How New York Made it to the Top

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010 at 9:41 am by

A few last words on the Race to the Top competition, before turning more to the substance of what New York’s $696.6 million grant will mean for schools and students…

Here is a chart comparing how scores changed between the first and second rounds of the Race to the Top competition on each of the criteria used to evaluate applications for New York and the averages for all the other finalists in each round.

After New York finished out of the money (15th out of 16 finalists) in the phase one competition for Race to the Top funding, some critics blamed the state’s failure to raise its cap on charter schools, or proposals to use the grant to make extravagant furniture purchases.

In a post back then, we argued that the truth was more complicated.

Now, some have suggested that New York could have still won in phase two without raising the charter school cap.

Again, reality is more complicated.

In our earlier post, we noted that although charter school legislation and furniture purchases got blame for the phase one failure, in fact New York was furthest behind the winning states (Delaware and Tennessee) in two other areas – building a data system to track student progress, and using teacher and principal evaluations to inform key decisions.

New York was 14 points behind the two phase one winners in the data system category, and trailed both by seven points in using teacher and principal evaluations to inform key decisions.

In contrast, New York was only four points behind second place Tennessee in the charter school category.

We also noted, however, that although New York was close to the winning states on the charter school item, it was one area with a large number of points still available to be gained, since New York received 27 out of 40 on this criterion.

Our chart illustrates how scores changed between phase one and phase two for New York and the average of all the other finalists.

In phase one, New York received a total of 409 points.  The highest ranked non-winning state in phase two earned 438 points.

With the advantage of 20-20 hindsight, this indicates that New York needed to gain around 30 points to be in the phase two winners’ circle.

In fact, New York picked up 56 points.

New York’s biggest gains were as follows:

  • Implementing a longitudinal data system:  +14 points
  • Using evaluations to inform key decisions:  +11 points
  • Ensuring successful conditions for high performing charter schools and other innovative schools:  +9 points.

A total of 15 additional points was gained in scattered criteria grouped under State Success Factors, Standards and Assessments, Turning Around the Lowest Performing Schools, and a General category.

Summing up, New York won a Race to the Top grant by strengthening — at least in the eyes of federal reviewers — the two weakest areas in its phase one application (data systems and using evaluations in personnel decisions) and by picking up points on one of the two criteria with the most points available to be added after phase one — ensuring successful conditions for charter schools.  (There were 13 points remaining to be gained on the charter school critierion; 14 for data systems).

State legislation was enacted in all three areas — providing capital funding for the data system, mandating the consideration of student performance data and other changes in personnel evaluation, and raising the charter school cap.

It is mathematically possible that New York could have gained enough points to win a phase two grant without raising its charter school cap, but that would have been a risky strategy, gambling that reviewers would find enough improvements in scattered areas to gain the necessary points, and that continued inaction on charter schools would not bias their reactions to other elements of the state’s plan.

As I’ve written, the Race to the Top grant potentially provides an otherwise unattainable boost for improving the state infrastructure that schools rely on — standards, assessments, curricula, systems for preparing and evaluating teachers and school leaders, and turning around low performing schools.  The direct financial benefit for most districts is very modest.  And for some districts, the financial impact of more charter schools will vastly and permanently exceed whatever funds they directly receive from the Race to the Top grant.

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