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Race to the Top — Time Now for the Hard Part

I just returned from the gathering in Washington, D.C., of all 16 national Race to the Top – District grantees. It was a very exciting convening, especially when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke with us about how important our efforts are to the nation’s progress. He and the other department officials made us feel very honored. They stressed how competitive the pool of applicants had been and the rigor of the judging and scoring process. Duncan talked a lot about the need to build strong systems that can support personalized learning for each child. Acknowledging how hard the work is on the ground, he stressed that the department would be our partner and would be supporting a strong, continuous improvement approach to implementation. I left feeling super excited about our plan and opportunity to improve results for thousands of children. I also am feeling great about the level of support we will receive.

I also return with a great sense of responsibility to deliver results. The nation is investing in us as leaders and innovators and we cannot disappoint. We must execute well and do our best to dodge pitfalls. We need to keep our communities engaged as we do the work and stay true to the pursuit of our ambitious improvement goals.

Between the monetary investments and strong district implementation of the grant’s commitments and assurances, we can greatly accelerate achievement for all students in our region. Though I see the huge positive potential, I also acknowledge several big implementation risks that we must avoid:

1. Keep performance the goal, not just federal grant compliance

In large government grants, there is necessarily a big focus on compliance with the whole host of requirements. Obviously, it is important to meet technical requirements but is also vital to keep the overarching focus on getting the desired results. In the past, I have seen grant managers become slaves to the exact details presented in original plans, even if that plan no longer makes sense or has not worked well. From my perspective, if a strategy is not working, it is essential that a course correction be made.

If we are going to get to the “top,” I can guarantee the winning path will not be a straight line. We have to be flexible and nimble as we maintain a laser-like focus on getting to the result. It was great to hear Duncan and his team also  emphasize this philosophy — he called it being “tight on goals and loose on means” and encouraged us to learn from mistakes we make.

2. Building coherence and system strength; busting silos

We must ensure the Race to the Top projects are not implemented as “one offs.” If they are worked on in silos, we will lose the synergistic potential that was built into the grant design. For example, it will be key that the professional development investment fund and the data portal help ensure quality implementation of many of the other projects. There are many obvious interconnections between projects. It will be very important to nurture and support our region’s cradle-to-college team of lead implementers who can reach across the projects and engage players inside and outside schools to help one another maximize grant impacts.

3. Keeping the region’s students front and center

As we put the grant together, I was struck by the integrity and caliber of our regional leaders, who, time after time, agreed to put the needs of students ahead of institutional interests. They took many leaps of faith that required trust. Duncan has made it clear that the nation is investing its trust in us now. Trusting us to stay focused on getting the kind of breakthroughs that will guide the future of education. Obviously, each district and community is unique and its needs will be somewhat different from the others. The grant implementation will have to be sensitive to each situation and to the strengths and different needs across the region, all the while keeping a firm eye on what is best for the region’s children.

We all worked hard to create the winning grant proposal. Now it is time to do the harder part: joining together and sticking together to do the work of getting results.

Mary Jean Ryan

Mary Jean Ryan
Executive Director
Community Center for Education Results