Education Funding

Reports Detail Race to Top Winners’ Challenges

By Michele McNeil — January 17, 2012 8 min read
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The 12 winners of the federal Race to the Top competition have experienced near-universal challenges in turning their sweeping, multifaceted proposals into reality, among them a limited state capacity to execute fast, dramatic change and deeply rooted teacher-evaluation systems that have proved hard to transform.

Reports unveiled last week by the U.S. Department of Education detail for the first time where the 11 states and the District of Columbia are hitting their targets, and where they’re falling short, as they carry out the plans that earned them grants under President Barack Obama’s high-profile $4 billion education initiative.

Even the states that are living up to their promises best—Maryland, Massachusetts, and Ohio, according to the department—have suffered setbacks as they struggle to find high-quality staff members and contractors to do the work, whether it’s overseeing implementation of common academic standards or constructing new data systems.

“It was very clear that this is going to be really demanding stuff,” said Paul Manna, an associate professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va. “When you submit a 1,000-page plan that says you’re going to do a bunch of things, you need a lot of capacity.”

Nearly all states have also struggled, in some way, to build or complete sophisticated data systems that not only can track students’ performance from early education through college, but also link the data to individual teachers and programs and make the information available and easily understood by educators and other stakeholders.

Called to Account

The U.S. Department of Education has issued new reports outlining accomplishments and challenges for the first year of the Race to the Top, grants in which 11 states and the District of Columbia shared a $4 billion prize.

Award: $120 million
Challenges: Was forced into a one-year delay in using its new teacher-evaluation system to inform personnel decisions; Delaware also had problems reconciling what the local districts perceive as their needs and commitments are under Race to the Top and what the state sees as those needs and commitments.
Accomplishments: Offered free access to the SAT for all 11th graders; hired 28 data coaches to work with participating districts; passed legislation requiring higher education institutions to share student-level data; created new teacher- and principal-certification routes.

District of Columbia
Award: $75 million
Challenges: Experienced significant challenges with staffing the grant. Multiple people have been responsible for administering it, each person for fewer than six months. No one who actually worked on the grant is helping administer it now for the District. Delays particularly hampered its school turnaround work.
Accomplishments: Common-core curriculum materials provided to schools; $5 million spent to upgrade charter schools’ data systems; and two teacher-residency programs expanded.

Award: $700 million
Challenges: Budgeted 98 percent of the state portion of the grant for contracts and has struggled to issue them in a timely manner. Many first-year activities have been delayed at least a year because of this.
Accomplishments: Adopted a value-added model and observation criteria for its new teacher-evaluation system; expanded science, technology, engineering, and math programs in its lowest-performing schools.

Award: $400 million
Challenges: Leadership turnover in six of the state’s largest school districts, hampering implementation of the grant. Although the state experienced typical timeline delays, it was further hindered by the fact that state officials did not update and push back those timelines when they submitted their application in the second round of grants. The timelines were the same as in the state’s losing round-one application.
Accomplishments: Expanded teacher pipeline and professional development through new contracts with outside providers such as Teach For America; awarded five grants to increase access to STEM education; opened two small, nontraditional schools geared toward high school students at risk of dropping out.

Award: $75 million
Challenges: Delayed for at least a year projects involving professional development and alternative certification of teachers and principals; failed to reach an agreement with its teachers’ union, stalling implementation of a new teacher-evaluation system and plans to recruit effective teachers in high-needs schools.
Accomplishments: Raised graduation standards; launched a new program to improve STEM learning for low-income, at-risk youths; passed legislation to create new pathways for teachers and reform teacher licensing.

Award: $250 million
Challenges: Recommendations for a statewide teacher-evaluation system, made by a state task force, were delayed six months.
Accomplishments: Held teacher academies to prepare for the rollout of new common-standards math and English/language arts curriculum frameworks; launched STEMnet to connect teachers and principals to STEM industry experts; expanded partnerships (such as with New Leaders) to extend teacher- and principal-recruitment efforts.

Award: $250 million
Challenges: Experienced trouble finding high-quality employees and vendors to do its data-system work.
Accomplishments: Created extensive common-core-standards resources that were distributed to 80,000 teachers; trained 500 educators for pre-Advanced Placement coursework; piloted a new evaluation system in low-performing schools and “early adopter” districts; created six early-college high schools in STEM subjects.

