NJ Schools Trail the Field (Again) in Race to the Top

John Mooney | December 12, 2012 | Education
Newark and Monmouth County consortium, state’s only finalists, fall short in bid for federal funds

New Jersey’s two finalists for the federal incentive money – Newark public schools and a consortium of schools led by Neptune Township – fell short in the latest competition, which awarded 16 districts or consortiums a total of $400 million.

The awards announced yesterday were a letdown for the state’s two finalists, each with high hopes for their detailed plans centered on the competition’s technology-laden theme of “personalized learning.”

Both Newark and the Neptune-led group developed plans for infusing their schools with heavy doses of online learning or other technological tools that they said would help customize instruction for their students.

As part of its nearly $30 million proposal, Newark aimed to build a “blended” model of online and face-to-face instruction in two dozen of its schools, as well as putting data analysis to greater use in guiding teachers in the classroom.

Neptune sought $13.2 million, in its joint application with three other Monmouth County districts, to build an infrastructure for using laptops and mobile devices to create “digital portfolios” that would follow students from kindergarten through high school.

But in a competition decided by the tiniest differences, that was not enough. The winners were a mix of small to mid-sized cities, with Middletown, N.Y., the only one from the Northeast. The KIPP charter school network in Washington, D.C., also won funding, as did another charter network from Texas.

Each application was graded by a team of five peer reviewers, each allotting points off a specific grading rubric.

Of the New Jersey finalists, Neptune came the closest, falling just seven points below the 16th winner, finishing with 189 points out of a maximum of 210 points. Nonetheless, that was 33rd overall in a race in which only two points separated 16th place and 20th place. Newark finished 51st, with 180 points.

In each case, a review of the score sheets found few overarching deficits, just points lost here and there due to shortcomings in the districts’ explanations or the data used.

“I wish we were able to go further down the list,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in announcing the winners yesterday. “There were many, many more strong applicants than we had dollars available.”

Still, there were some interesting notes in the reviewers’ comments. For instance, it appeared at least some reviewers thought Neptune’s plan was not ambitious enough, while Newark might be too ambitious.

One reviewer said of Neptune’s application: “While the plan generally describes how the implementation will be supported, the plan is not overly ambitious in the goals that are set.”

Another said of Newark’s plan: “While the applicant has provided ambitious performance measures, the ability to achieve some of the goals does not appear to be realistic.”

New Jersey has had hard luck when it comes to the federal competition that has become President Obama’s signature public-education initiative.

The state has lost in two state competitions in the program — the first time in a spectacular fashion due, in part, to what turned out to be an omission in the application. It ultimately did receive some of the state Race to the Top money, but it amounted to less than $40 million, just a tenth of the potential award in the first round.

New Jersey districts overall didn’t fare well in this year’s competition. According to scores for all applicants released yesterday, only three of the state’s 21 applicants, including the two finalists, finished in the top 100. The other was Elizabeth.

The Union City, Paterson and Bergenfield school districts were at the very bottom of the list, each garnering fewer than 100 points.

Nonetheless, the leaders of the two unsuccessful finalists both said yesterday that the application was worth the work and that they still hope to pursue at least some of the proposed initiatives.

David Mooij, superintendent of Neptune Township schools, said such steps are critical to keep pace technologically, especially in the face of coming online testing.

But he also looked at the bright side of not facing the federal timeline requirements of the four-year grant when also dealing with state deadlines pertaining to other initiatives, including new teacher-evaluation systems.

“I find myself glad we can continue to pursue a plan in a timeline that better fits the myriad of other things facing New Jersey educators … without having the pressure of a competing four-year project,” Mooij said in an email.

Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson issued a statement also saying the process was worthwhile, especially with the wide support that the application received from an array of organizations in the city.

“One of the greatest challenges NPS faces is the technological divide in Newark,” Anderson said. “Race to the Top was a unique opportunity for us to help address that issue in a big way — and the process of submitting the application sharpened our vision and brought stakeholders together. That alone is a win.”

In a conference call with reporters, Duncan had some nice words for the state’s largest district, as well, when asked specifically about the Newark application. He singled out the district’s new teacher contract, which includes the state’s first large-scale attempt to tie teacher pay to performance.

“I’m really encouraged with Newark,” the education secretary said. “The new teacher contract is a step in the right direction. Whether Newark received a nickel or not, I’m very hopeful about the direction they’re going.”