Delaware won the race. A windfall of federal Race to the Top Fund money—some $100 million—will soon begin flowing to turn its detailed proposal into concrete actions meant to improve public schooling across the small mid-Atlantic state.
“What’s really important is where we go from here,” Gov. Jack Markell said in a conference call with reporters last week following the announcement that his state was one of just two winners in the first round of the grant competition, financed with economic-stimulus money. “We’ve got a lot of hard work and tough decisions ahead of us as we make these reforms a reality. It won’t be easy.”
Delaware, which has about 126,800 public school students, ranked No. 1 among 41 applicants on the competition’s 500-point grading scale, earning a score of 454.6 points. The application received unanimous approval from the state teachers’ union and its local education agencies.
|Race to the Top: Round 1|
The state’s Race to the Top plan requires a major reworking of teacher evaluation, mandates aggressive interventions in the lowest-performing schools, and commits the state to hiring data coaches to work with teachers and development coaches to work with principals.
Step one, said Lillian M. Lowery, Delaware’s education secretary, is “focusing on the capacity to get all of this done.”
Doing that, she said, will entail setting up a project-management office in the state department of education to oversee the four main federal priorities of the Race to the Top—using data effectively, increasing teacher and leader effectiveness, improving academic standards and assessment, and turning around low-performing schools—and to work with school districts to execute the major strategies in those areas.
U.S. Department of Education officials are to meet this week with Delaware education officials to negotiate precise figures for Delaware’s Race to the Top budget—the state requested $107 million and is expected to get most, if not all, of that—and to offer guidance.
One of the biggest tasks will be defining exactly what student-achievement measures will be used in evaluating teachers.
How well students perform on state exams will be one piece, Ms. Lowery said, but how much of a teacher’s annual evaluation will be based on those test scores and other indicators of student performance must be hammered out between state officials and the statewide teachers’ union.
A new state law will allow teachers with tenure to be removed from their jobs if they are rated as “ineffective” for two to three consecutive years.
Paul Herdman, the president and chief executive of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, a major supporter of statewide school improvement efforts, said he’s optimistic that state officials and the Delaware State Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association, will be able to reach an agreement in fairly short order.
“I think the fact that [teachers] will be part of the conversation in defining what that growth will look like and that they will have a genuine voice in that conversation” made it palatable for the union to agree to the plan in the first place, Mr. Herdman said. He also said it bodes well for the two sides’ ability to come up with a vastly improved evaluation system.
Ms. Lowery said the state would move soon to hire 35 data coaches who, starting in the fall, will work with small cohorts of teachers to parse and understand student data and help the teachers adjust their instruction accordingly.
Race to the Top money will also be used to hire 15 “development” coaches to work with principals and to assign and keep the most effective teachers in the highest-need schools by offering retention bonuses of up to $10,000.
With new regulatory power, Ms. Lowery can order any of Delaware’s lowest-performing schools to participate in the state’s “partnership zone,” an initiative led by the Boston-based Mass Insight Education and Research Institute to overhaul chronically struggling campuses. Leaders in the affected school districts will be forced to choose one of four turnaround models outlined by the federal Education Department.
If a chosen turnaround model doesn’t deliver improved results within two years, the secretary can force the school to start over with a new approach.
A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Win a $100 Million Challenge for Delaware