Education Funding

Race to Top Winners Under Gun to Keep Commitments

By Michele McNeil — January 09, 2012 8 min read
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By threatening to revoke Hawaii’s $75 million Race to the Top award for failing to make “adequate progress” on key milestones of its education reform plan, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is putting other grant winners on notice that they must live up to their grant promises or risk losing millions of dollars in federal money.

The restrictions on Hawaii’s grant money for “unsatisfactory performance” amount to a warning shot as the U.S. Department of Education seeks to hold 11 states and the District of Columbia accountable while allowing them some wiggle room in making dramatic education changes over the four-year grant period.

As early as this week, the department is expected to issue formal progress reports that will detail just what has—and has not—been accomplished by each winner in the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, President Obama’s signature education initiative.

Mr. Duncan said in a conference call with reporters last month that he was still “extraordinarily pleased” with the progress of Race to the Top grant recipients in general, while he stressed that Hawaii’s progress was “nowhere near” where it should be.

“I’m less concerned about time frames and more concerned about momentum,” he said.

In its Dec. 21 letter to Hawaii officials, the department said it was placing the state on “high-risk status,” limiting access to its remaining grant money, rejecting several requests for significant changes and delays in its Race to the Top plan, and planning an extensive on-site review early this year. And, in a more overarching statement that put the fate of Hawaii’s $75 million grant in question, the department said it was “concerned” that Hawaii couldn’t fulfill the commitments it made to win the grant.

While the federal Education Department in the past has issued warnings to states on other grants, those warnings have usually involved issues such as cash management, not “unsatisfactory performance.” Mr. Duncan termed the Hawaii assessment “honest,” rather than harsh.

For the department, the tough part of managing such programs is happening now, as it becomes time to hold states accountable for performance, said Vic Klatt, a principal at Penn Hill Group, a Washington-based government-relations and advocacy organization. The same challenge will plague the department when it comes time to enforce promises states are making to win newly offered waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Piece of the Pie

The U.S. Department of Education awarded $200 million last month to seven states that were finalists—but not winners—in the 2010 Race to the Top competition. States had to pick a piece of their original plan to implement and explain how it would improve education in the STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math, subjects.

Arizona plans to establish five regional education centers, support the transition to Common Core State Standards, and improve data systems to inform educational decisionmaking.

Colorado plans to transition to college- and career-ready standards, improve educator effectiveness by providing statewide training to implement its new teacher-evaluation system, and continue with STEM integration.

Illinois plans to create a group of “reform exemplars” among participating districts that will agree to meet a high bar for implementing a comprehensive set of reforms, build systems and processes to continue and sustain improved student outcomes for all participating school districts, and build state capacity to extend reforms statewide.

Kentucky plans to focus on its “one-stop shop” technology-support system for educators and to scale up the AdvanceKentucky project, which is aimed at engaging underserved and underrepresented student populations in advanced STEM courses.

Louisiana plans to implement a performance-management system statewide to measure teacher and leader effectiveness, increase professional-development resources available for STEM teachers, and develop and deliver professional-development modules aligned with the common core in mathematics, among other measures.

New Jersey plans to develop model curricula that will assist teachers and leaders in the transition to common assessments, launch its newly created teacher-evaluation system statewide and pilot a new evaluation system for principals, and enhance its charter school application-review and -renewal processes.

Pennsylvania plans to expand student and teacher access to quality courses and instructional resources to improve student achievement, particularly in STEM subjects, and refine and implement teacher-and principal-evaluation systems that incorporate student-performance results as a significant factors.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

“People will make all these grand promises between the two [initiatives],” said Mr. Klatt, a former education aide to Congressional Republicans. “It’s quite the dilemma for the department. I’m not sure there’s one state that’s met its [Race to the Top] commitments so far.”

Ambitious Plans

The 12 Race to the Top winners shared a prize funded by the 2009 federal economic-stimulus package after pitching what outside judges determined were the boldest plans for improving their respective K-12 systems. An additional seven states that were finalists, but not winners, in the original Race to the Top are sharing a smaller, $200 million prize that each will use to implement a morsel of its original plan. That money was provided by the fiscal year 2011 budget passed by Congress, and was awarded last month by the department.

For the original dozen Race to the Top winners, implementation has been plagued by delays and plan adjustments. And although formal progress reports aren’t out yet, the long list of amendments the department has already approved offers a glimpse of the challenges states are experiencing.

Delaware delayed, at least for a year, using its new teacher evaluations, which are based in part on student achievement, to trigger tenure decisions for teachers. The Education Department granted that delay in mid-2011 only after requiring additional reporting for the state to ensure it is on track, and after threatening to withhold $13.8 million if the state doesn’t meet its new timeline.