North Carolina
Award: $400 million
Challenges: Will itself implement a new teacher-corps program, rather than have a contractor implement it, a choice that will delay that program by a year. Also delayed are a new instructional improvement system and a program to expand virtual courses in math and science in low-performing schools.
Accomplishments: Created standards in subjects not covered by common core; launched a new two-year program to provide alternative certification for principals; established a network of three schools that will serve as models of good instruction and laboratories for new practices.

New York
Award: $700 million
Challenges: Struggling to get its 715 districts to implement teacher-evaluation plans via new labor contracts.
Accomplishments: Created a $40 million “innovation fund” to redesign and turnaround the lowest-performing schools; developed a new teacher-recruitment program to serve high-needs schools; created 200 “network teams” to help deliver resources and training to support the state’s education agenda.

Award: $400 million
Challenges: Rollout of the kindergarten-readiness assessment pilot delayed because of slow hiring of staff. The number of participating school districts dropped to 478 from 538, primarily because some districts were going to get small grants.
Accomplishments: Field-tested and started training on its new teacher- and principal-evaluation system; established a district competitive grant program to fund innovative practices; created a network of 22 rural districts to share best practices.

Rhode Island
Award: $75 million
Challenges: Faced hurdles in supporting its low-performing schools and in implementing a high-performing charter schools initiative.
Accomplishments: Trained teachers on common core; created a statewide system to provide teachers and principals access to student data; established a new teacher-induction program to provide one-on-one mentoring to first- and second-year teachers.

Award: $500 million
Challenges: Delays in filling key leadership positions, resulting in subsequent delays in timelines and problems providing capacity to support local districts.
Accomplishments: All participating districts to implement new teacher-evaluation systems this year; expanded teacher-residency and -mentoring programs; creation of a STEM network to connect business, K-12, and higher education.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

But there are bright spots, too, in the reports. States generally were praised for the progress they are making in implementing common-core standards at the classroom level. (A separate study released last week finds states overall lagging in their plans to implement the standards in their classrooms. “Few States Cite Full Plans to Carry Out Standards,” Jan. 18, 2012.) And they’re making significant headway in their plans to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, education.

“These 12 states created aggressive plans that set a high bar for reform,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement accompanying the release of the reports. “We are supporting states to help them achieve their goals. At the same time, we will hold them accountable for those commitments.”

Contracts Stalled

The Race to the Top grants, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in 2009, ranged from $75 million in the smallest states to $700 million in the largest—and are governed by specific promises and deadlines agreed to by the states themselves.

The federal Education Department singled out three states for falling far short of their first-year goals: Florida, Hawaii, and New York. All of them experienced big problems in finding people and companies to oversee and implement the work, or, in New York’s case, figuring out how to communicate with 715 participating districts—the most of any Race to the Top state.

But every state had trouble in that area, a task made worse, in part, by capacity issues in state departments of education that have suffered significant budget cuts in recent years.

In Maryland, slow hiring for data-system project managers led to costly delays in piloting a new curriculum-management system. D.C. had so much turnover in the position that oversees its Race to the Top plan that no one person served more than six months since the grant was won in 2010, according to the reports.

And in North Carolina, the federal Education Department says, projects and hiring were delayed because “in several of the Race to the Top initiatives, the state underestimated the time necessary to move from planning to implementation.”

Complicating matters, at least in five states, were high-level leadership changes. Florida, Georgia Hawaii, Ohio, and Tennessee now have either a different governor or chief state school officer—or both—since the grants were awarded in 2010.

Florida experienced some of the biggest administrative issues.

“In year one, Florida made a great deal of progress but also experienced some serious setbacks,” Mr. Duncan said in his statement last week. “As Florida moves further into year two, we will be looking to them to demonstrate unwavering commitment and continued collaboration to ensure that their work gets back on track.”

Those setbacks revolved almost exclusively around significant delays in issuing contracts—a big part of Florida’s implementation plan since 98 percent of the state’s share of its award is to be spent with outside vendors. The delays pushed many projects back by several months, and sometimes more than a year.

