like Illinois for a few reasons. Like Louisiana and Florida, the state will use student growth data in its teacher evaluations. Lawmakers there also lifted the cap on charter schools, which drew praise from the Obama administration. Lastly, Illinois has given a lot of time and thought to school turnarounds and is partnering with Mass Insight, of Boston, to do a series of aggressive interventions in its worst-performing schools. I also can't help but think that Illinois might be a sentimental favorite, since Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama both hail from there.
Tennessee is the grizzled veteran when it comes to using student data to show achievement gains. The state is also in the select group that put itself on the hook to use student growth in achievement in teacher evaluations. And after much cajoling by Secretary Duncan, lawmakers there voted last year to lift the cap on charter schools.
MM: Lesli, before we go on to the rest of our picks for finalists, I just wanted to add that I think given that we've picked big states such as Florida and Illinois, and given that the Ed. Dept. has promised to keep a lot of money back for Phase 2 of the contest, then no more than five in our scenario could win—$4 billion only goes so far. Florida and Illinois, if they were awarded the maximum grants, would eat up $1.1 billion of that.
Shall we talk briefly about the other five contenders for finalists?
MM: Yep. And to talk briefly about Rhode Island, Obama just this morning praised the school district that's making a lot of news by firing all of its teachers at one low-performing school district. Rhode Island is getting noticed.
But I still don't think Rhode Island will actually win in this first round.
LM: What's unique about Rhode Island's bid are its plans for teacher assignment. For one thing, the state will not allow students to be assigned to multiple years of teachers judged as "ineffective." In other words, if you are Joe Smith in Ms. Jones' fifth-grade class one year, and Ms. Jones is a lousy teacher, Joe Smith will be guaranteed to be assigned to an "effective" teacher for the sixth grade. But you're right, Rhode Island is a long shot in Round One, as is Delaware, though I think the powers that state has vested into its education secretary when it comes to school turnarounds are quite aggressive.
Alright, Michele, tell us why you like Indiana... is it because you are a Hoosier yourself?
MM: Though I've got some sentimental ties to my home state, I like it for purely strategic reasons! I've heard some folks praise Indiana for some steps it took to tie teacher evaluation to student data, and others are noticing some interesting stuff in its application tied to school district capacity. So this might be one to watch.
Got any insight on Minnesota?
LM: Minnesota's got the street cred when it comes to merit pay, with its Q-Comp program and, of course, this is the state that brought us charter schools!
What about Colorado, Michele? Everyone loved them from early on, right?
MM: As for Colorado, our colleague Alyson Klein did a site visit and reported that the folks there began working on Race to the Top long ago, and have huge buy-in from districts. Their teacher evaluation component is weak, but they also offer geographic diversity—they're the farthest west of any state we've picked. (Not that that should have anything to do with it, but you never know.)
LM: Yeah, I'd be surprised if the department wasn't doing all sorts of calculus when it comes to picking finalists. You can't have all Southern states, or all Northeastern states.
Alright, folks, now it's your turn to weigh in in the comments section. Also, take a look at this prediction on RTTT finalists from Thomas W. Carroll, brought to our attention by Alexander Russo, who picked it up on Twitter from Andy Smarick.