* setting rigorous learning standards in schools
* attracting and keeping top teachers
* testing students to evaluate school and teacher performance
* taking innovative steps fix problem schools
The controversy lies in the fact that federal grants are awarded to states whose educational systems meet the program's criteria and states that perform the best will receive the most money. Critics have also argued that the playing field is not level for poor urban schools, often with a majority population of people of color, to compete.
Aol. Black Voices spoke with Russlyn Ali (pictured), assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights for Secretary Arne Duncan's office. While Ali talks about the benefits of Race To the Top and responds to the critics, the National Urban League criticized the initiative this week, charging that few black and even fewer Latino students are benefiting from the program.
Aol. Blackvoices: What are the positive results for school districts with large minority populations as it relates to the Race to the Top program?
Russlyn Ali: Race to the Top encourages and rewards states producing comprehensive plans to create education innovation and reform, including efforts that will directly impact our students of color, such as closing achievement gaps, encouraging college and career-ready standards and improving graduation rates.
Even before awarding a single dollar of Race to the Top funding, we've seen the vast majority of states exercising their appetite for education reform and making bold efforts to raise the bar on education. Over the past year, 48 States' Governors and/or Chief State School Officers came together to create internationally bench-marked Common Core Standards.
Since then, more than 30 states have adopted the standards. Seventeen States and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation that use student achievement as part of their teacher-evaluation system. Not to mention additional criteria in Race to the Top, which includes improving early education programs and ensuring equitable funding for our nations high-need schools, where the majority of the student population is made up of students of color.
The 19 finalists for Race to the Top Round 2 alone enrolls nearly two-thirds of all African-American and Latino students. Twenty-one state applicants represent 66 percent of black students nationwide and 64 percent of Latino students nationwide, an aggregate of 65 percent of the nation's students of color.
As the competition unfolds and states move toward full-implementation of their education-reform plans, we are confident that our nation and our nation's students stand to benefit, particularly our children of color who too often are underserved.
Additionally, more than 40 States and the District of Columbia have applied for School Improvement Grant funding to turnaround their bottom 5 percent of persistently underperforming schools. Among these schools are many of the 2,000 high school "dropout factories" that produce more than 50 percent of our nations dropouts, 75 percent percent of whom are students of color.
BV: How can you respond to real concerns from the black community that underfunded schools in poor communities are not able to compete for these federal dollars?
RA: As the President has said, 'The fight for a quality education is about so much more than education-it is a daily fight for social justice.' While we're concerned about equity for all students, we know that we must pay particular attention to the districts, schools and students who need the most help.
That's why we've maintained vital formula funding for Title I schools, while creating competitive grant programs that will reward proposals that give priority to high-need students. This will give incentives to schools to provide services and programs that they're not offering right now (i.e., extended learning time, highly effective teachers in schools serving poor and minority children, etc.).
We are also working with Congress on our proposal to establish Promise Neighborhoods, a program modeled after Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, to create a cradle through college and career continuum in high-need communities.
In addition, in Secretary Duncan's speech to the National Urban League Centennial Conference last month, he announced the creation of the Equity and Excellence Commission within the Office for Civil Rights.
The Commission will collect information, analyze issues and obtain broad public input regarding how the federal government can increase educational opportunity by improving school funding equity. The Commission will also make recommendations for restructuring school finance systems to achieve equity in the distribution of educational resources and further student performance, especially for the students at the lower end of the achievement gap.
The Commission will examine the disparities in meaningful educational opportunities that give rise to the achievement gap, with a focus on systems of finance, and recommend appropriate ways in which federal policies could address such disparities.
BV: How do you respond to criticism that it is causing large scale teacher layoffs as school districts struggle to compete?
RA: During tough economic times, states are burdened with tough budget decisions, especially when it comes to education. A little less than 10 percent of our nation's education funding comes from the federal level. To ensure that we're doing all we can to support states in this tough economic climate, the Administration's 2011 education budget maintains support for critical formula programs, including Title I, despite heavy cuts across the federal government.
We are also targeting competitive funding to high-need areas, where students need the most support. In addition, we've worked closely with Congress to provide an additional $10 billion in state aid to protect teacher jobs in classrooms around the country. Just last week, Congress passed the funding and the president signed into law the legislation, providing states with these necessary funds to save or create over 160,000 education jobs across the country.
The fact is the vast majority of Federal education funding is made of formula grants and Race to the Top funding equals less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education. We cannot just accept the status quo in our education system. We must create programs to assist states in innovating and reforming our education system so we can educate our way to a better economy.
Today, we're living in a global, interconnected marketplace. Our students are not just competing with their peers down the street, but with students in India and China, and all over the world. Through sustained formula funding and incentivized competitive funding, we're working hard to provide our nation's children with the necessary tools to compete.
BV: Do you think revamping the public school curriculum around the country is a better way of achieving positive results, especially considering the success of charter schools that have more freedom when it comes to creating curricula?
RA: Improving academic standards is one critical element in improving our nation's education system. That's why the Secretary has highlighted raising standards to be college and career ready as one of the four assurances in the department's competitive grant competitions.
As of last week, more than 30 states have signed on to adopt the new internationally bench-marked Common Core Standards developed over the last year under the leadership of the National Governors Association and the Chief State School Officers.
Aligned with the more rigorous standards, the department will provide resources so that states and districts can develop curriculum and professional development to make those high standards meaningful in the classroom. And in our revamped Civil Rights Data Collection, we will require public reporting on which students are receiving access to a college-preparatory curriculum and which students are graduating college-ready.
BV: In your opinion, what are the ways of measuring teacher success in the classroom?
RA: We know that what's most important in education is what happens in the classroom. Teachers are the most important within-school factor to improve student achievement. Without student achievement as part of the equation, we would not be able to identify critical achievement gaps that still exist.
Across the country, we know our high-poverty and high-minority schools are being short-changed and our neediest students aren't getting the effective teachers they need. A study of Tennessee schools, for example, found that students in high-poverty, high-minority schools are more likely to be taught by the least-effective teachers, while students in low-poverty, low-minority schools are more likely to be taught by effective teachers.
Another study documented that across the country classes in high-poverty secondary schools are twice as likely to be taught by out-of-field teachers than classes in low-poverty secondary schools. That's why we're working hard to close the comparability gap and provide states and districts with incentivized funding through our competitive grant programs to attract, develop and/or retain effective teachers in high-needs districts and schools, particularly in hard-to-staff subjects like math and science.
Under our Elementary and Secondary Education Blueprint (a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), we're proposing to invest $3.9 billion in teachers and leaders, the largest request for funding ever at a 10% increase over the 2009–10 budget. The proposal also requires districts to work with teachers, principals and other stakeholders to improve teacher and principal evaluation systems and develop annual teaching surveys. These new evaluation systems will consider student learning and other measures and will provide educators with better information to improve their practice.
We also want to reward teachers. One thing No Child Left Behind did right was hold schools accountable for all students and highlighted the achievement gaps between subgroups of students. We absolutely want to continue that. But NCLB doesn't measure student growth. If students start the year two grade levels behind, and, through excellent teaching and strong supports, progress so much that they end the year just below grade level, their school is still labeled a failure instead of a success. Our accountability system will be based on multiple measures including student growth and gains, and the schools, teachers and staff who directly contribute to these gains will be rewarded.
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