Education Funding

Race to Top Reports Detail Winners’ Progress, Challenges

Teacher-evaluation puzzle proving difficult to crack
By Michele McNeil — March 19, 2014 5 min read
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As the Obama administration’s signature education improvement program moves toward its close, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is recognizing four states for leading the Race to the Top: Delaware, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

New progress reports released Wednesday from the U.S. Department of Education showcase just how far the 12 state-level winners have come as they seek to deliver on the promises that won them, collectively, $4 billion.

Yet even with billions of dollars and the political cover that came with winning a grant, Race to the Top states are still struggling mightily with an issue that’s vexing most other states as well: how to improve teacher evaluations and the profession as a whole.

The 2013-14 school year is, for the most part, the final year of implementation for the four-year program that has become one of the Obama administration’s most important domestic policy initiatives. And the program will certainly be a key piece of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s K-12 legacy.

A ‘Rising Star’

“Teacher evaluations were arguably the most important and far-reaching policy change to come out of [Race to the Top] and states are having serious trouble delivering,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at the consulting firm Bellwether Education Partners who has been studying Race to the Top implementation. “If this doesn’t work out, it will hurt the long-term legacy of RTTT—it’ll be another sign that the feds can get states and districts to do things but they can’t make them do it well.”

Race to the Top Grant Winners

Delaware
AWARD: $120 million

District of Columbia
AWARD: $75 million

Florida
AWARD: $700 million

Georgia
AWARD: $400 million

Hawaii
AWARD: $75 million

Maryland
AWARD: $250 million

Massachusetts
AWARD: $250 million

New York
AWARD: $700 million

North Carolina
AWARD: $400 million

Ohio
AWARD: $400 million

Rhode Island
AWARD: $75 million

Tennessee
AWARD: $500 million

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

The 2010 grant contest asked states to devise their boldest plans to improve education in four areas: standards and assessments, data systems, teacher evaluations, and low-performing schools.

Based on this third round of annual progress reports, Hawaii—once in danger of losing its grant over teacher-evaluation problems—was highlighted by federal officials as a “rising star” while Tennessee got praise for being “most improved” in terms of boosting student achievement. Mr. Duncan praised North Carolina and Delaware for their teacher-improvement efforts.

And although the department says it’s too early to definitively link student-achievement results to Race to the Top, federal officials point out that the majority of winning states were in the top quartile in reading improvement on the most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“We are starting to see these investments we made three years ago enter the classroom,” Mr. Duncan told reporters on a March 18 call in advance of the reports’ release, noting that these improvement efforts are ongoing despite some “contention and chaos” in state legislatures. (The Common Core State Standards and new teacher evaluations, in particular, are hot-button issues.)

Implementation Struggles

All winners are struggling to implement big promises to overhaul the teaching profession in their states. Mostly, they are struggling to implement new evaluation systems linked to student growth on test scores. But the problems go beyond just designing and putting new evaluations into practice.

New evaluation systems in Florida and Delaware, for example, resulted in very few meaningful differences in teacher ratings. In essence, nearly every teacher in those states was deemed effective based on those evaluations.

Massachusetts is making only “limited progress” in establishing a new professional-development system, the department found. Ohio has reported “minimal interest” among its districts in several initiatives designed to improve the equitable distribution of teachers, such as a new exit survey to study teacher attrition. And the District of Columbia, which was included in the state-level competition, was found to have calculated some teacher ratings incorrectly.

Winners with the biggest challenges overall, based on the reports, seem to be the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, and Maryland.

Georgia is in the deepest trouble. The state is in the midst of forfeiting $9 million of its grant over unfulfilled teacher-evaluation promises, and is criticized in its progress report over “concerns about the overall strategic planning, evaluation, and project management for that system.”

The District of Columbia also is struggling with turning around its low-performing schools, while Maryland is experiencing significant delays implementing common-core-related programs, according to the reports.

For their part, Maryland officials say they are already taking steps to correct problems revealed in the reports. The state has, for example, contracted with a vendor to begin developing resources for a new instructional toolkit, which will provide an online collection of standards-aligned materials for educators.

Long ‘To-Do’ Lists

Even though much of the Race to the Top work is supposed to be completed, some states still have lengthy to-do lists, including Florida, which has experienced big delays in implementing common-core-aligned interim and final assessments. In addition, New York had only spent 35 percent of its $700 million in winnings as of September 2013, in part because of big delays launching a new data portal.

“No state is doing this perfectly. Every state is working hard. We do think certain states are further ahead than others,” Mr. Duncan said.

Because of implementation delays, the Education Department is in the process of approving “no-cost” extensions that allow states a fifth year to finish their work and spend their money. Eleven of the 12 winners, so far, have applied for this extra time. The exception is Hawaii, the state that caught the education policy world by surprise when it won the grant in the first place.

With a nod to the future, Hawaii Superintendent of Education Kathryn Matayoshi said last week: “As we head into the final months of the grant, we continue our commitment to put into place systems and practices that will keep our students successful in college, careers and community long after the grant ends. Race to the Top was an important step in the transformation of our public school system and we are staying the course.”

Race to the Top Grant Winners

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2014 edition of Education Week

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