Georgia Battles to Beat Race to Top Head Winds
Despite setbacks along the way, grant-funded initiatives taking root
Nearly four years after Georgia pulled into the Race to the Top winner's circle, the state still has a rocky climb to the education redesign summit initially envisioned in its application for a share of the federal grant jackpot.
The state's Race to the Top odyssey has been riddled with obstacles. They include fiscal woes, leadership turnover, resistance to the common standards and aligned tests that were a part of its plan, and enough setbacks for its teacher-evaluation system to make Georgia the only winner to have part of its grant put on hold.
But there have also been plenty of high points. The state has forged a nationally envied longitudinal-data system, created a set of strong instructional materials to help districts move toward tougher standards, and launched a homegrown competitive-grant program that's helped jump-start promising initiatives across the state.
"It's been an odd journey, really," said Kent Edwards, the superintendent of the nearly 5,000-student Carrollton city school system, one of the 26 districts—out of 180 statewide—taking part in Georgia's Race to the Top efforts. "While it's fallen short in terms of reaching its initial objectives, we would not be as far as we are—or as self-reflective as we are—if we had not been a Race to the Top district."
He and other superintendents say that even the piece of the program that has bedeviled the state the most—educator evaluations—has ultimately been a major benefit.
"We're going to have something that will be really useful going forward, no matter what happens when Race to the Top is over," said J. Alvin
Wilbanks, the superintendent of the 169,000-student Gwinnett County district, the state's largest system and winner of the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2010 and a finalist in this year's competition. It's too early to write the final chapter on Georgia's Race to the Top venture, said Ann Whalen, the director of the U.S. Department of Education's implementation and support unit, which presided over the decision to withhold a portion of Georgia's funding.
"Race to the Top was always an investment in a long-term reform effort. Georgia has shown great progress and improvement," and continues to make midcourse corrections, Ms. Whalen said.
"I think we have concerns when they or any state walk away from commitments. We have been extremely explicit and deliberate" when making decisions about what puts a grant at risk, she added.
Transitions in Leadership
Georgia's initial application for the Race to the Top program was among the strongest in the country—the state narrowly lost out to Delaware and Tennessee for one of the first two competitive grants in early 2010.
But shortly after the state was named a winner in the second round, Georgia's political landscape changed completely. A new governor, Republican Nathan Deal, replaced Gov. Sonny Perdue, another GOP leader, who was an early and ardent champion of the Common Core State Standards and a cheerleader for the state's participation in Race to the Top.
Also elected in 2010 was a new state schools chief, John Barge, a former school principal and district curriculum director. He succeeded Kathy Cox, who had supported the state's Race to the Top bid.
Mr. Barge was highly critical of the state's participation in Race to the Top during his campaign, saying that Georgia hadn't been transparent with districts about what they would be committing themselves to if they signed on. But he pledged to implement the program to the best of his ability once he stepped into the role of Georgia's top educator.
Additionally, six superintendent positions in some of the largest districts participating in Race to the Top changed hands during the first year of the grant.
In part because of the transitions, the state was sluggish in filling key Race to the Top positions, according to the federal Education Department's first annual look at Georgia's progress, released in 2012.
Because of the turnover in leadership, "we lost about 18 months from the time Race to the Top began," Mr. Wilbanks said.
Turmoil at the top has continued to dog the state's implementation: Mr. Barge and Gov. Deal tussled over staffing, and had a very public clash over a constitutional amendment to create a state-level organization aimed at authorizing charter schools. Mr. Deal supported the provision and Mr. Barge opposed it; the amendment ultimately prevailed.
(This year, Mr. Barge challenged Gov. Deal for the state's GOP gubernatorial nomination. Mr. Deal prevailed in the May 20 primary.)
Some district officials don't think Mr. Barge's skepticism about Race to the Top ever really went away; they see his implementation of the program as half-hearted. And, they say, the Georgia Department of Education struggled to develop the capacity to sufficiently support districts, a point echoed in federal reports on the state's progress.
For his part, Mr. Barge says he's had strong cadre of staff members behind him—there just weren't enough of them, in part because of state budget austerity over the past four years. The state education department has lost roughly $1 billion in education aid a year for the past several years on a typical state K-12 education budget of about $7.5 billion, said Matt Cardoza, a spokesman.
The Race to the Top resources were a huge help, Mr. Barge said. But, in a perfect world, the state itself would have been able to pay for bolstering education, he said, and avoided the federal strings that came with the grant program, which was financed with money from the 2009 economic-stimulus package.
"If I had to do it again, I would seriously question whether the money was worth it because of all the frustrations," he said. "If the state had the resources to do it on our own, I absolutely would do it on our own."
In their 2010 Race applications, Georgia and Hawaii got the highest scores for how they would improve teacher and leader effectiveness.
But four years later, even ardent supporters of Georgia's participation in Race to the Top acknowledge that this piece of the state's grant has been a major headache. It also was the primary reason Georgia lost access, at least temporarily, to a portion of its federal grant money.
The state first pictured a sweeping evaluation system that would include a robust student-growth component, coupled with an elaborate merit-pay plan. The system was to be developed and piloted during the 2010-11 school year.
Georgia received a $400 million Race to the Top grant in the federal contest. Here are some major milestones on the state’s journey.
Fall 2009: Georgia received a $400 million Race to the Top grant in the federal contest. Here are some major milestones on the state’s journey.
Spring 2010: Georgia narrowly loses out to Tennessee and Delaware in the contest’s first round. Kathy Cox, the state education chief, a Republican who helped inform Georgia’s strong application, leaves to head up a new nonprofit organization in Washington. Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, appoints Brad Bryant, also a Republican, to replace her.
