Education Funding

Race to Top Winners Work to Balance Promises, Capacity

By Michele McNeil — March 29, 2011 8 min read
Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del, left, speaks with Delaware Secretary of Education Lillian Lowery outside of a science classroom at Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington, Del., on March 21 as the state celebrated the one-year anniversary of receiving more than $119 million in Race to the Top funds. Howard High one of the first four schools in Delaware to receive the funding.

Nearly a year after the first Race to the Top grants were awarded, the dozen winners in the federal competition for school reform aid are slowly starting to spend their money, ramp up the capacity within their own state education departments, and, in some cases, ratchet down expectations from plans that may have promised too much, too fast.

The U.S. Department of Education has approved changes to Race to the Top plans in six states and the District of Columbia, as winners seek to push ambitious project timelines back. The changes range from a delay in implementing Massachusetts’ tiered licensing system for principals to North Carolina’s plan to scale back a new teacher-retention bonus program in its low-performing schools.

Meeting fast-approaching deadlines, which states themselves set, is part of the challenge facing personnel- and budget-strapped state agencies. The Race to the Top is a small yet high-profile slice of some $100 billion in education aid contained in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Congress passed in 2009 to help jump-start the economy.

Although at least half of the $4 billion in Race to the Top funding goes to districts in each winning state, education departments keep the rest for state-level projects and administration, which effectively requires adding teams of staff to carry out the projects, hiring consultants to help oversee the work, and writing contracts to execute different parts of their plans. All told, state education departments plan to spend $1.2 billion on contracts and $225 million on state personnel to implement their plans, according to an Education Week review of each state’s Race to the Top budget.

See Also

To see how two Ohio districts, one with Race to the Top funding and one without, are working to improve achievement, read

With all of that money comes intense scrutiny from federal education officials—and the public—to make sure states deliver on their promises.

“It is a large-scale undertaking. But it’s not a burden. It’s just what we do now,” said Holly Edenfield, Florida’s Race to the Top coordinator.

State-Level Delays

A year ago, the Obama administration announced that Delaware and Tennessee had won the first round of the competition, which was designed to spur states to design bold reform measures that centered on improving data systems, teacher and principal effectiveness, low-performing schools, and academic standards. Five months later, nine states plus the District of Columbia won in the second round, claiming the rest of the prize money. (“Race to Top Winners Rejoice, Losers Parse Scores,” Aug. 24, 2010.)

So far, states have collectively spent only $43 million of the grant funds. And four winners haven’t spent a penny yet: the District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, and Rhode Island, according to the latest data from the federal Education Department.

States immediately got access to 12.5 percent of their money when the awards were announced. They get access to the rest when their scope-of-work plans are approved. The scope of work serves as a detailed implementation plan that turns a state’s Race to the Top application into reality.

Putting Federal Grant Money to Work

The 12 winners in the Race to the Top state education reform competition must send at least half their award money to participating districts. The states keep the remaining money for state-level projects and administration. States are spending most of their share to add staff and hire contractors.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCES: Education Week; U.S. Department of Education

Five states still have not had their plans approved: Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New York, and Rhode Island.

Georgia, as one example, needed more time because of the “leadership transition” in the state, according to a letter the federal department sent to Gov. Nathan Deal in early February. Gov. Deal and the state’s elected schools chief are both new to office since the state won a round-two grant.

Nothing major is holding up those states’ approvals, said Ann Whalen, the deputy director of the Education Department’s implementation and support unit. Instead, the department is working with those states to get more details on particular components and to clarify project timelines and budgets.

For states to live up to their end of the Race to the Top bargain, they must put their programs into effect by certain deadlines and make progress toward student-performance goals. States set their own goals and deadlines in their applications, and those targets are then closely monitored by federal officials.

It was the “front-loading of the work, getting the staff in place, adhering to our timelines, and navigating the workloads that was the most challenging,” Ms. Edenfield said. Florida, so far, is on track to meet its first-year goals.

But not all states are.

