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Race to Top Progress Report: Georgia, D.C., Maryland Flounder

At the midway point of the federal Race to the Top program, the list of accomplishments for the 11 winning states and the District of Columbia is getting longer, but the challenges are getting more formidable as the time frame gets shorter, according to a progress report issued by the U.S. Department of Education today.

The second annual progress report on the $4 billion Race to the Top program reveals that the majority of winners are struggling in two areas: implementing teacher- and principal-evaluation systems, and building and upgrading sophisticated data systems that will do everything from inform classroom lessons to identify students at risk of academic failure.

And department officials say they are most worried about three states whose second-year performance took a nose dive: Georgia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland.

Georgia and Maryland have both struggled with implementing their teacher-evaluation systems, while D.C.'s sluggish pace on school turnarounds means it has only worked with one persistently low-achieving school with its grant funds so far.

"This is really hard work and there will always be bumps in the road," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a call with reporters.

Interestingly, Hawaii is no longer on the department's naughty list, although it retains its "high-risk status" for its entire $75 million grant. Department officials said the state has made tremendous progress in the last year, even without an approved teachers' contract that is holding up the full implementation of its new teacher-evaluations system.

"Hawaii, which clearly had a rough start, is now making real progress," Duncan said.

These reports, which span fall 2011 to fall 2012, are significant because the federal department controls the grant purse strings and they reveal the department's perspective on how things are going with the Obama administration's signature education-redesign initiative. In 2010, after a furious competition among states, the department selected 12 winners who shared a $4 billion jackpot funded by the 2009 economic-stimulus package.

Last year, the Education Department called out Hawaii, New York, and Florida for their lack of progress during the grant kickoff year. Those states now seem to be in the middle of the pack for performance against their grant promises. And to show how quickly things can change, Maryland was lauded last year for progress, and criticized this year for lack of the same.

For this second year, states that made the department's honor roll list are Tennessee, North Carolina, and Rhode Island, which Duncan said have "overcome considerable challenges and stayed right on track." Rhode Island has made progress in its turnaround work, North Carolina in fully implementing its teacher-evaluation system, and Tennessee has an enviable network of STEM programs, department officials said.

Georgia and D.C. are perhaps in the biggest trouble right now, as department officials say they are encouraged with the new state leadership in Maryland, which won $250 million. (New state chief Lillian Lowery fully acknowledged the problems in an interview last month and said she has kicked her state's Race to the Top implementation into high gear.)

Part of Georgia's $400 million Race to the Top grant is on "high-risk status"—an official designation that can lead to losing grant funding—for weaknesses in implementing its teacher-evaluation system. Their second year performance, in particular, concerned the department.

For their part, Georgia officials said they're working to straighten things out with federal officials.

So far, said state education department spokesman Jon Rogers, the state has made "quality progress" in four of the five conditions federal officials placed on their grant —which included things like improving the overall management of the teacher-evaluation system. The final condition, which is using feedback and data to improve Georgia's educator evaluation systems, will come after teacher and leader evaluations are done this school year, Rogers said.

Duncan also singled out D.C. for its sluggish pace, especially in the area of school turnarounds, in which only one of 13 schools designated for support through Race to the Top is getting it.

D.C. officials said they have made progress in speeding up their turnaround efforts, including directing more resources to the effort and retooling it.

"While the District has made meaningful progress in the second year of Race to the Top and addressed the major challenges listed in the report, we must continue our efforts to improve our state's education system," said State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley Jones in a statement. The District won a $75 million grant.

Duncan also acknowledged that New York is having problems with teacher contracts in New York City, which has Race to the Top implications. He said he hopes that "resolves soon."

While teacher-evaluation problems plagued nine of the winning states in the second year, six states grappled with challenges involving technology upgrades.

Ohio and Maryland, for example, struggled with rolling out new instructional improvement systems, while Tennessee struggled with a new "Early Warning Data System" that will analyze student achievement data and flag problem spots for educators.

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