Much needed reform promised by the Obama administration has come to the U.S. education system in the form of stimulus dollars, but whether this is change we can believe in has yet to be seen.

This week, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced that DCPS won $75 million in Race to the Top grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education. These grants, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, are aimed at promoting and supporting innovation and change in our school systems.

Race to the Top emphasizes important initiatives like teacher accountability and charter school creation. Innovatively, the program is not a mandate but an incentive program. Schools are rewarded for reforms rather than being forced to enact them.

The program is designed as a contest for states. Reforms are scored on a point scale and the funds are distributed to the highest point winners after two rounds of competition.

The plan has been incredibly effective at getting reforms passed in even the toughest environments. The incentive of millions in funding has even gotten traditional opponents of change, like teachers’ unions, on board. The flexibility allows innovation to incubate within state boards of education and encourages solutions that meet the diverse needs of each state, city and town.

The standards developed by the Department of Education set four goals for states to meet: ensuring all students are prepared for college and the workforce, creating data systems that measure student success and failure, creating a highly qualified teaching network and turning around underperforming schools. The DOE gives the greatest consideration to states that develop and adopt common standards, garner teachers’ union support and change evaluation models for teachers to include student performance. The states that demonstrate the greatest capacity for change and high achievement win funding.

To accomplish all of this is nothing short of a miracle, but it seems that many miracles are in the works. DCPS won money in the competition because of Rhee’s incredible, rapid reforms. The chancellor has pledged to reform one of the largest and toughest school districts in the nation. In addition to poor scores overall, DCPS has one of the largest achievement gaps among the races in the country. Rhee has taken on the issue as a priority.

Rhee’s most significant changes came from analyzing the DCPS staff. She initially raised eyebrows by firing hundreds of teachers for poor performance. Then she successfully negotiated a teaching contract that revamps the way teacher evaluations are calculated. Under the negotiated terms, 50 percent of evaluations will be based on student performance while 40 percent will be based on classroom observation. The remaining 10 percent will be distributed equally between the achievement of the school and the teacher’s contribution to the school community. This new evaluation system will inform a new pay scale that aims to produce measurable results and create a stronger sense of achievement in a failing school district.

Rhee has received a lot of flak for her reforms. Her biggest detractors, the teachers’ unions, have asked for time and trust to do what they do best: teach. Unfortunately, the amount of time and trust given to teachers in the current system clearly has failed D.C. students.

Although many of the recent reforms in D.C. and across the United States are commendable, they still need to be evaluated over the long term. What Rhee and the DOE have painted as a science through emphasis on achievement data doesn’t do justice to the art of teaching and community building within the confines of the classroom. In addition, recent data from DCPS has shown little to no change in the achievement gap between racial groups. Although change is surely needed in the education system, it has yet to be proven whether this is really the change we need.

Though they are not fully tested, we’re hopeful that the Race to the Top reforms will improve the educational opportunities for America’s youth. The status quo is unacceptable. If successful, the work of administrators like Rhee will be a model for other struggling districts around the country. It could be just what the doctor ordered.

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