In the last decade or so, educators have seen many major educational initiatives come and go. That’s certainly true in Florida, where the Sunshine State Standards are giving way to the Common Core Standards and the FCAT is giving way to end-of-course exams now — and to the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test ( PARCC) in a couple of years. It’s also true at the national level, where the initiative known as Race to the Top (RTTT) is spurring big changes in education.
In a nutshell, RTTT is a national program that offered funding to states that agreed to focus their efforts on specific policies and practices, such as using data to improve instruction, boosting the use of technology in the classroom and expanding science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. Florida received $700 million through RTTT. About half of that money was set aside for school districts, which had to submit detailed plans for using the money in ways that the state approved. Not all of Florida’s districts chose to participate.
Alachua County Public Schools, however, did submit a plan that was approved by the state. As a result, we’ve received about $4.3 million over four years. Much of that money has been spent on computers and computer labs, wiring, servers and other infrastructure needs so that our schools are ready for the massive and very expensive switch to online testing which is already underway but will be picking up speed in the next couple of years. Of course, a significant benefit is that when the computers are not being used for testing, they’re used for instruction.
We’ve also used the funding to purchase new software that will allow for the more effective use of data to boost student achievement. This was a major focus of both the federal and state officials who reviewed and approved Race to the Top applications.
Increasing STEM offerings was also a major focus of RTTT, including the availability of advanced-level courses. Alachua County Public Schools has always been ahead of the game in that area. Students in our district have access to a wide range of STEM courses, and they’ve certainly taken advantage of that access. Our high school students earn excellent scores on science- and math-related Advanced Placement (AP), Cambridge and International Baccalaureate tests, and many have been recognized at the state and national level. Our students also outscore their peers statewide on the new and more challenging algebra, geometry and biology end-of-course exams.
What the RTTT funds have allowed us to do is add AP STEM courses in several high schools and establish the highly successful Academy of Biotechnology at Santa Fe High School, a magnet program that’s drawing students from around the district and attention from educators and policy makers around the country.
One of the most significant goals of RTTT was “improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance.” How that goal is met varies from state to state. In Florida, the legislature passed and Gov. Rick Scott approved a major overhaul to the state’s evaluation process. Districts must still develop their own plans, but those plans must be approved by the Florida Department of Education and must meet all state requirements.
Some of those requirements, including the extensive use of test scores, have generated a lot of controversy and even lawsuits. In keeping with my responsibility as superintendent, I have shared our district’s concerns with state leaders. I will continue to work with them and with my fellow superintendents across Florida to ensure that we have an evaluation system that is fair, sensible and most importantly, beneficial to students.
In the meantime, Alachua County Public Schools continues to provide training and support to principals and teachers to help them continue the important work of promoting our students’ success.
And that, of course, is our ultimate goal. Our district mission statement says, “We are committed to the success of every student.” Alachua County Public Schools will continue to seek out whatever funding and use whatever tools are available to help us achieve that mission.
By Dan Boyd, Superintendent, Alachua County Public Schools
Photography by Allison Durham