© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Missouri's Race to the Top application needs improvement

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 1, 2010 -When the Department of Education released the results of the first round of its Race to the Top competition, most of the attention went to the two winners -- Tennessee and Delaware -- and the number scores for the other 39 applicants.

But as every student and parent knows, the best information in any report card comes not only from the grades but from the comments, and a closer look at what reviewers had to say about Missouri's application throws a sharp spotlight on where the state's schools were judged to fall short.

In announcing the winning states, Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the efforts of Delaware and Tennessee in meeting the goals that had been set out for the competition to capture a share of the $4 billion in federal stimulus funds set aside for improving education.

"Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools," Duncan said when the winners were announced on Monday. "They have written new laws to support their policies. And they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students."

With $3.4 billion left to be awarded in round two of the race, states such as Illinois, which was a finalist but not a winner, and Missouri, which did not even make the first cut, will be taking a hard look at the comments and scorecards released by federal education officials to determine what -- in that special report card phrase that every child dreads -- needs improvement.

Second-round applications are due June 1, with finalists to be announced in August and winners in September.

Missouri came in at 33rd place among the 41 jurisdictions that applied for first-round funds, with an average of 301.4 points out of a possible 500 as rated by its five judges. Its application sought $743 million.

What held Missouri Back?

Where did it fall short? Based on the scores and the comments, the deficiencies were in three main areas: success factors, teachers and leaders, and turning around low-achieving schools.

Specifically, reviewers commented on the restrictions that Missouri has on establishing charter schools -- they currently are allowed only in St. Louis and Kansas City -- and on the fact that the support for the state's application appeared to be weak from many individual school districts -- local education authorities, in education parlance, or LEAs.

One reviewer summed up the state's shortcomings this way:

"This is not a state that has already begun its journey to the top in a meaningful way, but a state ready to use RTTT funds to reorganize and recast itself into a different kind of organization that behaves differently for the purpose of helping LEAs."

On specific topics, reviewers had this to say:

  • "There are concerns about why charter schools are limited to two urban school districts, both of which are high-minority, high-poverty districts. The jaded reader might interpret this as a lack of concern for and willingness to experiment on the most vulnerable students."
  • "It is not clear how genuine is the teacher support and issues are raised about the trust that exists between entities. Reform is very hard work even in a climate of mutual respect and trust.... a spot check revealed the language in one letter of support. The letter includes the phrases 'asked to support the state plan that we have not been given an opportunity to read,' and 'it is not clear how our support can be withdrawn once the final version of the state plan is written and implementation begins.' ...
  • "These passages suggest a break down in trust between the state and teachers from at least some LEAs. They suggest that the teachers were not partners in the planning. The third point, less important but noteworthy, is that MO did not try to present a clear and complete picture of how much support actually exists for its plan. To categorize a letter with phrases as damning as those quoted above as a 'letter of support,' seems hollow."
  • "The proposal specifically notes the participation of the business community, higher education, and community leaders, but not the K-12 educators who will carry the bulk of responsibility. A way needs to be found for DESE and LEAs to establish working partnerships wherein each is seen as making valuable contributions. This is a re-occurring theme in the MO proposal."
  • "... there are concerns about MO's approach to Turnaround Schools that can't be overlooked. First, is how little this element impacts the overall state budget. It is not clear how MO can hope to support ambitious work without investing resources. Second, MO depends on replicating the model it currently uses and yet has little evidence that model is effective."

Cheri Shannon, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said she was "extremely disappointed with regard to the fact that Missouri didn't get it first of all and also at how low the ranking was. I wouldn't say I was surprised, but I was disappointed."
She said she isn't sure state education officials had realized how important the charter school piece of the puzzle was -- and based on inactivity in Jefferson City on bills that would expand where charters could operate and improve how they would be held accountable, she doesn't see much understanding in the Legislature either.

"It shows the willingness to be reform-minded across the board, in a broad sense," Shannon said.

She said she took part in work groups that put Missouri's application together, and in early drafts, a move toward greater expansion and accountability for charters was included, but in the final application, only the accountability piece remained. She is not sure why, and she said she had not yet been asked for her input on the second-round application.

Asked why she thought legislation on charter schools has stalled in the House and Senate, Shannon cited the emphasis on the state's budget crisis. But she said expanding the location and accountability for charters would improve education for Missouri students without costing a dime.

"Here's something they could do that would be reform-minded and not cost money," she said. "I think they are really focused on the funding formula and trying to figure out how to cut the budget."


Earl Simms, state director of the Children’s Education Council of Missouri, has also been pushing for changes in the state’s charter school law. He said he had copied some of the passages from the reviewers’ comments on the state’s Race to the Top application to show to members of the Legislature.

{C}{C}{C}{C}He said he realizes that the House and Senate are concentrating on money matters as the session draws to a close, but he also says they should pay more attention to a source of funds that would be coming from Washington.

"I think with the focus on money and the budget," Simms said, "it would be very helpful for legislators to look at this pool of money that is out there and implement some of the reforms."

Calls to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for comment were not returned.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.