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Old-Fashioned Collaboration Key to Innovation of Race to the Top

Race to the Top - TeacherCast Guest Blog

There’s always a new educational reform on the horizon.  When I was teaching, it was No Child Left Behind.  Today, it’s Common Core.  When the Common Core standards were introduced in 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created a great called Race to the Top.

With over $4 billion in grant funding at stake, states were encouraged to accumulate points based on creating innovative programs to meet specific criteria.  State Education Agencies (SEAs) won points based on criteria such as improving educator assessments, implementing data systems, and turning around the lowest-achieving schools.  Extra points were also awarded for implementing statewide STEM programs.

Of the 46 states, and the District of Columbia, that applied for funding, 11 were chosen, including D.C.  Curiously, all the states have chosen, but one were East Coast States.  Only Hawaii represented states west of the Mississippi River.  Regardless of the seemingly odd distribution of funding awards, the programs developed by these states all had one thing in common: good old-fashioned collaboration.

Collaboration = Innovation

Race to the Top encouraged SEAs to innovate in order to better prepare students for college and career.  As I’ve written before, for secondary education to be successful at innovation that prepares students for college, it must model higher education’s own innovations.

Michael Crow, whose Arizona State University Online has led the way for higher ed innovation in recent years, wrote in December of 2015 that the best way to disrupt the status quo in high education is through collaboration.

“Just as we look for ways to innovate throughout our school, we also are constantly on the hunt for imaginative partnerships that can expand our capacity to drive change and close the achievement gap.”

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Crow may as well be writing about secondary education through the lens of Race to the Top, which noted the increase in graduation rates across multiple cohorts, especially low-income students.  During the first four years of Race to the Top, graduation rates of economically-challenged students went up by four percent.

I’m sure I’m not the only educator who’s been in a school or district that struggled to keep up with the change because its members were unwilling to collaborate.  In one district, I was told not to bother, as no one else would be willing to collaborate with me.  Instead, as Crow points out, competition, even among my colleagues, was what drove the school.  No one benefits from this, least of all the students.

Collaboration = Preparation

One collaborative innovation that came about thanks to Race to the Top is New York’s  A comprehensive resource for educators and parents alike, the resources are available for anyone with internet access.  The site includes resources for parents preparing students for everything from kindergarten to college applications.

Any time a new education reform is introduced, teachers fear for the stability of their jobs.  These reforms always contain new standards for teacher education and performance, and some educators get caught unawares.  Race to the Top was no different.  Under its Great Teachers and Leaders initiative, the funded SEAs were required to create programs for better professional development among staff and faculty.  This would, in turn, lead to better learning outcomes for students.

Traditionally, career development and curriculum development have been siloed, with individual educators in charge of their own continuing education and individual districts in charge of designing curricula.  In Delaware, professional learning communities (PLCs) were established to allow groups of teachers time to discuss their own performance.

One Delaware principal cited the weekly 90-minute meetings as an opportunity for teachers to analyze student outcomes and cooperate on possible solutions, which may include the development of new skills.  Even sharing a new tactic with a colleague contributes to his career development and contributes to his preparation for increasing student outcomes.

Not Perfect

Like every other Federal education reform, Race to the Top was not perfect.  Many states changed their education systems in order to submit plans to the different phases of the fund.  This, in essence, turned education reform into a money grab.

However, as many of the programs detailed in the final report of the fund show, there was one overarching positive.  All stakeholders involved in the education process started to learn to collaborate for the greater good.

Hattie James is a writer and researcher living in Boise, Idaho. She has a varied background, including education and sports journalism. She is a former electronic content manager and analyst for a government agency. She recently completed her MBA and enjoys local ciders.

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