U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan yesterday released the draft of the Department’s proposed application requirements for the Race to the Top-District (RTT-D) grant competition. Congress provided nearly $550 million for Race to the Top in its fiscal year 2012 appropriations; the Department dedicated $133 million of that to another round of the Early Learning Challenge, and the remainder to the new district-level RTT-D. According to the draft application, the Department would award districts or consortia of districts grants ranging from $15 million to $25 million depending on the number of students served. The Department expects to award about 20 grants in total from the program’s nearly $400 million funding. Applicants can also earn extra points by pulling in funds from the private sector or foundations to supplement their federal grant. The Department hopes that the applications will produce high-quality, innovative plans to aid academically-disadvantaged students – and those students may turn out to be middle schoolers.
The district competition, in a departure from the original Race to the Top competition that awarded grants to entire states, focuses specifically on personalized learning. Applicants must propose plans to create personalized instructional environments for students, the only non-administrative requirement in the application.
The summary of the grant competition plan that the Department of Education released yesterday also specifies that, although they will need to demonstrate buy-in from local unions, districts cannot be held back by states’ unwillingness to participate in reform. (Forty-six states plus the District of Columbia submitted RTT state applications; several states have refused to participate on politics or principle.) Multiple districts have the opportunity to apply under one grant as a consortium, even crossing state lines; that will allow the districts to pool resources and create high-quality applications. The Department will also split the states into independent groups for scoring, so districts from states that won under prior Race to the Top rounds (and therefore potentially with more advanced reform systems) are not pitted against districts in states that didn’t win.
Perhaps most compelling, though, the Department’s application proposal states that applicants may structure their proposals to target students in a particular grade, subject, or school. Could this provision mean that the Race to the Top district-level grant competition will have an added focus for middle school students, a group that has demonstrated significant need for academic support?
Perhaps of all the research on the proven benefits of early education and the national focus on college- and career-readiness among high school students has inadvertently excluded the middle grades from the reform conversation. Meanwhile, 8th grade students have seen far fewer gains in their achievement scores on NAEP—the National Assessment of Education Progress—over the past decade than 4th graders have. While the proportion of 4th graders scoring proficient and above has grown since 2000 by 16 and 5 percentage points in math and reading, respectively, the proportion of 8th graders scoring proficient has only grown by 9 points in math and 1 in reading. Overall, the 2011 test scores show that only 34 percent of 8th graders are proficient in reading, and 35 percent in math.
Those academic struggles translate to students’ frustration with school. One study found that in urban public schools, as many as 40 percent of students repeat 9th grade, and only 10 to 15 percent of those repeaters go on to graduate. Providing at-risk students with intensive academic interventions and comprehensive support in the middle grades could prevent them from entering high school underprepared, lessening the need for remedial learning courses that don’t earn credits towards graduation. A 2007 report found that over a third of high school dropouts actually drop out in 9th grade, before they even make it to 10th grade.
The Department will likely allow applicants for the Race to the Top-District competition to select a specific age group for interventions. District leaders may instinctively elect to focus on high school students because applicants must set a target for high school graduation rates of the students served. But those districts may be better served by focusing on the (oft-neglected) middle grades, ultimately sending better-prepared students through the middle-school-to-high-school pipeline. Earlier interventions could prevent thousands of students from dropping out before they even have the opportunity to get their feet wet in high school.
Check back with Ed Money Watch as we track the RTT-D application and feedback process. For a view of how the RTT-D competition could affect early education, check out this post from our sister blog, Early Ed Watch.