Obama dangles $400mn to spur school change
WASHINGTON 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 on Tuesday.
To win a share of the money, districts must come up with a way to personalise 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 onesize- 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 finalised. 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.
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 standardised tests and authorising 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.
The newest phase of Race to the Top also pushes policies that have not been widely tested.
Several local districts and individual schools across the United States have adopted the type of personalised 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 only when they can 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 into an electronic grade book, said Steve Saunders, a spokesman for the district.
“It’s a lot of heavy lifting,” President Barack Obama (right) at the Joplin High School commencement ceremony, in Joplin, Missouri, on Monday. (AP) he said. “It’s not easy.”