Massachusetts, for example, is pushing back its plan to adopt regulations for a tiered-principal-licensure and career-ladder system from the first year of the grant to the second year.

North Carolina says it needs more time and to devote more money—about $2.9 million more—to plan and implement a new “instructional improvement system” that aims to use technology and data to drive continuous academic improvement in the classroom. And the state wants to scale back a plan to make “every new teacher” in its low-performing schools eligible for retention bonuses, as its application originally said, turning it instead into a pilot program in which 181 teachers are eligible each year.

In Ohio, the state wants to slow down its effort to get districts to use principal-evaluation systems, to 10 percent of participating districts in this year (not 25 percent, as the application stated) and 40 percent in the second year (down from the original 50 percent).

“These were comprehensive plans that had states really pushing the envelope,” Ms. Whalen said. “This flurry of amendments is largely due to states’ syncing up their applications to their scopes of work.”

Moving Ahead

Even with delays, major work is under way in the Race to the Top states.

In Florida, district and state officials are working furiously toward a June 1 deadline to finish teacher-evaluation plans that will be based in part on students’ growth in achievement. The state also is negotiating a $20 million contract to pay for new charter schools in the feeder networks of the state’s persistently low-performing schools.

Also in the works for Florida are contracts to align a student-tutorial tool with academic standards under the Common Core State Standards Initiative, and another contract to bring virtual learning to gifted and talented students in the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. In all, the state will manage 48 contracts related to the Race to the Top, budgeted to be worth $350 million.

In this first year, Rhode Island is working on its teacher-evaluation model, which is being field-tested in two districts and one charter school. The state is also developing training programs for teachers and administrators that will accompany the common-core standards.

Delaware has launched a pilot program that will bring coaches to schools to meet with teachers and principals as they analyze student data and adjust instruction to individual students’ needs. Five coaches, hired through an outside contractor, started work this month. The state education department is also working with a vendor to hire development coaches for a two-year program, set to begin this summer, to help improve the quality of teacher-performance appraisals.

To get all the work done, each state is taking a different approach to managing the high-profile, multimillion-dollar grant program.

In Delaware, Race to the Top project management is housed in three units within the education department—separately focused on school turnarounds, teacher-leader effectiveness, and “delivery.” The state agency added 10 staff members, with the understanding that their jobs might not be there once the federal grant runs out.

It’s the “delivery” unit where the core project-management tasks reside: making sure districts and the state are doing what they are supposed to be doing, at the right time, and with good results.

But the delivery unit isn’t just making sure the trains run on time, said Dan Cruce, the deputy state education secretary.

“We’re trying to drive a qualitative conversation,” he said. “It’s about more than getting data coaches in a school building. That doesn’t change NAEP scores. We’re going after the ‘so what?’ question.”

In addition, the state department runs an “LEA support program” that provides intensive technical assistance to help Delaware’s local education agencies—districts—set their own goals and work toward meeting them.

Delaware, like other states, found that hitting fast-approaching deadlines became difficult, especially since state hiring and contracting laws can slow down progress. It took longer than anticipated, for example, for Delaware to find good candidates to be data coaches.

“We could have rushed and hit those deadlines,” Mr. Cruce said. “But we are extremely focused on quality.”

Some states are also looking to the outside for help with project management. New York is hiring a senior consultant who will oversee the state’s performance-management office and is contracting out four program-analyst positions, according to its plan.

Florida, which hired 18 people to help run its Race to the Top from within its state education department, is contracting with an outside project manager who will oversee the technical, day-to-day management of the project.

Rhode Island is planning to add 20 people to its education department, and is developing “EdStat,” a data-driven system to help drive decisionmaking within the department. The state is also hiring a vendor to help carry out Race to the Top initiatives.

“We are keenly focused on sustainability. It’s not for them to do it for us,” said Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah A. Gist, who said the contractor will help build structures and systems to train agency employees.

“The most important thing to ensure successful implementation,” she said, “was making sure we have a strong structure in place for project management and performance management so we are really tracking our progress.”

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 March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Winners Work to Balance Promises, Capacity

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