In November, the department approved a substantial list of delays for Florida, including more than yearlong delays in completing data-system projects, and several-months-long delays in various teacher-effectiveness plans.

And in New York state, revamping teacher evaluations has become a tangled mess even after state legislators passed a law in 2010—in hopes of winning a Race to the Top grant—that required 40 percent of a teacher’s rating be based on state and local student tests. Last August, the New York State United Teachers won a partial victory in a first-round court battle, now on appeal, to stop some regulations that would put the law into practice.

Complicating matters further, the New York Education Department last week decided to withhold federal School Improvement Grant money from 10 school districts after they failed to reach new collective bargaining agreements that incorporate student growth into teacher evaluations.

That development may signal trouble on the horizon for Race to the Top implementation as well. Districts taking part in the Race to the Top program will be expected to adopt similar teacher-evaluation systems once their existing contracts are up for renegotiation.

“I think they should be very worried” about jeopardizing the state’s Race to the Top funding, said Charles Barone, the director of federal policy for the Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee that’s been tracking Race to the Top implementation.

His group, along with several other education groups, sent a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week urging him to seek legislation to force districts and unions to agree on new teacher-evaluation plans by August or carry out a yet-to-be-determined “default” plan that the state education department would devise.

Although the letter takes unions to task as failing to negotiate in good faith, New York State United Teachers President Richard C. Iannuzzi said the state bears responsibility, too—for not training principals on how to better evaluate teachers, as just one example.

“We are not at loggerheads,” Mr. Iannuzzi said in an interview last week, referring to the union and state officials. “I think the challenge here is that we have what we believe is a state framework for teacher evaluations that’s a good framework. But to fill in the pieces of that framework requires a tremendous amount of work.”

New York Commissioner of Education John B. King, Jr. said the state has done its part, adding that some responsibility—including for efforts like training principals on new evaluations—is also shared by local school districts. And, he’s hopeful unions, districts, and the state can still make progress on implementing new teacher evaluations.

Still, he said, “We are concerned about being able to fulfill our state Race to the Top objectives.”

Even Gov. Cuomo, in his State of the State speech last week, admitted that the 2010 teacher-evaluation law used to win Race to the Top “didn’t work.”

Hawaii’s Troubles

Hawaii has experienced perhaps the biggest implementation problems. It failed to secure a crucial collective bargaining agreement with the state teachers’ union to implement its teacher-evaluation pilot program, which set off a chain reaction of other delays. Those delays have prompted education policy experts to publicly call for the federal Education Department to revoke Hawaii’s Race to the Top grant. (“Hawaii Scrambles to Deliver on Race to Top,” Dec. 14, 2011.)

Indeed, according to the department’s Dec. 21 letter, the state has asked to change all projects in its Race to the Top plan—usually by delaying their implementation.

In an interview last month after the state was placed in the “high risk” category, Hawaii Superintendent of Education Kathryn Matayoshi acknowledged delays and missed milestones. But she added that within the past few months—as senior staff members at the state education department have come on board to help implement the state’s plan—the trajectory and pace have improved. For instance, she said, state officials have begun informal meetings with the teachers’ union to begin to hash out Race to the Top issues. She said the state remains committed to its plan.

“We were hopeful that significant progress [within the past few months] would take us off the radar screen, but apparently that was not the case,” Ms. Matayoshi said. “We know that transformation work is hard. ... We want everyone now to step up to this challenge. We need to run a little faster and push a little harder.”

Federal education officials also let the state know how significant it is that officials in Hawaii failed to secure a collective bargaining agreement with the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

“It is our understanding that without a revised contract, the state cannot fully implement many initiatives in its approved Race to the Top plans,” the federal letter said. From the federal Education Department’s perspective, the state doesn’t have the “proper authority"—either in law, regulation, or contract—to even carry out its plan.

As a high-risk grantee, Hawaii will be able to get its remaining grant funds on a reimbursement basis only, essentially having to ask permission first. During an on-site review, Hawaii officials will be expected to provide “clear and compelling evidence that it has made substantial progress.” And the state must submit extensive monthly reports about that progress.

The “high risk” designation eventually could lead to a more severe consequence, which could involve forcing Hawaii to give its remaining award money back. To that end, the state has not spent most of its award—only $3.8 million of the $75 million had been drawn down as of Dec. 31. The money would be returned to the U.S. Treasury, federal education officials said.

Revoking a grant is a rare occurrence for the Education Department, but it’s been done before, most recently when federal officials forced California to give back a $6 million data-systems grant.

“They are in danger of losing their resources,” Mr. Duncan said last month. “This hasn’t been a great year for Hawaii.”

Staff writer Christina Samuels contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Promises Come Home to Roost


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