In one English classroom here, Delcastle Technical High School teacher Nicole Irani experimented over the past few weeks with open- and closed-book quizzes, closely monitoring how her students performed on one type of test compared with another.
In a different English classroom, her colleague David Pody watched over the span of a semester as his students did far better on more complicated, open-ended test questions than the cut-and-dried variety.
Later, during a 45-minute common professional-development time for teachers, data coach Brenda Dorrell plumbed the experiences of the school’s English teachers, who are part of a pilot program financed by the federal Race to the Top program that seeks to inject data into the conversations, culture, and classrooms across Delaware.
The Delcastle High teachers are on the front lines of a push to deliver on promises that last year won Delaware, 10 other states, and the District of Columbia shares of the Race to the Top pie, the $4 billion competition that is driving much of the Obama administration’s education agenda.
Here in Delaware, officials are more than a quarter of the way into their four-year effort to bring to life a 235-page plan funded with $119 million in Race to the Top money, part of the economic-stimulus package Congress passed in 2009. It’s a fraction of total education funding even in this small state, which spends about $1 billion each year on K-12.
The state’s Race to the Top to-do list is long, but Delaware officials are methodically starting to check off some initiatives. The data-coaching program, like the one at Delcastle High, has been launched. This summer, development coaches will work with school administrators on how to better evaluate teachers.
Big things are still ahead. Delaware is just beginning its “partnership zone” program, in which 10 of the lowest-performing schools will be identified to work with the state and with communities to devise turnaround strategies. The state also is hammering out final plans to ensure that, beginning next school year, teachers are evaluated in part on student growth on tests.
But speed bumps have emerged. Timelines have slipped as the state works to find the best people and companies to work on Race to the Top projects. And the state has tangled with its largest school district over implementing the reform plan.
“It’s very difficult work,” Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, said in an interview. “We were on a path to reform already ... and already worked on a number of these ideas. But this is allowing us to significantly accelerate our work.”
Like all other Race to the Top winners, Delaware focused its successful application on the four education improvement priorities set by federal policymakers: improved data systems, standards and assessments, low-performing schools, and teacher and principal effectiveness.
The state’s goals? Boost college enrollment to 70 percent, from 59 percent, by 2013-14. Cut in half the racial- and income-achievement gaps that persist on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Raise proficiency on NAEP in reading and mathematics for 4th and 8th graders by at least 19 percentage points.
To get there, the state has pitched a series of proposals that include requiring the SAT college-entrance exam for all students, and creating a new statewide council to coordinate initiatives in science, technology, engineering, and math, the stem subjects.
Nearly a year after the U.S. department of Education awarded some $4 billion in Race to the Top grants, the 12 winners have most of the money still in the bank. they have three more years to spend it.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education
The biggest task still to complete: figuring out how to appropriately factor student academic growth into teacher evaluations, which will become a new way of life for Delaware’s teachers next school year. That’s a central tenet component of the promised improvements the state used to win a Race to the Top grant.
Student growth—or “component five,” as those in Delaware call it—is the fifth, final, and most important part of an evaluation system that takes into account other factors, such as a principal’s assessment of a teacher’s instruction and the classroom environment, and a teacher’s professional responsibilities (such as leadership roles taken).
What’s left to be determined is the standard for student growth, and that’s being worked out at the state department of education.
Not everyone is convinced implementation will go smoothly.
“It’s so complicated,” said Steven H. Godowsky, the superintendent of the 3,900-student New Castle County Vocational Technical District, one of three countywide career and technical districts in the state. “Test scores can be very narrow. It’s hard to determine the effect of one teacher.”
And the uncertainty has led to some trepidation among teachers, said Susan Bunting, the superintendent of the 8,800-student Indian River district.
“There’s a bit of the unknown, and people are getting apprehensive because it’s new and it’s different,” she said. “But we’re trying to put it all in perspective. We’re not going to fire all of our teachers.”
In Delaware, the work of data coaches showcases the potential of the Race to the Top innovations.
