Obama dangles $400 million to spur school change

Tue May 22, 2012 12:54pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama gestures upon arriving at Joplin Regional Airport aboard Air Force One in Missouri May 21, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama gestures upon arriving at Joplin Regional Airport aboard Air Force One in Missouri May 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

(Reuters) - Seeking to spur a bold rethinking of the American classroom, the Obama administration on Tuesday will propose divvying up $400 million among local school districts that devise new ways of reaching children, especially students from poor and rural families.

The competition will reward districts that move away from the centuries-old model of a teacher standing at the front of a classroom, delivering the same lesson to all students, according to draft regulations released Tuesday.

To win a share of the money, districts must come up with a way to personalize education, so that each child can advance at his own pace and explore his own interests, the rules state. Districts must also ensure that students move on only when they have truly mastered a skill - not when they have completed a packet of worksheets or listened to a semester of lectures.

"We need to take classroom learning beyond a one-size-fits-all model and bring it into the 21st century," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.

The draft rules will be open for public comment until June 8, then finalized. Districts will have until October to submit applications. The administration plans to announce 15 to 20 winners in December. Each will receive a four-year grant worth $15 million to $25 million, officials said.

MIXED RESULTS SO FAR

The contest is the latest phase in President Barack Obama's Race to the Top initiative. In early rounds, the administration doled out $4 billion to states that followed its prescriptions for overhauling public education, such as rating teachers in large part by their students' scores on standardized tests and authorizing more charter schools, which are publicly funded but often run by private firms.

Those prescriptions have been widely promoted by a coalition of philanthropists, entrepreneurs and educators, but they are controversial. Teachers unions have fought them fiercely in many states, arguing that the strategies are unproven and disruptive.

Some Republicans have also criticized Race to the Top as a heavy-handed expansion of the federal role in education policy.

U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter, the Republican chair of a House subcommittee on education, issued a statement Tuesday blasting the grant program for "adding to the boondoggle of bureaucracy" piled atop local schools. "I urge the president to stop dedicating more taxpayer dollars to new programs with questionable impact," he said.

The policies pushed by the newest phase of Race to the Top have not been widely tested.

Several local districts and individual schools across the United States have adopted the type of personalized instruction and the emphasis on skill mastery that the contest promotes. But the experiments are preliminary and the results have been mixed, experts say.

The Adams 50 school district in Westminster, Colorado, which serves a mostly poor and Hispanic population, stopped grouping students by grade level four years ago. Instead, students work through math, language arts and other subjects at their own pace, moving on when they prove they have mastered a concept.

Some schools in the district have seen improved test scores but others have not - and the new system has put a heavy burden on teachers, who must prepare many distinct lesson plans each day and enter reams of data on each student's progress in an electronic grade book, said Steve Saunders, a spokesman for the district.

"It's a lot of heavy lifting," he said. "It's not easy."

Still, the district has seen enough promise to stick with the concept for now. "It's meeting kids where they are, instead of waiting for them to come to where the teacher is," Saunders said.

The state farthest along in this type of innovation is New Hampshire, which now requires all high schools to award credits to students who can demonstrate mastery of particular skills - even if they haven't sat through a traditional course.

Students can design their own plan of study. Among their ideas: Volunteering at a local animal shelter to learn about euthanasia; interviewing a rabbi, a minister and an imam about the common roots of their faiths; and traveling to Africa to study AIDS transmission.

Such projects can inspire true passion about learning, said Joe DiMartino, an education consultant who has worked with New Hampshire schools. But he cautions that they also require "a cultural shift" among educators, who must rethink everything from class schedules to grading policies to the teacher's role in guiding learning.

DiMartino, the president of the Center for Secondary School Redesign, said he worries some administrators will try to take a shortcut by simply plopping students in front of computers for self-paced lessons and calling that personalized instruction.

Another peril: The go-at-your-own-pace mantra has some top kids "competing just to be the first, rather than to learn the most," said Chris Sturgis, founder of the education consulting firm MetisNet. But done right, the concept is powerful, Sturgis said. "Kids know what they're doing and why they're doing it," she said.

In addition to personalizing education, districts competing for the grants must have robust systems for evaluating teachers and principals, the draft rules state. And they must have the support of their teachers or teachers union.

Districts can apply on behalf of individual schools or team up with other districts for broader reach. At least 40 percent of the students served must be low-income, officials said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Simon in Denver; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Paul Simao)

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