Race to the Top – Integrity and Transparency Drive the Process

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On January 19th, 40 states and the District of Columbia submitted applications to the Department of Education to compete in our Race to the Top grant program. Because this historic $4 billion program is unlike anything we have ever done, we enhanced our discretionary grant process to ensure maximum integrity and transparency.

Here’s how the process works.

As with any federal program, Congress spells out the overall goals, but the Department establishes regulations and guidance.  We developed a competitive system for applicants showing exactly how many points each applicant will receive for every measure of progress a state has achieved, every reform implemented, and every commitment made.  For example, states get five points for identifying their lowest-achieving schools and 35 points for turning them around.  The point system, along with everything else about the program, was published in the Federal Register and is on our website.

There are 20 different components of the award system, which totals 500 points.  In many cases, there is little discretion involved in deciding how many points to award for a particular component.  For example, reviewers award two points for each of 12 required elements in a statewide data system for a total of 24 points.  However, some components require a more critical eye.  For example, the 35 points associated with turning around schools requires an expert reviewer to assess strategies and plans and determine their potential impact on these schools.  Reviewers decide how many of the 35 points that a particular applicant’s turnaround plans merit.

To help us make these judgments in an impartial and informed way, the Department issued a nationwide call for peer reviewers – professionals with experience in the field of education with the expertise to evaluate school, district and state-level reform activities.  Over 1500 people were nominated or applied to be peer reviewers.  Our staff rigorously reviewed every applicant for experience and expertise.

The Department’s legal ethics team also eliminated any applicant with existing or potential conflicts of interest, including people currently employed by a state department of education or school district.  In the end, we chose 58 highly qualified and distinguished peer reviewers, each of whom will receive an honorarium of about $5000 for their work.  They include retired teachers, principals and superintendents, college professors and scholars, business leaders and education advocates.  Their names will be kept confidential until the winners are announced so as to shield them from undue outside pressures.  The education world is relatively small so it is quite possible some names will emerge, but the Department will not confirm the names of any of the peer reviewers until the first round is over.

On Saturday, January 23rd, the 58 peer reviewers came to Washington, D.C. for an all-day training session.  The training session focused on three areas:

  • Understanding the Race to the Top program and its components.
  • Writing comments and scoring applications.
  • Spotting conflicts of interest.

We talked at length with the reviewers about the purpose of their comments which will support and provide rationales for their scores.  Their comments will also be made public at the end of the competition to help unsuccessful applicants improve their applications when they resubmit for Phase 2 of the competition. Hopefully, the comments will also engage the public in an important conversation about our nation’s goals, aspirations, and pathways to becoming a global education leader.

Despite the extensive vetting that occurred prior to the selection of the reviewers, we recognize that in the process of reading an application, a reviewer may spot a potential conflict that had not been considered. If such conflicts occur, applications will be reassigned among reviewers.

The reviewers returned home with up to five applications each – carefully assigned by our staff so that none of them would be reviewing applications from their home state or states where they had any potential conflicts.  Every application will be reviewed by five different people.  Reviewers will independently read and score the applications assigned to them. They will return to DC in mid-February for a week of meetings to discuss their reviews, challenge each other’s thinking, and ensure that each application has received a deep and fair appraisal.  Reviewers will finalize their comments and submit scores. Each application’s score in this initial tier will be the average of the five independent reviewer scores.

Once all applications have been scored, the Department will arrange the applications in order from high to low and we will determine which applicants to invite back as finalists. We have not pre-determined a “cut score” for finalists.  Instead, we will look for “natural breaks” in the line-up and invite back only the strongest competitors.  Finalists will be publicly announced in early March.

The finalists will also be invited to DC in mid-March to present their proposals to the same five people who reviewed their applications in depth during the initial stage, and to engage in deep Q&A discussions with the reviewers.  The purpose of the finalist stage is to allow reviewers to get under the hood and ensure that the state has the understanding, knowledge, capacity, and the will to truly deliver on what is proposed. The presentations will be videotaped and posted for viewing at the end of Phase 1.

At the conclusion of the presentations, the reviewers will meet again to discuss each application, finalize scores and comments, and submit them to the Department.  Again, we will average the five scores to get a final score for each application, arrange them in order from high to low and present them to me for final selection.

The number of first-round winners will be determined by the strength of the applications and the size of the proposed budgets included in the winning applications.  We provided suggested budgets ranging from as little as $20 million for states with smaller student populations to as much as $700 million for states with more kids, although applicants were not required to stay within the suggested ranges.   If large states are among the winners, the number of first-round winners could be smaller.  If small states are among the winners, the number could be larger.  If the proposals are weak, there will be few winners in the first round.

In my view, however, every state that applied is already a winner because of the hard work and collaboration required.  Each of these states now has in place – win or lose – a blueprint for how they would like to move forward, statewide, on education reform.  Although the prospect of  receiving significant federal funding to support education reform certainly provides an incentive for states to compete, Race to the Top is ultimately not about the money.  Rather it is about adults working together on behalf of children.  Under the best circumstances, all of the key stakeholders – parents, educators, unions, administrators, and elected officials – came together, put aside their differences, and produced a strong and united application.  The point system rewards this kind of collaboration and partnership.

As for the applications themselves, most states have already posted them online.  While the Department typically releases to the public only winning applications at the end of the selection process, for this competition, we will be releasing all applications – both successful and unsuccessful – together with every reviewers’ comments and score sheets (though reviewers’ names will not be associated with individual score sheets).  Before we publish applications, privacy laws require us to redact any personal information that may have been included, such as names, private phone numbers, addresses or birth-dates.  With an estimated 30,000 pages to review, that process could take some time.  We have a large team in place working to complete it as soon as possible, starting with the narrative responses to the application criteria and concluding with the appendices.  The narratives will be posted by early February and the appendices in the weeks that follow.

Last week, President Obama proposed making Race to the Top a permanent program, largely because of the important reforms already triggered at the state and local level even before we have issued any awards.  With each year, we will strengthen the criteria to accelerate the pace of reform and refine the process to bolster the core principles of integrity and transparency.  We deeply appreciate the efforts of everyone involved and we look forward to the positive impact this program will have in classrooms across America.

Secretary Arne Duncan