After 37 years in education policy, I can recognize a golden opportunity for our schools when I see one. California is staring at one right now, and it should take it.
Earlier this year U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the third phase in the Race to the Top competition. Race to the Top is a grant program born out of the stimulus legislation passed in 2009 to spark innovation and high performance in states. This latest round of applications will provide states like California, which applied for earlier rounds but did not ultimately win, with the opportunity to receive federal funding. California should apply for this third phase of funding.
In the last round of Race to the Top, California had a unique application that reflected our state’s size and diversity. California’s application focused on a handful of school districts – Clovis, Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Sanger, and San Francisco Unified – that came together to pioneer a new approach to improving student achievement. They outlined a plan to pool their resources and expertise to figure out and share best practice.
Despite the strength of the application, California lost out on these critical funds. However, those school districts decided to continue their efforts because they believed in the work they were doing on behalf of students. Now, based on the strength of its last Race to the Top Application, California is eligible to receive roughly $50 million to do a portion of the previous proposal. It is up to the state, in applying for this phase of the competition, to decide whether or not to help these districts access $50 million to advance their work on behalf of students.
How could $50 million to seven districts help all of California? One way would be by providing a focus on implementation of the Common Core – a state-led effort to adopt and implement standards that ensure, if met, students graduate prepared for college or the workforce. California as a whole is already participating in the Common Core effort. The $50 million in Race to the Top funds could be used to pilot use of new standards – from concept to classroom to new high-quality assessments – which is a critical element of ensuring these standards reach all students across the state.
The standards won’t mean much if they don’t reach every student in every classroom. The school districts that are the focus of California’s application are diverse in their size, geography, and student population. They represent 15 percent of California’s total student population – nearly one million students – and are representative of the state’s student demographic as a whole. If these school districts can succeed at implementing the standards in their schools, the rest of the state’s schools can get it right too.
California has the largest and one of the most racially and economically diverse student populations in the country. Common Core has the potential to fulfill students’ expectations that, with a diploma, they should be able to enter college or a job without remediation. These standards will also be on par with international standards. Students in California aren’t competing for jobs in their town, their state, or even the United States. They are competing with peers in countries all over the globe. If our students aren’t taught to the level and rigor of students in other countries, the jobs will go elsewhere.
I strongly believe that we are now in the midst of the most exciting and dynamic education reform environment in our nation’s history. The efforts of the seven Race to the Top districts grew out of their desire to advance their education systems and to improve student achievement. It is about partnership, collaboration, and sharing best practice so other school districts can figure out what will make sense for them. It’s about focusing on what is best for all students and engaging communities to help make the necessary changes. The third phase of Race to the Top can provide critical resources to facilitate their progress for students and for California as a whole.
The question is whether California can take this step forward and whether these leading districts can get the support they need to help that effort. The right choice in this matter is for the state to apply, be a strong partner, and support these districts in their effort.
U.S. Rep. George Miller is the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He has been on the committee for 37 years, his entire tenure in Congress. Miller is an original author of the No Child Left Behind Act. He is the leading voice in Congress on issues of early education, K-12 education, college accessibility and affordability, and child nutrition. Miller represents California’s seventh district, encompassing parts of Contra Costa and Solano counties.