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Race to the Top: Obama Encourages Education Reform With Federal Grant Money

Nov 05, 2009

On the first anniversary of his election, President Obama traveled to Madison, Wisconsin to speak to teachers and students at a local charter middle school, but his message was directed to educators across the country: Now is the time for educational reform. His Race to the Top program offers $4.35 billion in federal grants to U.S. states that institute 'top to bottom' education reforms.

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Barack Obama Speaks in Wisconsin

President Barack Obama speaking at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin

A Push for Nationwide Education Reform

President Obama has long asserted that education is a top priority of his administration. During his Wisconsin speech, he said that 'there is nothing that will determine the quality of our future as a nation, or the lives our children lead, more than the kind of education we provide them.'

His new Race to the Top federal grant program seeks to follow through on that promise by offering states large grants in exchange for implementing major changes in public schools. Dubbing them 'top to bottom reforms,' Obama is calling for states to take serious and often difficult action in evaluating teacher performance and transforming - or even closing - failing schools.

Teachers Evaluations Linked to Student Performance

States Must Meet Tough Guidelines

When he first announced the Race to the Top program this summer, Obama's administration laid out two absolute criteria for states vying for the grant money. The first is straightforward: States must be approved by the Education Department to get stabilization funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - this requirement most states have already met.

The second criterion, however, is much more controversial. Race to the Top requires that states abolish so-called 'firewall' rules, which prohibit schools from evaluating teachers on student performance. Many teachers' advocates claim that these rules are crucial in schools where there are overwhelming external factors that influence student performance. They argue that linking student performance to teacher evaluation effectively holds teachers accountable for the effects of poverty, difficult home lives and other factors beyond their control. But Obama has held firm about the importance of the relationship between teacher and student performance, breaking away from the traditional alliance Democrats have had with teachers unions.

Other guidelines for states seeking Race to the Top funds include finding new ways to recruit educators, setting internationally competitive standards and tracking student progress to ensure that all children are prepared for college when they graduate from high school.

States Implement School Reforms

California Passes Race to the Top Legislation

With the December application deadline looming, many states are in the process of pushing legislation that can make them eligible to get the federal money. Obama's speech in Wisconsin came on the day before the state's lawmakers were scheduled to vote on lifting their ban on using student test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations. And just after midnight that night, California's state Senate passed its own education reform bill that will place them in compliance to get a Race to the Top grant.

The bi-partisan bill, co-authored by Senators Gloria Romero (D), Bob Huff (D), Elaine Alquist (D) and Mark Wyland (R), focuses on turning around failing schools and preparing the state to make an application to get a Race to the Top grant. Key provisions include removing California's cap on the number of charter schools, authorizing open enrollment for low-performing schools and using data and statistics to improve the quality of instruction as well as student performance.

As states across the country enact similar legislation, we're just beginning to see the effects of Obama's education policies. But the true test should come sometime down the road, when we can evaluate the real impact these changes make on student performance.

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