The first federal Race to the Top competition that reaches down to the local level leaves most large, urban districts out of the winners' circle in favor of charter schools, midsize systems, and two large consortia of school districts-all of which must now turn to implementing proposals that collectively have won them $400 million.
The 16 winners, announced last month by the U.S. Department of Education, beat out more than 350 other applicants and include three charter school organizations, traditional districts such as Carson City, Nev., and Guilford County, N.C., and a group of 22 rural districts from Kentucky.
Florida's Miami-Dade County school system is the biggest urban district on the list. It won the coveted Broad Prize last year.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the winners' circle includes "a really good mix" of districts that are already education reform leaders and districts that have not received as much attention.
"We know that school districts have been hungry to drive reform at the local level," Mr. Duncan said in a Dec. 11 call with reporters.
More than 300 outside peer reviewers helped score the applications. A single point was all that separated the applicant that ranked 16th-the Lindsay Unified School District, in California-and the two that tied for 17th place and were not funded, which were the Mapleton public schools in Colorado and the Jefferson City schools in Missouri. Large districts such as New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia scored far outside the winners' circle.
This latest version of the well-known Race to the Top brand, which has become the Obama administration's main lever for education change, is meant to spark improvements at the district level, particularly in the area of personalized learning. The contest was also meant to spread Race to the Top money around in states that had not won before-and among districts in rural America.
Indeed, 11 of the 16 districts or groups of districts are in states that did not win the original 12 Race to the Top grants for states in 2010.
Few of the winners, however, serve mostly rural students, with the largest concentration in the Kentucky cooperative that won.
"I think the big story is that the usual suspects didn't win," said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting firm in Washington. "It just shows the education reform community is probably myopically focused on a small number of districts and less cognizant of big, important things happening elsewhere."
Still, he said, smaller districts-which may have smaller central office staffs and may not be as accustomed to managing large, federal, high-profile grants-may struggle more with implementation, he said.
"I think this is going to be the biggest issue," he said. "It's not only about hiring enough people but the right people."
With award letters in hand, the districts now turn to implementation.
Within the next two months, districts must draft "scopes of work," which serve as a contract of sorts between the department and each winner and which establish timelines, key deliverables, and detailed budgets for the four-year grant period. The scopes of work are critically important, as they are how the department will hold districts accountable for grant implementation.
For the KIPP program in the District of Columbia, one of the charter school winners, a $10 million grant will expand its Capital Teacher Residency program by training 415 new teachers over the next four years.
At 350,000 students, the largest district to win was Miami-Dade, which will focus its $30 million on expanding a math initiative designed to change how the subject is taught in middle schools. The money will pay for, among other things, two teachers in every middle school math classroom.
In Carson City, Nev., the $10 million award comes as the district is facing a $5.5 million cut for its fiscal 2014 budget-and at a time when it's seeing success with a "learner-centered model" that it has started with a federal School Improvement Grant at one low-performing middle school. The grant will support two high schools and two middle schools with a combined enrollment of about 4,200 students.
"We would like to see more opportunities for our secondary schools to experience change," said Richard Stokes, the superintendent of the 7,000-student district. "This is a huge blessing for us. We believe this grant will allow us to continue making academic progress."
The gist of Carson City's learner-centered model is this: Rather than presenting a one-size-fits-all academic curriculum, teachers will seek to tailor lessons to the needs of students by using assessments along the way to gauge students' mastery, and their problem spots.
The district will use its grant to continue to build its data system, hire highly skilled veteran teachers as "implementation specialists" in the participating schools, support family engagement programs so parents are involved in the work, and provide continued coaching to administrators.
The largest rural winner in the competition is the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative, a group of 22 districts from across rural Kentucky that educate 59,000 students.
The group's winning application, worth $40 million, has four key components: making students more responsible for their own educational success, helping teachers gear their instruction to competency-based learning, creating more personalized learning, and working with preschools to improve kindergarten readiness.
"These grant dollars allow us to have a laser-like focus on college and career readiness through competency-based learning," said George Wilson, the executive director of the Green River co-op, in Bowling Green, Ky. "There have certainly been pieces that we've tried, and very successfully. This lets us do some new things."
In practice, that means spending the winnings on a number of efforts. They include career counselors in each of the 23 participating high schools, and training and materials for preschool and day care teachers.
There also will be intensive professional development for educators so they teach not based on seat time or grade level, but based on what students have already mastered and what they're ready to learn next.
"This is not going to happen with the flip of a switch," Mr. Wilson said. "This is a fundamental change in the way we approach K-12 learning."