Race to the Top and Common Core: What Do They Mean for Your Kids?

The Department of Education's Peter Cunningham speaks up about what parents can expect from federal education policy this year.

This week, the Race to the Top school district finalists were announced. The 61 finalists were chosen from a pool of 372 applicants who are vying for $400 million the U.S. government has allotted for this competition. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Race to the Top, Common Core, No Child Left Behind. You've heard these policies batted around, but may be curious what exactly they mean for YOUR kids.

Because states work on various levels of education reform, it can be tough to keep track of which educational policies and programs the federal government is currently advocating and how your children will be directly affected.

In an exclusive interview, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education Peter Cunningham answers question about this year's Race to the Top competition, No Child Left Behind, and the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

TakePart: At this point, how many state laws have been altered or dropped as a result of Race to the Top (RTT)? What, in your opinion, has been the greatest or most surprising outcome along these lines?

Peter Cunningham: Our biggest surprise is that 45 states and D.C. adopted higher standards. We encouraged this through RTT and waivers, but states did this on their own and we never imagined so many would. Almost as many states are now adopting better systems of evaluating and supporting teachers and principals, based on multiple measures, including measures of student achievement. A smaller number of states lifted caps on the number of charter schools allowed in their states—which was partly due to an incentive under RTT—although this has not prompted a flood of new charters. The charter movement has capacity limitations. Our only goal was to remove artificial barriers so that communities have the opportunity to bring in good charter schools if they feel they are needed.

More: Fiscal Cliff: Education Budget Cuts Could Be Devastating to Our Kids

Have there been any significant statistical or even anecdotal results from some of the earliest-awarded RTT grants in individual school districts or states? Any standouts?

The district grants have not gone out yet. Only state grants. All of them are excelling in some areas; all of them are facing challenges. This is very hard work, but for the most part states and districts, unions and other stakeholders are quietly and diligently working together. Given how much change is required, there is relatively little "noise." And the best part of it is that even states that did not win grants—like Washington—are pushing ahead with reform. People want to do this work and want to work together. One good statistic related to our school improvement grants is that two-thirds of the 1,300 schools that received them made gains in the first year.

Since 2009, have there been any changes in how the Department determines who receives RTT grant money? 

We have tried to align more of our grants around our strategic priorities—high standards, great teaching, equity and data-based decision-making. We have made an extra effort to ensure that rural districts can compete for grants.

Will Race to the Top ever be permanent? Why or why not?

That would be up to Congress but we would certainly hope so. We think there is a continuing role for competitive programs in driving change—but we also believe in formula programs that protect children at risk, like low-income kids and children with disabilities. We need both. Historically, more than four out of every five dollars we distribute is by formula rather than by competition. That has not changed, even with RTT.

What do you expect will happen to No Child Left Behind (NCLB)?

Not sure. It's up to Congress and right now they have their hands full with the fiscal cliff issue. A good bill requires both sides to come together, and we have not seen a lot of that. In the meantime, we are moving ahead.

Educators hate when Washington tells them what to do, so we're trying to do as little of that as possible while still protecting children at risk.

Are more NCLB flexibility filings expected? Why has this been such a relief to states—and how are states' educational systems adapting?

So far, we have applications from about 40 states and we still expect others to come in. The biggest appeal is that states set their own performance targets and districts have more control over spending decisions. This is really about local control and getting Washington out of the way. Our role is to simply set the bar and offer support—rather than giving them mandates and prescriptions. Educators hate when Washington tells them what to do, so we're trying to do as little of that as possible while still protecting children at risk.  

There has been some criticism that states are patching together policy based on President Obama's educational policies rather than those formed by Congress. Is this valid criticism? Will it be tricky down the road to measure or keep track of individual state reforms and policies?

Congress has had five years to reauthorize NCLB and so far has not done so. States and kids cannot wait forever for Washington to fix the problems with current law—the unreachable goals, the increasing pressure to meet proficiency standards and the resulting narrowing of the curriculum, the failure to recognize growth and the failure to elevate teacher quality in the lowest-performing schools. Congress gave us this authority to waive certain provisions of the law and we are using it while being faithful to the fundamental intent of the law, which is to protect children and educate them to the best of our ability.

In terms of keeping track of different state accountability system, we have set this up so that we are as clear as possible with our goals but much more flexible in how states meet those goals—so we're confident we can tell if states are on track, meeting their targets and holding themselves accountable.

Where are we headed with the Common Core Standards? Do you expect all states to adopt them eventually?

Common Core was created by states, and the future of Common Core is up to the states—not to us. Our only hope is that all states adopt college and career-ready standards. If they are also common, that is great, but it's not necessary. The good thing about common core is that more states are using the same yardstick—it's more transparent and easier to see who is actually doing the best job of educating children. It will make it easier for states to hold themselves accountable and for parents and the general public to know what they are getting. That's good for everyone—especially kids.

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