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Part of Georgia's Race to the Top Grant Put On High-Risk Status

UPDATED

Part of Georgia's $400 million Race to the Top grant is being put on high-risk status, the U.S. Department of Education told Gov. Nathan Deal in a letter dated July 2. The department is worried that the state, which has had a number of amendments to its plan in the tricky area of teacher evaluation, has strayed too far from the vision it originally outlined in its winning application.

The upshot? If Georgia is unable to address the department's concerns, it could lose roughly $33 million of its $400 million—the portion dedicated to implementing the state's teacher-evaluation plan. Why isn't the whole thing being put on high-risk status? Right now, Georgia has demonstrated sufficient progress on the rest of its plan, the department wrote.

Georgia isn't the first state to see its Race to the Top grant put on high-risk status because of tricky teacher-evaluation issues. Earlier this year, Hawaii came close to losing its grant, in part because its union hasn't yet embraced its teacher-evaluation plan. Hawaii was able to keep its grant, but it remains on high-risk status. And, unlike Georgia, Hawaii's entire grant was put on high-risk status because it was behind on other parts of its plan as well.

Also, plenty of other states have submitted amendments to their plans or are behind on their promises. Race to the Top, which offered states $4 billion for embracing certain reform priorities, is the Obama administration's signature K-12 initative.

Interestingly, peer reviewers gave Hawaii and Georgia the highest scores in the second phase of the Race to the Top program in the area of teacher evaluation.

At this time, the department isn't planning to put other Race to the Top states on high-risk status, said Ann Whalen, the director of policy and program implementation for the Implementation and Support Unit at the department.

So what are the department's concerns when it comes to Georgia's teacher-evaluation system? First off, the department is concerned about the strategy behind the teacher-evaluation component of the grant. Federal officials want more information about the quality of the tools the state is using for its educator evaluation pilot program, for example. And they want to know whether supports being given to districts can be scaled.

Also, Georgia has asked for a number of amendments to the teacher-evaluation component of its plan. When taken together, these could represent a big shift from the state's original vision, the department contends.

One amendment deals with Georgia's move to incorporate student surveys into the "qualitative measures" portion of its teacher-evaluation system, which includes observations and is worth 40 percent for teachers, and 30 percent for principals. Before the state can take that step, it must provide more specifics about how the surveys would work as a valid part of a teacher's evaluation, the department wrote.

And earlier this year, Georgia asked to rework implementation of the portion of its teacher-evaluation system dealing with closing the student achievement gap. In order to do that, the state was asked to detail other methods for calculating whether the achievement gap has narrowed, and come up with a proposal for implementing the achievement gap component in the 2012-13 school year. Georgia submitted that information last month, but it only "minimally" met the department's criteria. So the department is holding off on approving the achievment gap change.

What do Georgia's troubles mean for the future of Race to the Top, which has been under attack by Republicans in Congress? It's tough to say, but I'd expect Georgia to show up in a Government Accountability Office report, requested by U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee on states' implementation of the teacher quality portions of Race to the Top.

The teacher evaluation efforts under Race to the Top are "complex new work", Whalen said, and some states are still thinking it through. But there's been promising progress on teacher effectiveness in many Race to the Top states, including Delaware, Tennessee, and Rhode Island, she said. "Many states are improving every year," she added.

As for the Peach State, the Georgia team is deeply committed to Race to the Top, Whalen said. The Department will be offering technical assistance to the state in implementing its plan, she added. But the management challenges there "required pretty immediate and significant action" on the part of both the states and the federal government, she explained.

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