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What does it take to win millions of federal dollars to finance state education reforms? Including some magical words certainly can’t hurt. A look at the finalists’ applications from the second round of Race to the Top reveals that winners hit on key education buzzwords more frequently than losers did. One exception is that losers mentioned “early education” more often than winners did.

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The words “charter,” “evaluation,” “rigor” or “standards,” “assessment,” “accountability,” and “online” or “e-learning” were mentioned more often in winning applications. On average, winners included the phrases “professional development” and “data-driven” almost twice as often as losers. The terms “value-added” and “tenure” were mentioned less often, and at about the same rate by winning and losing applicants.

Not surprisingly, in order to fit in all these words, winning applications were about 20 percent longer on average. The average length for winners was 343 pages. For losers, it was 286.

The one category that losers appeared to pay more attention to was early childhood education. Losing applications mentioned the words “early childhood,” “early learning,” “early education,” “preschool,” and “pre-kindergarten” more often than winning applications.

Massachusetts, the top-ranked winner in the second round and a state generally recognized as having one of the best public education systems in the country, bucked some of these trends. The state didn’t mention “value-added” at all, and included the term “data-driven” only once. It did, however, mention early childhood a little more often than most states did.

California wrote about “standards” and “rigor” a staggering 755 times in its application – to no avail, apparently, since it didn’t make the winners’ circle. Louisiana, which lost, and Ohio, which won, included “value-added” more than 100 times in their applications, a much higher frequency than in other states’ submissions. Ohio also appeared to be the most enthusiastic about charters, a term that showed up more than 400 times in its 383-page application.

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Sarah Garland oversees editorial planning and budgeting, edits K-12 stories and manages editorial partnerships with other news outlets. She has worked at Hechinger since 2010, and before that wrote about...

Sarah Butrymowicz oversees and contributes to The Hechinger Report’s investigative and data work covering all levels of education, from early childhood to K-12 to higher education. She has worked at...

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