The Race to the Top Begins

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Today is a great day—not just for those of you here to listen to President Obama in a few minutes but for tens of thousands of teachers, parents, principals, school superintendents, and lawmakers across the country who have devoted their energy, their passion, and their commitment over the years to improving our nation's schools.

Today we cross an important threshold in education reform. Today we are announcing the draft guidelines for states to apply for the $4.35 billion dollar Race to the Top fund. Today we are here to announce—and celebrate—a new Race to the Top in schoolhouses across America.

I've been saying for months that we now have a perfect storm for reform. We have a President and a First Lady who believe passionately in the power of education to open doors—and whose own lives of studious learning and hard work are testaments to the fact that education is ultimately the great equalizer in America, no matter what your zip code.

We have what I call the "Barack Effect." The president—and the First Lady—have made education cool and hip again. I hear kids say all the time that they not only want to be the president, they want to be smart like the president.

We have great congressional leaders like Congressman George Miller, who has fought sometimes lonely battles, but always to make our schools better. We have union leaders like Randi Weingarten and Dennis Van Roekel, who are stepping outside their easy comfort zone and working with us to challenge the status quo. We have governors from around the country joining together to say no more to dumbing down academic standards and cheating students of a quality education.

And finally, for the first time in history, we have the resources at the federal level to drive reform.

I am not going to kid you—when I was superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, I did not always welcome calls from the U.S. Department of Education.

That's because the department, from its inception in 1980, has traditionally been a compliance-driven agency. For most of its existence, the department has only had modest discretionary funds available for reform and innovation— and a limited ability to push for better outcomes.

That's about to change. The $4.35 billion dollar Race to the Top program that we are unveiling today is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the federal government to create incentives for far-reaching improvement in our nation's schools.

Since the education department was created in 1980, eight of my predecessors have stood here. They fought to improve our schools, too. But none of them had the resources to encourage innovation that we have today.

In fact, if you take all of the discretionary money for reform that every one of my predecessors had—and then add it all together for the last 29 years in a row—it's still a much smaller money pot for reform than the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund that we are announcing today.

For states, for district leaders, for unions, for business, and for non-profits, the Race to the Top is the equivalent of education reform's moon shot. And the administration is determined—I am determined—not to miss this opportunity.

What is the administration going to be looking for in the Race to the Top competition? We are going to be scrutinizing state applications for a coordinated and deep-seated commitment to reform. And we are going to be awarding grants on a competitive basis in two rounds, allowing first-round losers to make necessary changes and reapply.

We take our cue here from the president. He starts with the understanding that maintaining the status quo in our schools is unacceptable. He recognizes that America needs urgently to reduce its high dropout rates and elevate the quality of K-12 schooling—not just to propel the economic recovery but also because students need stronger skills to compete with students in India and China.

Today, more than ever, better schooling provides a down payment on the nation's future. As President Obama puts it, "education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success—it's a prerequisite for success." Yet I think we all know that far too many schools fail to prepare their students today for success in college or a career.

Under the Race to the Top guidelines, states seeking funds will be pressed to implement four core, interconnected reforms. We sometimes call them the four assurances, and those assurances are what we are going to be looking for from states, districts, and their local partners in reform.

For starters, we expect that winners of the Race to the Top grants will work to reverse the pervasive dumbing down of academic standards and assessments that has taken place in many states.

A low-income, middle school student in San Antonio should not be held to a lower standard in algebra than a middle school student in Shaker Heights—or Shanghai. That's why we are looking for Race to the Top states to adopt common, internationally-benchmarked K-12 standards that truly prepare students for college and careers. To speed this process, the Race to the Top program is going to set aside $350 million to competitively fund the development of rigorous, common state assessments.

Second, we want to close the data gap that now handcuffs districts from tracking growth in student learning and improving classroom instruction. Award-winning states will be able to monitor growth in student learning—and identify effective instructional practices.

Third, it is no secret that when it comes to schools, talent matters—tremendously. To boost the quality of teachers and principals, especially in high-poverty schools and hard-to-staff subjects, states and districts should be able to identify effective teachers and principals. At the local level we want to see better strategies in place to reward and retain more top-notch teachers—and improve or replace ones who aren't up to the job.

