What’s next for Minnesota’s Race to the Top?


What next for a strong Minnesota Race to the Top school-reform proposal that federal officials rejected?

Two to three hundred million dollars for Minnesota public school students schools depend on us successfully answering two questions in the next few months:

a. What is the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) looking for that Minnesota did not include in a several-hundred-page proposal? b. Assuming (and this is an assumption), that support from Education Minnesota, the state’s teacher’s union is vital for this proposal, can educators, legislators, parents, business and community groups, the Minnesota Department of Education and Education Minnesota produce a proposal that USDE will support?

USDE smacked Minnesota hard last week. The federal government chose proposals from sixteen other states as finalists in a multi-million dollar competition called Race to the Top. Minnesota was not one of the sixteen. Each state whose proposal is selected will receive several hundred million dollars to help improve their public schools. Well spent, that money could have a huge positive impact.

The federal plan is to:

  • Invite those 16 states to make presentations later this month.   

  • Select several to receive massive grants.

  • Post each proposal and feedback online.

  • Invite states that did not win in the first round to submit proposals later this year.

Minnesota’s proposal is online at the Minnesota Department of Education website, education.state.mn.us  More than one hundred education, business, community and other groups wrote letters of support. District and charter public schools that represent more 93 percent of Minnesota’s public school students endorsed the proposal.

However, Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Education giving “reasons for declining to support the state’s Race to the Top application.” His letter is posted on their website.

Having observed development of many state proposals, and having helped write some, I can say that it is unusual and perhaps unprecedented for a state organization to oppose a proposal endorsed by many other groups.

Dooher criticized the way that “the state has focused its application on Q Comp,” which rewards teachers for participating in training and for increasing student achievement. He also criticized MDE’s “proposal to make student test data a major factor in high-stake decisions affecting virtually every aspect of a teacher’s career.” Finally Dooher was unhappy with MDE because of “literalness of its efforts to adhere to the federal guidelines.” 

The federal guidelines did call for use of data to help decide a teacher’s pay and continued employment. Dooher is right that the state followed federal guidelines.

In a statement last week, Dooher said in part that he “disappointed but not surprised” that the federal government had not selected Minnesota’s application. 

“We’re looking forward to working with the Minnesota Department of Education in revising the state’s application to have a better chance of success in round two,” he said.

Conversations over the last few days suggest that a variety of people around the country were surprised that Minnesota’s application was not chosen as one of the finalists. My reading of the proposal is that it was extremely well done, comprehensive, reflective of many research-based approaches and successful experience in Minnesota and other states. More than half of the money awarded would have gone to local districts and chartered public schools to help train and retrain faculty to use more research-based ways of working with youngsters.

(Full disclosure requires that I point out both Macalester and the Center for School Change, which I direct, submitted letters of support. If the proposal were fully funded, we would receive about $150,000 of the more than $300 million that MDE requested. We would have used this to expand a school leadership development program that has drawn attention in, among other places, The New York Times and Washington Post.)

Before Minnesota receives feedback on our proposal, we won’t know exactly what needs changing. MDE already included some local Minnesota union ideas in the original proposal. Programs developed by several local Minnesota teacher unions were cited, praised and included. 

But any proposal can be improved. Our schools and students have a lot to gain if we can learn from federal feedback and submit a winning proposal.