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Hawaii Gets Partway Out of Race to Top Doghouse

The U.S. Department of Education has removed part of Hawaii's $75 million Race to the Top grant from "high-risk status" after the state showed progress hitting milestones in two areas: standards and assessments, and data systems.

In a Feb. 9 letter to Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, federal officials said that Hawaii provided "clear and compelling evidence of substantial progress".

Meanwhile, Hawaii still keeps this "high-risk" scarlet letter for four other parts of its grant—teachers and leaders, low-performing schools, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and a general Race to the Top area called "state success factors." Federal officials are planning an April site visit to evaluate the state's progress again.

Last week's move by the federal department is mostly symbolic, but sends a strong message to those working on Race to the Top in Hawaii—and those monitoring implementation of these grants overall—that the Aloha State is on the right track. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last month, in fact, singled out Hawaii for making "real progress" in fulfilling its promises.

"This is a turning point for us as we continue our strategic transformation in our public schools," said Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi in a statement today. "The progress being made gives us great hope that federal officials will acknowledge the improvements made in the other areas of the grant."

On a practical level, "the removal of high risk in these areas means we are able to focus on the other assurance areas," said state assistant superintendent for strategic reform Stephen Schatz.

In 2011 the federal department put Hawaii's entire grant on high-risk status after it failed to reach a contract with its teachers' union to implement new teacher evaluations based in part on student growth. The state was struggling with many other parts of its plan as well as it struggled to turn ambitious promises into reality. Hawaii has made a lot of progress since then, although a teachers' contract remains elusive. Since part of its high-risk status remains, that means the state is still in danger of losing a portion of its winnings.

Of late, however, there are states in bigger trouble. Georgia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland, according to the federal Education Department's second year Race to the Top report card, are struggling the most. Georgia is the only other state on "high-risk status" (also for teacher-evaluation issues), although Maryland has gotten a stern warning letter.

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