Florida officials, however, don’t characterize their setbacks as serious, and they say they have met new contracting deadlines.

Pam Stewart, the K-12 chancellor for the Florida education department, said in an interview she’s confident the state can still meet its ambitious goals by the time the four-year grant runs out—and points to the good work she says the state has accomplished so far, such as in implementing new teacher evaluations.

As far as the contracting process, “we did not execute everything in year one that we had hoped,” Ms. Stewart said. “It is a lengthy process; it makes it a good process.”

Ohio has faced many of the same challenges—a new governor and state schools chief, staffing woes within the state agency, nearly 500 participating districts, and a considerable number of contracts to issue—yet it is among the top-performing Race to the Top states, according to the federal officials.

“The secret to our success is that Race to the Top has become our entire framework for education reform. It has become the daily work of the [state] department,” said Michael Sawyers, the Ohio education department’s deputy superintendent. Other states that have struggled, he said, “are trying to maintain a dichotomy.”

And it didn’t hurt that Ohio lost in the first round and was able to revise its plan to make it more focused, more deliberate, and perhaps more manageable, Mr. Sawyers said. “Part of our success is that we failed the first time.”

Teacher Evaluations

Beyond inadequate capacity, the next biggest-stumbling block for nearly all states has been upending teacher-evaluation systems to factor in student growth, and eventually to use them to make personnel decisions, such as whether a teacher is granted tenure.

That’s what has landed Hawaii and New York in hot water. Secretary Duncan used the release of the reports to turn up the heat on New York, in particular. That state, which won $700 million, is embroiled in legal and district battles over how to carry out a 2010 law, enacted in the run-up to the Race to the Top, creating a new teacher-evaluation system.

“New York has a chance to be a national leader or a laggard, and we are only interested in supporting real courage and bold leadership,” Mr. Duncan said in the statement. “Backtracking on reform commitments could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars for improving New York schools.”

New York education chief John B. King Jr. acknowledged the state’s precarious position in an interview with Education Week earlier this month, when he said he was “unquestionably concerned” about the fate of the Race to the Top grant. In a statement after the reports were made public, Mr. King maintained, “We have to get this done, and we will.”

Teacher-evaluation problems have gotten Hawaii into the biggest trouble of all Race to the Top winners. Already, federal officials have put the state in “high risk” status and threatened to revoke the remaining $70 million of its $75 million Race to the Top grant.

But last week, when the progress reports came out, Mr. Duncan commended Hawaii for reaching a tentative agreement, likely sparked by the federal department’s threats, with its teachers’ union that resolves a long-running labor dispute.

Hawaii officials didn’t respond to requests for comment last week. But in a statement issued last week after the reports came out, Stephen Schatz, an assistant superintendent with the Hawaii education department, said, “This is very hard work, but we are up for the challenge.”

Many other states have seen teacher-evaluation setbacks as well, though not to the degree of Hawaii’s or New York’s.

Delaware had to postpone using its evaluation system to inform tenure decisions by a year. Maryland also had to push back its teacher-evaluation pilot by six months. And the District of Columbia did not meet its goal of getting all school district and charter school evaluation plans approved before the start of the 2011-12 school year.

New Hurdles Ahead

The job of putting Race to the Top plans into practice doesn’t get any easier for winners as they continue in this second year. While the first year was focused on planning, much more heavy lifting will be required across all areas as states reach the halfway point of the four-year grant period.

Georgia and Maryland must implement their pilot programs for teacher and principal evaluation. Massachusetts must establish a new performance-based licensing system for principals. North Carolina needs to figure out how it will incorporate student-growth measures into teacher evaluations and select a “value added” model for such evaluations. Tennessee is working to launch an early-warning data system that will allow educators at the classroom level to examine students’ attendance, achievement, behavior, and course-completion information.

Asking states to transform their deeply entrenched K-12 systems in four years may have been a tall order, Mr. Manna, of the College of William and Mary, said.

“Maybe four years is not too long to do some things, but to do everything—especially given the baseline levels of capacity for the [state education] agencies?” Mr. Manna said. “It’s not just technical work, but political work. Ultimately, school districts have to make this stuff work.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Recipients of RTT Aid Struggling


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