August 2010: Georgia and eight other states, plus the District of Columbia, win grants in the second round of the Race to the Top competition.
November 2010: Nathan Deal, a Republican, is elected to replace Gov. Perdue, who helped champion Georgia’s participation in Race to the Top. John Barge, a Republican and a former principal and curriculum director, who was initially skeptical of the program, is elected state chief.
July 2011: Nathan Deal, a Republican, is elected to replace Gov. Perdue, who helped champion Georgia’s participation in Race to the Top. John Barge, a Republican and a former principal and curriculum director, who was initially skeptical of the program, is elected state chief.
January 2012: The U.S. Education Department cites turnover in key state leadership positions and the slow pace of hiring Race to the Top staff in its first annual report on Georgia’s Race to the Top progress.
July 2012: The state has the $33 million portion of its grant aimed at teacher and leader effectiveness put on “high-risk status” by federal officials.
February 2013: The Education Department continues to flag the management of Georgia’s teacher and leader-evaluation system as an area of concern in the second annual report on the state’s progress.
July 2013: Georgia drops out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of the consortia developing tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The Education Department later announces it will move to withhold $10 million of Georgia’s grant aimed at performance pay and bonuses for educators at schools that have success in closing the achievement gap.
March 2014: The U.S. Education Department’s third annual progress report on Race to the Top criticizes Georgia for providing insufficient support to districts making the transition to its new teacher-evaluation system.
Spring 2014: Georgia taps McGraw-Hill Education to develop its new assessments aligned to the common core.
The first change came about a year after Georgia was awarded its grant, when it got the green light to shift the timetable for piloting the new system, in part because the new governor and new state schools superintendent had come on board.
The slow pace frustrated some district officials, including Glenn Pethel, the executive director of leadership development for Gwinnett County schools.
"It was like saying, 'We're going to launch a rocket, but we're going to take two years into a four-year process to light the rocket,' " he said. "There was so just much inactivity for so long," although the system now seems to be more on track, he said.
As the evaluation system began to take shape, Georgia, like many other Race to the Top states, asked for a series of revisions to its plan.
The federal Education Department expressed concerns about the overall management of the teacher and leader effectiveness portion of the state's Race to the Top implementation. In the summer of 2012, the Obama administration put $33 million of the state's $400 million grant on high-risk status, meaning the money could be revoked at some point.
The Peach State continued to experience setbacks. A test run of the evaluation system in pilot districts found that the vast majority of teachers continued to earn a satisfactory or effective rating on observations. And districts struggled to create so-called student learning objectives. They help gauge how teachers in untested subjects, such as physical education, have been able to move the needle on student achievement.
Given those and other difficulties, the state sought an amendment to its Race to the Top plan, saying it no longer planned to implement systemic merit pay during the grant period. Instead, it would offer one-time bonuses to educators.
In response, the Education Department decided to hold back nearly$10 million slated for teacher performance. It could be returned to Georgia if the state is able to show the federal government that its teacher-evaluation work is back on track.
The state still plans to allocate the extra pay next school year for teachers in Race to the Top districts, even as the evaluation system goes statewide.
Teacher evaluation hasn't been the only trouble spot. Last July, Georgia became the first Race to the Top state to back out of one of two federally funded consortia working on tests that align with the Common Core State Standards, citing the high price tag of exams created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career. Participation in PARCC was a major theme of Georgia's Race to the Top application. (The state has since chosen McGraw-Hill Education as its vendor for a new common-core-aligned tested test .)
The Education Department criticized Georgia for dropping the PARCC test, but has never threatened to withhold the portion of Georgia's grant aimed at bolstering standards and assessments.
District officials are anxious to see what the still-under development tests will ultimately look like. State leaders "are expressing a lot of confidence" in development of the new assessment, said Mr. Pethel, the Gwinnett County leadership-development official said. "I hope their confidence is well grounded."
Higher, uniform standards were a key goal of the Race to the Top competition, and no state won without adopting the common-core standards. But opposition to the standards in Georgia doesn't seem likely to go away anytime soon.
Earlier this year, the Georgia Senate approved a bill that took aim at the common standards, though it ultimately died in the House. And several of the candidates to replace Mr. Barge as state schools chief have made opposition to Race to the Top—and the common-core standards—major planks in their campaign platforms.
On the other hand, the Education Department has praised Georgia for providing instructional resources to help teachers implement the new standards.
And, thanks in large part to its Race to the Top grant, Georgia now has one of the best longitudinal-data systems in the country, allowing it to better track student outcomes, according to a federal education official.
District superintendents agree about those strengths.
"If we hadn't had the $20 million from Race to the Top, we wouldn't be nearly as far along on our professional development on standards and the common core," said Mr. Wilbanks, the Gwinnett County chief. Similarly, he said, when it comes to using student data to improve teacher instruction, "we are probably two or three years ahead of where we would have been if it hadn't been for Race to the Top."
Meanwhile, the state's evaluation system has been enacted by the legislature. Overall, losing a slice of the Race to the Top grant "has not changed our commitment to making sure we pay our best teachers more," said Susan Andrews, the state's deputy superintendent for Race to the Top implementation.
"Our vision is still the same. But circumstances have slowed down the work some," she said. "We knew from the beginning that we were looking at a decade of work that had been condensed into four years."
Vol. 33, Issue 33, Pages 1, 20-21Published in Print: June 4, 2014, as Georgia Battles to Beat Race to Top Head Winds