Illinois’ Race to the Top bid marked by aggressive timelines

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One fundamental concern emerged last week when five peer reviewers grilled five of Illinois’ top educators about the state’s Race to the Top application. Does the State Board of Education have the capacity—the manpower and financial resources—to see through a bevy of proposed education reforms under exceptionally tight deadlines?

“The judges knew the application very well, and the focus was on implementation,” says Miguel Del Valle, chair of the state’s P20 Council and one of the five delegates sent to Washington D.C. last week to defend Illinois’ bid for up to $510 million in competitive federal stimulus grants.

“They felt our timeline was very aggressive,” he adds. “Our response was that it has to be very aggressive.”

One fundamental concern emerged last week when five peer reviewers grilled five of Illinois’ top educators about the state’s Race to the Top application. Does the State Board of Education have the capacity—the manpower and financial resources—to see through a bevy of proposed education reforms under exceptionally tight deadlines?

“The judges knew the application very well, and the focus was on implementation,” says Miguel Del Valle, chair of the state’s P20 Council and one of the five delegates sent to Washington D.C. last week to defend Illinois’ bid for up to $510 million in competitive federal stimulus grants.

“They felt our timeline was very aggressive,” he adds. “Our response was that it has to be very aggressive.”

Among the plans spelled out in the state’s 600-page application: a complete overhaul of teacher evaluations in most school districts by 2013; the turnaround of several low-performing schools this summer and the adoption of new academic standards this fall.

That’s a tall order for a state agency that owes schools nearly $900 million in back bills and faces looming budget cuts this year.

State Supt. Chris Koch, the leader of Illinois’ Race to the Top presentation team, admits the financial crisis jeopardizes the state’s chances to land federal dollars. And Koch acknowledges understaffing in his agency, where the workforce has dropped from 800 to about 500 under his watch.

But the superintendent offered his Race to the Top evaluators an alternative viewpoint. For one, the state has a jumpstart on key initiatives like the adoption of national common standards and the creation of a P20 data system that will track students from pre-school into the work force.

More subtly, however, Koch says the state’s capacity to see reforms through rests on a unique collaborative approach that has smoothed the way for controversial changes—like using student test scores in the evaluation of teachers—and harnessed outside partnerships to do some heavy lifting.

For example, 12 so-called “super-LEA” districts have hammered out union and administrative agreements to quickly pilot school turnarounds and teacher evaluation overhauls. Koch says the state has also struck key partnerships with groups like the Consortium on Chicago School Research and the Illinois Education Resource Council to provide much-needed research capacity.

Moreover, the state has already pre-screened organizations to carry out turnarounds, work that will be augmented by nearly $45 million in federal grants and additional fundraising and technical expertise by the national group Mass Insight.

 “We’ve been moving on our application since we submitted it,” says Koch.

In his view, the Race to the Top application is a blueprint for change, whether the state wins extra cash or not. But the pace of change will vary. For example, Koch says the rollout of Web-based tests and formative assessments would slow down considerably if the state loses out.

Koch and Del Valle, along with Audrey Soglin of the Illinois Education Association and two of Koch’s deputies, made their case inside a small hotel conference room in D.C. The five peer reviewers sat opposite Illinois’ delegates, who gave a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation before taking hard questions for an hour. Del Valle says a large digital clock sat on the floor to ensure Illinois made its case in the allotted time.

“I feel that things went well. We were very well prepared. We certainly spent a lot of time preparing,” says Del Valle.

The group teamed up with the Aspen Institute in the weeks leading up to the event, fine-tuning their presentation and conducting mock interviews. Of the 41 states that submitted Race to the Top applications in January, Illinois and 15 others were invited to make a final defense and plea for cash.

Winners will be announced in early April. Losers will rejoin the other states in a second round of vetting this summer.

“Illinois is struggling fiscally just like a lot of other states,” says Del Valle. “I argued this makes this even more important. … Absent the Race to the Top dollars, we’re not going to accelerate a process that desperately needs to be accelerated.”