June 8, 2012

Honorable Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education
U.S. Department of Education
Washington, D.C. 20201

Re: Comments on Race to the Top District draft executive summary

Dear Secretary Duncan:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Race to the Top-District draft executive summary.

Innosight Institute is a not-for-profit, non-partisan think tank whose mission is to apply Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation to develop and promote solutions to the most vexing problems in the social sector. In education, we seek to transform the country’s education system into a student-centric one where each child can realize his or her fullest human potential.

We applaud the Department’s desire to inspire innovation at the district level. We believe that the emphasis on students’ personal learning needs is a bold and important step forward. Encouraging a move toward competency-based learning models is critical for the success of our nation’s education system.

We hope that Race to the Top-District competition encourages substantive student-centered reform, and in order to ensure this clear purpose we have a few suggested revisions:

  • Emphasize learning over teaching
  • Do not use attendance as a metric for success
  • Leave room for innovation; avoid prescribing specific inputs and focus instead on desired outcomes

Emphasize learning over teaching
The phrase “teaching and learning” appears nine times throughout the proposal. If the competition is to spur truly student-centered learning, however, then this must be captured in both semantics and spirit. Learning should come before teaching. In “Absolute Priority 1, Personalized Learning Environment(s)” the first design principle listed after the colon is to “significantly improve teaching and learning through the personalization of strategies, tools and support for teachers and students.” It is problematic to prioritize teacher improvement over the improvement of a learner’s experience. This first design principle also potentially falls short of encouraging true transformation by implying that the personalization through “strategies, tools and support” be in support of current learning environments rather than expanding the personalization to encompass a student’s entire learning experience. We suggest the following language to more closely align the content with the Priority’s heading:

“create student-centered learning environments that are designed to: personalize student learning; significantly improve learning outcomes by moving toward a competency-based system relying on student growth metrics; allow for student creativity; decrease the achievement gap across student groups; and increase the rates at which students graduate from high school prepared for college and careers.”

We encourage the Department to read the summary with an eye to the places in which teachers’ experience and improvement is seemingly prioritized over that of students. Great teachers are essential to all student success and professional development is necessary and important. Teacher development ought to be a means toward accomplishing bold student growth goals, not the goal itself.

Do not use attendance as a metric for success
Seat-time and student attendance are the incorrect measures of success in a world in which learning can happen anywhere and at any time and are at odds with other good language and goals in the executive summary (see Sec. C.3.a.ii for example). Including student attendance as a goal precludes districts from thinking about new and innovative ways to serve students outside of the four walls of a traditional brick and mortar school. It is clear that time spent sitting in a seat does not mean time spent truly learning; the metrics should reflect that although attendance may be correlated with achievement in traditional schooling models, it is not causal per se. If, in improving student learning, a school must focus directly on improving student attendance because it is relevant to the program it is creating, then of course that is good, and it should be reflected in the individual proposal to demonstrate a coherent and well-conceived program. This input metric, however, should not be prescribed as a goal of the competition. The competition ought to instead encourage districts to look away from seat time toward actual student learning; schools should be rewarded equally if this is accomplished through providing online course opportunities accessible from anywhere or through real-world learning. The first rounds of Race to the Top showed true potential to fuel legislative change at the state level. Even with a competition geared toward districts and consortia of LEAs, there still exists that opportunity. Race to the Top District, in emphasizing student experience and results over student attendance, has the potential to motivate states to do away with seat-time requirements, an important first step to allow districts to flourish and innovate. We believe this is an opportunity not to be missed.

Leave room for innovation; avoid prescribing specific inputs and focus instead on desired outcomes
The ultimate goals in this competition should be around bolstering all students’ learning. We are pleased to see the summary state that school leaders ought to have: “Sufficient flexibility and autonomy over such factors as school schedules and calendars, school staffing models, roles and responsibilities for educators and noneducators, and school-level budgets.” This leaves the door open for innovative leaders to take charge toward this end. We worry, however, that language elsewhere restricts this proposed autonomy and instead encourages a variety of traditional models of schooling and an emphasis on compliance instead of student learning growth.

One such traditional model that the rules seem to encourage is that of one teacher in a confined classroom. For example, the idea that the success of LEAs will be determined based on: “the number and percentage of participating students by subgroup who have daily access to effective and highly effective teachers” is problematic in the way that it potentially limits the innovative staffing models possible to serve students if educator is defined as one being co-located with the student. With the advent of widely available online curriculum and delivery models, all students can learn from the world’s most effective educators regardless of location.

In innovative student-centric environments, there is a high likelihood that students will interact with a range of adults who impact their learning and have differentiated teaching roles. Some educators may be content experts; others may be those best at one-on-one student coaching, designing project-based learning, or creating well-matched small groups, for example. The competition’s current emphasis on teacher evaluation obfuscates this important point. The provision that an LEA must have a data system that has an individual teacher identifier with a teacher-student match may be too limiting as an eligibility requirement. As students gain access to curricula and teaching from multiple sources, having an individual teacher identifier with a teacher-student match will likely restrict needed innovation in teaching models. Given where the technology stands at this moment, this seems an overly prescriptive and not inherently useful requirement—and focuses on the wrong end. Similarly, that the LEA must design its own teacher evaluation system is too prescriptive, as it implies a one-size-fits-all evaluation system for all of the schools and programs in its domain. Different schooling models may find that different evaluation systems make sense for their purposes. If mandating this type of input remains important, more appropriate language might require that participating entities implement evaluation systems appropriate for their specific programs.

Furthermore, language that suggests that all participating educators must participate in the same type of training is misguided; instead the emphasis should be on insuring that all educators can receive the training that is relevant for their specific job given the model in which they are working. This section also seems to imply that teachers will always lead assessments, when in fact automated assessment and data engines may help significantly in these areas.

Beyond teaching structure, the definition of “personalized learning plans” is too specific. The executive summary prescribes a formal document. This input requirement implies a flat document. Loosening the definition would allow for a dynamic and changing personalized learning plan embedded in a digital platform. Thanks to adaptive technology, a learning plan could be something students access daily to view their goals and playlists of lessons and exercises for the day. To this end, the input-based metric of weekly student access to the learning plan ought to be removed, not because it is bad per se, but because it is more likely to encourage compliance-driven plans rather than thoughtful ones based on a coherent program. If this is something the Department deems important in and of itself, however, then better language might be that a personal learning plan must be updated at least weekly based on a student’s progress so that it is an active and useful tool, not a check-the-box criterion that merely encourages compliance for its own sake. Most sound would be language that suggests this as one possible element of a strong and coherent plan but does not require it and therefore force an incoherent plan where it might not make sense.

We suggest that the Department consider revising those parts of the summary that make specific reference to classroom structure, teacher responsibilities, and technology specifics.

Overall, we are pleased to see the Department encouraging student-centered and personalized learning and are pleased to see that the Department has created a possibility for additional funding for LEAs that target areas of nonconsumption (Sec. F.1.), which are ripe for disruptive innovation. We applaud the Department for its ongoing hard work and commitment to educational innovation.

Submitted by Michael B. Horn, Executive Director, Education, Innosight Institute.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.