“It’s a sophisticated approach to decisionmaking,” said Delcastle High’s principal, Joseph Jones. “You can break down a class of 25 students into an area in which you can focus.”
For the six English teachers who gathered earlier this month for their coaching session at Delcastle High, working with data doesn’t just mean working with standardized-test scores.
Mr. Pody talked about the difference between two assignments he recently gave—one that asked students short-answer, basic questions about a reading, and another that asked them questions that required more sophisticated answers.
“By asking them to look for words that show a change in tone between two characters, they find that perfectly,” he told the other teachers. “My kids do better when assignments require more intelligence.”
The pilot program will expand statewide next school year, when 29 data coaches, hired by the state’s contractor, the New York City-based Wireless Generation, will go into approximately 200 schools and work with teachers during common, weekly 90-minute planning sessions. (The chief executive officer of Wireless Generation, Larry Berger, is a trustee of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.)
“The early success we’ve seen with the data coaching is the acceptance level and the common language among teachers, which is key to making this thing stick,” said Donna Mitchell, the deputy officer of professional development for the Delaware education department’s teacher-leader-effectiveness unit.
But even something as seemingly simple as getting teachers together for 90 minutes each week to talk about using data to improve instruction is a challenge.
“There’s a lot of pushback, and lots of issues around planning time, and how to make that work schedule-wise,” said Mr. Godowsky of the New Castle County Vocational Technical District. “Having teachers work together collaboratively to look at data, to look at kids, to talk about best practices is a challenge, but it’s doable. That’s an aspect of Race to the Top that can have dramatic results.”
His district has several Race to the Top-related programs up and running: a new online math course for high school seniors, a teacher-residency program for stem professionals to teach in the district’s two Title I high schools, and an expansion of the engineering program Project Lead the Way.
But Mr. Godowsky says the most dramatic effects could be felt at Howard High School, which is getting $1.4 million in federal school-turnaround money to layer on top of Race to the Top improvements. That’s almost as much as the $1.6 million the entire district is getting from the Race to the Top. The school has a new principal, a new master schedule that emphasizes small learning communities, a new parent-engagement coordinator, and a “summer bridge” program to provide extra learning time for students.
In the Indian River district, which includes both wealthy beach communities along the Atlantic Ocean and neighborhoods where most students are poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized meals, the Race to the Top hasn’t brought dramatic change—yet. A new parent center opened last month that will give parents a place to get their questions answered, get quick-and-easy school and district information, and access computers to check up on the academic progress of their children. More instructional coaches are being sprinkled throughout the district.
But next school year, the district is starting a program to get more underrepresented students into Advanced Placement classes. Teachers’ weekly planning and professional-development time will become more structured, and will focus much more heavily on data.
“I think Race to the Top has given us some seed money to do things we’ve never done before,” said Ms. Bunting, the superintendent.
Even in Delaware, which has only 19 school systems and pledges of 100 percent participation from districts and teachers’ unions, the Race to the Top has hit a rough patch.
The state got into a very public squabble with the 17,000-student Christina school system, the state’s largest district, after the local school board voted to back away from a part of its turnaround plan for two low-performing schools by keeping 19 teachers who had originally been set for transfers. The state and the school board differ in their interpretations of just how significant that move would have been, but the state nonetheless threatened to withhold the district’s entire $11 million Race to the Top award unless the district went back to its original plan.
Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in,siding with the state and urging the school board to reconsider. Eventually, the board did.
“The unanimity ... that allowed Delaware to win that money is not the day-to-day reality,” said John Young, the president of the Christina school board and an outspoken critic of the Race to the Top. He said the power struggle between the district and the state over how to carry out the Race to the Top changes has been noticed by other school boards across the state.
“The state lost a significant amount of trust with school board members,” Mr. Young said.
The conflict over school turnarounds in Christina is probably just the beginning of a long road to fully implementing the Race to the Top plan, Gov. Markell said.
“It’s going to be an ongoing challenge. People are starting to understand that we meant it,” the governor said of the state’s aggressive reform plan. “There is an expectation of real change.”
Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2011 edition of Education Week as Delaware Pushes to Meet Race to Top Promises