Running the Race
Despite the grim outlook, tremendous energy is being expended by the federal government and local school districts to change the equation. The $4 billion Race to the Top grant program launched in 2009 is President Barack Obama’s answer to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, which is also still active. While No Child Left Behind seeks to hold schools accountable for low performance on standardized tests, Race to the Top seeks to provide resources and foster best practices to turn around struggling schools. The program encourages states to work with teachers unions, school superintendents, and elected officials to propose comprehensive reform plans in a competition for federal dollars.
In the first round eleven states and the District of Columbia won awards due to their willingness to execute reform initiatives. These states have made commitments to raise their academic standards and create new teacher evaluations. For example, before they can compete, states are required to have removed legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers to linking data on student achievement or student growth to teachers and principals for the purposes of teacher and principal evaluation.
Tennessee was one of the first states to receive Race to the Top funds, in part because of its willingness to change its laws, explains Kriner Cash, superintendent of Memphis City Schools, an independent authority that governs public schools in the city. The student population is 93% African American, 95% of whom take part in the National School Lunch Program, which offers free meals for children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level and reduced-price meals for children whose family incomes are between 130% and 185% of the poverty level.
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