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Missouri educators gather to plan Race to the Top

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 23, 2009 - As Missouri educators met Monday to ponder how to win the state's share of $4.35 billion in money from Washington, they were reminded that while they are vying with other states for the money, their true competition extends far beyond the U.S. border.

The federal Race to the Top program is encouraging states to submit applications for the funds, which are designed to encourage and reward educational innovation that is most likely to lead to improved results for students, long-term gains in schools and increased productivity and effectiveness.

Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has said that she wants to move Missouri into the top 10 states nationwide in educational quality, as measured by standardized tests and other indicators. "Race to the Top funding will help us achieve this goal more quickly," she added.

To that end, she convened a daylong summit in Jefferson City Monday to present the latest information on the competition and solicit opinions from educators and others throughout Missouri. The summit was webcast.

"There is nothing more important in the state of Missouri right now than this work," she said.

Doug Reeves, founder of the Leadership and Learning Center in Englewood, Colo., told the meeting that Missouri already has a strong foundation for its application. But he reminded everyone that in the end, they need to think beyond the contest for the federal money.

"We are not competing with each other in this room," he said. "We are not even competing with other states. We are competing with the world, and that is where we must keep our focus."

One of the big themes of the Race to the Top program is accountability, and Reeves emphasized that it is more than keeping track of how well students do on standardized tests. Adults -- teachers and administrators -- need to be evaluated at least as often as students are he said.

"We're great at measuring kids," he said. "It's a lot more difficult to say, 'When are we going to hold ourselves accountable?' "

He also asked the participants to concentrate on two issues: If they are going to do something new, what are they going to stop doing? And because the money can last only so long, how will they build any new initiatives so that they can continue when the money runs out?

"The real question we have to lay on the table today," Reeves said, "is what do we do when the money is gone?"

The U.S. Department of Education will hold two rounds of competition for the grants, which are part of the $787 billion stimulus program approved by Congress in February. For the first round, it will accept states' applications until the middle of January 2010. Peer reviewers will evaluate the applications and the department will announce the winners of the first round of funding next spring.

States that do not win grants in the first round will be welcome to reapply for round two, with applications for the second round due June 1, 2010, with the announcement of all the winners by Sept. 30, 2010.

The applications will be judged on a highly detailed point system that gives varying importance to several areas.

  • The area with the highest point total, great teachers and leaders (138 points) invites states to show that they can improve the effectiveness of teachers and administrators and the programs that train them; have pathways for them to advance and support for them to improve; and distribute them effectively throughout the state.
  • Success factors (125 points) is a way for states to present their reform plans and how local school districts are taking part in them. They also must show significant progress in raising achievement levels and closing achievement gaps.
  • General criteria (55 points) include having conditions for encouraging high-performing charter schools and other innovative approaches, as well as making school funding a priority and show other significant reform conditions.
  • Turning around lowest-achieving schools (50 points) lets states show how they have intervened in such schools and helped students improve.
  • The data systems category (47 points) is designed to let states show how they are using statistics to improve instruction.
  • Standards and assessments (40 points) concentrate on the development and adoption of common standards and ways to make sure schools use them to raise student performance.

A seventh criterion places an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, for 15 points -- all or nothing.
Within each general category, individual components are identified, with a specific point total for each. More detail is available here

Initially, it appeared that Missouri would be sitting out the first round of applications, but Nicastro announced last month that the state would be in the running from the start. She convened Monday's meeting to gather opinions not only from educators but other state departments, such as corrections, social services and mental health, as well as groups such as organized labor.

"This is a holistic effort," she said. "We all understand what the stakes are."

Breakout groups discussed various topics, then reported back to the meeting in the afternoon. Ideas ran the gamut: respect for the teaching profession, student assessment and achievement, a longer school day and school year, grouping of students by age or ability, and better data systems so that children could be tracked over long periods of time -- some suggested even from birth to when they graduate from high school or college.

Missouri's final application must be submitted by Nicastro, Gov. Jay Nixon and the state Board of Education.

Final rules for the competition were released earlier this month by the Department of Education which said 1,161 people and organizations submitted comments on an earlier draft.

Anyone with further ideas for Missouri's Race to the Top application can send them to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education at its website.

In Illinois, the process is moving forward as well. Earlier this year, the Illinois Board of Education gave preliminary approval to its staff to begin drafting an application.

"We know we need to work very hard to improve in some areas, particularly in our work with struggling schools," said state Superintendent of Education Christopher A. Koch, "but Race to the Top is really just accelerating us in the direction the board has already set."

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.