R2T news conference
Gov. Bill Ritter with Esmeralda Aguilar, a member of the student group Project VOYCE, among those supporting the state's R2T application.

Will Colorado’s desire for collaboration doom the state’s chances of winning the Race to the Top?

That question lingered Tuesday after the state submitted its application to try to secure $377 million of the $4.35 billion federal grant.

Analysts who’ve followed the highly competitive national education reform competition for the past year have typically placed Colorado among the top 10 contenders for the prize.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged as much during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

“We’re expecting to get a great application from Colorado,” Duncan said, declining more specific comment on any individual state’s chances.

But others were quick to point out what they see as the plan’s greatest weakness – the creation of a council to figure out how to link teacher pay, retention, dismissal and tenure to student academic growth rather than the details of a plan doing exactly that.

Nationally, a former U.S. Department of Education official noted Colorado was among the states opting for buy-in from stakeholders such as teachers’ unions over the creation of a definitive proposal.

“The state decided against making tough calls on teacher evaluations, potentially knocking a frontrunner back several spots,” wrote Andy Smarick on the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blog.


Be bold, or collaborative?


One D.C. insider slotted Colorado behind states such as Tennessee, where the teachers’ union signed on to a plan linking 50 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation to measures of student academic progress.

Florida also is favored over Colorado, though that state’s union president publicly fought a proposal linking teacher evaluations to student growth and requiring that data be used to implement merit pay.

Duncan has repeatedly called for bold ideas in states’ proposals but states also get points if they show broad support for their plans.

“With Obama and Arne Duncan, the question is do you reward states for leaping out front even if they may make a bunch of mistakes?” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at CU-Denver.

“Or do you reward states, such as Colorado, where there’s really been a huge process of getting everybody on board and, as a result, you had to make compromises so the final result isn’t as bold as you’d like but you have the buy-in to make changes?”

From a researcher’s point of view, he noted, there are plenty of questions about linking student achievement to teacher performance.

For example, “when you’re looking at urban classrooms where half of the 25 kids at the beginning of the year are not the same 25 at the end of the year, 12 kids are statistically not enough to say whether the teacher really did well or badly,” Teske said. “The numbers are too small.”


Not interested in status quo


Colorado leaders on Tuesday agreed some states may wind up with “a better score” on their application.

But, “I would take our way of commiting to implementation over how some other states are doing it through conflict anyday,” said Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. “We are arm and arm together.”

Duncan gave somewhat conflicting statements about whether broad support trumps a bold plan.

“What I see us doing is, we’re basically investing in states where the management team and all of the adults there are working together,” he said at one point in Tuesday’s conference call. “Just as in business you wouldn’t necessarily invest in a management team where people are fighting each other on different pages, we want to invest in those places that are working together.”

On the other hand, “If a state is getting consensus but doing it by perpetuating the status quo, well frankly, we’re not going to be that interested in doing it,” he said.

“What we think, and what we’re actually very confident, is that you’re going to have a set of states that both have folks working together on the same page and pushing a very strong reform agenda. So there’s a combination of those two that we’re going to look for. That’s how you’re going to win this competition.”

Duncan also repeated that there will be far more losers than winners among those competing in the first round of Race to the Top. Some are estimating no more than a handful of winners will be selected.

“This is a very, very difficult competition,” he said Tuesday. “This is not a race to the middle. This is a race to the top, and we meant what we said.”


Timeline for teacher changes


Colorado union leaders praised the state’s “unwavering commitment to pursuing a collaborative strategy” in a letter of support that accompanied its Race to the Top application.

Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association, said the creation of a Governor’s Council on Educator Effectiveness “will give us the opportunity to work on this crucial issue and get it right.”

Here’s the timeline of the council’s work, according to the application:

  • By Dec. 31, 2010, the council will recommend statewide definitions of teacher and principal effectiveness and adopt guidelines for identifying measures of their effectiveness.
  • By Sept. 30, 2011, the council will recommend policy changes, including changes in state law, to clear the way for school districts to use evaluations in determining teacher pay, retention, removal and tenure.
  • By fall 2012-13, all school districts participating in the Race to the Top will implement evaluation systems that have at least four ratings categories and that use student growth measures to determine at least 50 percent of a teacher or principal’s rating.
  • By 2013-2014, those districts will use their new evaluations in making decisions about the pay, promotion, retention and removal of teachers “after they have had ample opportunities to improve.”

“Teachers and principals will have timely feedback to identify areas for improvement, access to meaningful and relevant resources to address such areas, and ample opportunity to take advantage of such resources,” the application states.


‘Weak link nationwide’


Coverage of Race to the Top has focused on its emphasis on linking student growth to teacher evaluations, in part it’s the single largest chunk of possible points in the 500-point application.

It’s also controversial, and Colorado is far from the only state perceived by some as weak in that area.

“Teacher effectiveness is a weak link nationwide,” said Joe Williams, executive director of the New York-based Democrats for Education Reform, which supports many of the ideas pushed in the Race contest.

Colorado is seen as stronger in other key areas. Some states, including New York, tripped over efforts to loosen caps on charter schools – Colorado has no such limits.

The state has a student data system, the Colorado Growth Model, being adopted by others and it recently adopted “fewer, higher and clearer” academic standards in 13 content areas.

Still, the application promises to “dramatically transform public education” and initiatives spelled out in its 152 pages could do just that in the 134 districts statewide that have agreed to participate.

Small rural districts would receive unprecedented help in linking into, and using, the state’s student data system. Urban districts could get as much as $2 million per school to help turn around their lowest performers.    

Teachers would be asked to share model lessons and those whose lessons are rated highest by their peers would win $10,000. Students in high-poverty schools could benefit from a plan to ensure their teachers are just as effective in those at more affluent campuses.

Winners will be announced in April. If Colorado isn’t among them, round 2 kicks off in June.  

“If they make it through in the first round and are successful, fantastic,” Duncan said Tuesday of the application from Colorado officials. “If not, we expect them to come back in the second round.”

Click here to read Colorado’s Race to the Top application.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@pebc.org or 303-478-4573.