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Behind the Race to the Top Furor, Five Nameless Judges

Reports from panel of reviewers show where NJ gained and lost -- and maybe tripped up

For all the drama and argument over what narrowly lost New Jersey’s bid for federal Race to the Top money, the decision came down to five mostly anonymous judges, or peer reviewers.

Each one scored the state’s voluminous application, both its written and oral presentation, and the five scores were averaged into one final tally.

For New Jersey, the final score was 437.8 out of 500, a mere three points short of the Top 10 and its $399 million prize. And with the different scores ranging from a high of 463 (Reviewer 3) to a low of 399 (Reviewer 5), it could have been just one outlier who made all the difference.

Who are these people? They are mostly anonymous in that the specific five who reviewed New Jersey’s application are not publicly named.

The 70-Person Pool

But the “mostly” part is in that they come from a list of 70 people picked for the jobs by the U.S Department of Education, from a retired New York and Washington State education bureaucrat to a former Baltimore high school principal who grew up in Elizabeth.

In between are college professors, including one from Rutgers, and an education entrepreneur who developed an online tool for college applications. A Catholic school administrator from the Boston archdiocese was also among the reviewers.

Cloaked in their anonymity, the specific five who decided New Jersey’s fate are now the focus of much speculation and some scorn in Trenton to every point they awarded.

Their individual reports give a more complicated picture of both the judges and the process that went into their decisions.

Reviewer 1 (NJ Score -- 445): This reviewer was one of New Jersey’s bigger fans in the group, giving the second-highest score. He or she called the state’s reform agenda “clear and comprehensive,” and said the state was “ahead of other states in the use of charters, alternate routes and even state takeovers.”

This reviewer also credited the state for the support for its proposal, barely mentioning the lack of buy-in from teacher unions. “The breadth of support for raising school achievement and using data to sustain reform is very impressive and deserves full credit,” the reviewer wrote.

But while the reviewer credited the state as a pioneer in state takeovers, he or she had misgivings about its plans for turning around low-performing schools, one of the key sections of the competition. The reviewer appeared to back charter schools as a model for turnarounds, even naming two successful charters in Newark as models to follow, but said the state didn’t speak enough to those ideas in its proposal.

“The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools and the Uncommon Schools have been helpful in Newark,” the reviewer wrote. “Several very effective schools have expanded, but it is not clear that even more charter school expansions will be considered.”

Still, Reviewer 1’s grade was among the state’s highest: “This is an aggressive and ambitious reform proposal, and measurable gains in college and career preparation are clearly achievable through implementation of this plan.”

Reviewer 2 (NJ score -- 439): New Jersey benefited more by meeting Reviewer 2 in person than any of the other reviewers. After the written application, this reviewer gave the state just 398 out of 500 points. After the 90-minute interview two weeks ago, the score rose 41 points to 439.

Over and over, the reviewer credits the interview with the state’s team, led by state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, as providing needed details. “The presentation provided clarifying information that positively affected the number of points awarded for this criterion,” the reviewer wrote at one point.

Still, this reviewer voiced continued concerns about the lack of union support for the proposal, a big point of contention in Trenton as Gov. Chris Christie threw out at the last minute a compromise agreement with the state’s dominant union and filed the application without it.

“The biggest question for this proposal is whether the reforms will truly make a statewide impact in light of the non-support of local and state (unions),” the reviewer wrote. “Most implementation depends heavily on local bargaining processes and outcomes. This could potentially curtail or water down a potentially very strong plan.”

Reviewer 3 (NJ score -- 463): Nobody liked New Jersey’s application more than Reviewer 3, both in its written form and then after the interview. And at 18 pages, the reviewer was the most verbose in that praise as well.

He or she cited the state’s “historic commitment” to supporting public education, spending more per pupil than any other state, and a history of “bold reforms” and “a strong belief that education can overcome disadvantage and help achieve social justice.”

The reviewer raises the same concern about the buy-in of not just local unions but also the local school districts, of which just 60 percent gave full support. And the reviewer knocked off a few points for the state’s lack of good data on graduation rates.

“Its record on improving graduation rates is not clear given that it was inflating its rates by not keeping accurate data,” the reviewer wrote.

As the group’s most prolific writer, the reviewer also said the most about what may be the application’s most controversial section. New Jersey apparently failed to include information on the state’s school funding for 2008 and 2009, costing it five points that could have made the difference between losing and winning.

The reviewer said that the state did include 2011 data that showed the “education funding certainly seems adequate. “

“But how this percentage compares with that of previous years was not included,” the reviewer wrote. “”Because the evidence was not presented, no points were awarded.”

Reviewer 4 (NJ score -- 413): This is where New Jersey’s application began to fade from contention, with Reviewer 4 often citing the lack of specificity or details as to how plans would be implemented.

There wasn’t one area in particular, but a general sense that more detail was needed. For instance, in a section about standards and assessments, the reviewer wrote: “More attention should have been devoted to the design and delivery of teacher professional development to support implementation of the new standards and assessments.”

At another point about the use of state data, he or she wrote: “While [the plans] were thoughtfully developed and sound concepts, specific operational details were missing.”

Still, it wasn’t all bad. The reviewer called the state’s teacher evaluation plan “ambitious but achievable” and cited its plan for supporting teachers and principals “high quality.”

Reviewer 5 (NJ score -- 399): Reviewer 5 may have been New Jersey’s downfall, giving the lowest scores by far of the group. If he or she even rose to the next lowest total, that could have conceivably been enough to lift the average to earn New Jersey the grant.

The reviewer’s concerns were many, but even more than Reviewer 2, there were repeated worries about the lack of district and union support. Praise was strong for the state’s plans for evaluating teachers and principals using a wide array of data.

However, “of continued concern is the large number of [union] school districts that will not participate will limit the effectiveness and impact of this effort,” the reviewer wrote.

Same with tenure reforms, which the reviewer otherwise called “controversial and bold steps to change the status quo.”

The sentiment may have been best summed up in his or her concluding comments, maybe sealing the state application’s fate.

“While much of the New Jersey proposal is strong, one important fact makes it unlikely to succeed,” the reviewer wrote. “Forty point nine of the state’s [local districts] will not participate in this proposal. That is a significant number.”

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