And finally, to turn around the lowest-performing schools, states and districts must be ready to institute far-reaching reforms, replace school staff, and change the school culture. We cannot continue to tinker in terrible schools where students fall further and further behind, year after year.

Now those are our four assurances, the fore core reforms that we are looking for. But I want to be clear that these four reforms are interrelated, so that one reform reinforces the others.

When teachers get better data on student growth, it empowers teachers to tailor classroom instruction to the needs of their students and boost student achievement.

When principals are able to identify their most effective and least effective teachers, it makes it easier for them to place teachers where they are needed most—and provide struggling teachers with help.

When superintendents have the authority to tackle their lowest performing schools by replacing staff and shaking up the school culture, they will have the ability—for the first time—to close or remake the dropout factories in our urban districts that are at the root of our dropout problem.

And when state lawmakers and chief school officers can evaluate the college-readiness of students and their ability to compete with their peers—not just in nearby states but in other nations—state officials will be able to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of the state system in a global economy—again, for the first time.

The Race to the Top program is going to mark a new federal partnership in education reform with states, districts, and unions to accelerate reform. We are going to be consulting and soliciting the input of all stakeholders, and I plan to hold a conference call for governors, chief state officers, state lawmakers and state school boards on August 5.

But I want to be clear that the Race to the Top is also a reform competition, one where states can increase or decrease their odds of winning federal support.

States, for example, that limit alternative routes to certification for teachers and principals, or cap the number of charter schools, will be at a competitive disadvantage. And states that explicitly prohibit linking data on achievement or student growth to principal and teacher evaluations will be ineligible for reform dollars until they change their laws.

As big as the Race to the Top fund is, it's not the only major lever for transformational reform. We are also going to be releasing shortly the guidelines for the $3.5 billion Title I School Improvement Grants. And most of that money is going to go to low-income districts that are willing to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

Later this summer we expect to publish the metrics for the competitive $650 million dollar Invest in Innovation Fund, which will award districts and non-profits that are developing cutting-edge reforms, piloting promising new programs or taking proven programs to scale.

We also have $650 million dollars to award in education technology grants to states and districts that are doing a good job of using technology to enhance learning. We have $200 million in Recovery Act funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund, which supports performance-based teacher and principal compensation systems in high-need schools. And finally, we have more than $300 million available to help states build data systems that will drive reforms.

I know I've just thrown a lot of numbers and programs at you. But the long and short of it, is that when you add it all up, the department will be disbursing almost $10 billion for education reform.

Ten billion dollars is not chump change. And to every governor who ever aspired to be his state's "education governor," I say: do not let this unprecedented opportunity slip away.

Let me close by saying that the president and I are not naïve about the difficulty of reform. I served as superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools for seven years. And I saw firsthand that the system often serves the interests of adults better than its students.

But I don't accept much of the pessimism and age-old apathy about the potential of school reform. During my seven years as CEO of Chicago's schools, tests scores increased on state and national exams, and the percentage of students graduating increased. That happened not just because of the district's efforts but because teachers, community leaders, and parents worked hard to make reform a reality.

Since being confirmed as Secretary, I have visited 23 states and met countless students, teachers, parents and administrators. They are hungering for change. I've seen districts and high-performing schools that are closing achievement gaps, raising graduation rates, and sending disadvantaged young people to college with scholarships in hand.

In just the months since President Obama took office, many states have adopted reforms that would have been almost unthinkable a year ago. Earlier this spring, 46 states signed on to a state-led process to develop a common core of K-12 state standards in English language arts and math. At the same time, states such as Tennessee, Rhode Island, Indiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Illinois have lifted restrictions on charter school growth.

So, despite the obstacles, I remain optimistic about America's capacity for transformational change. As I said today in the Washington Post, the edifice of education reform will take years to build. But the Race to the Top starts today.

Let me ask: Please put your hand up if you are ready to sign on to the Race to the Top!

That is what I'm talking about. As Sam Cooke used to sing, a change is gonna come. Today that change has begun. Thank you, all of you, for your hard work on behalf of our nation's schoolchildren.