Race To The Top Innovates Backwards, Education Venture Nonprofit Says

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opened the Race to the Top competition to individual school districts two weeks ago, he said he wanted to spur innovation "at the classroom level and the all-important relationship among teachers and students." Now, a coalition of 16 education startups and policy organizations, herded by the nonprofit NewSchools Venture Fund, are saying the competition gets innovation wrong. They're planning to send Duncan a letter Friday.

"We … enthusiastically offer our support for the latest Race to the Top-District Competition that prioritizes personalized learning," the letter begins. "We worry that the competition as currently conceived may not maximize return on our $400 million federal investment."

The coalition is concerned that the competition looks at innovation upside down: Instead of rewarding school districts for sharing ideas and innovating, it rewards "comprehensive personalized learning applications that may prove extraordinarily difficult to implement."

Launched in 2009, Race to the Top has required states that choose to compete for a slice of $4.35 billion in stimulus money to prepare plans that satisfy the Obama administration's education reform criteria, which include encouraging charter schools and linking students' standardized test scores to teacher evaluations. Recently, Duncan opened a $400 million funding round to individual school districts and groups that manage charter schools.

The coalition wants to modify the Race to the Top competition by creating a "toolbox" that would allow schools to try out various technological tools, provided by educational developers, to reach student performance goals. The toolbox would be made available on an open data platform to schools and teachers. After the project period ended, the developers of the most effective tools would receive more money.

The coalition suggests this round could lead to more useful classroom improvements if it gave extra points to districts that partner with teacher training programs and that work with nonprofit organizations "to implement and scale personalized learning solutions."

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