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Arne Duncan on Who's Winning the Race to the Top

As the Obama administration's signature education-improvement program comes to a close, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is calling out four states for leading the Race to the Top: Delaware, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

New progress reports released Wednesday from the U.S. Department of Education showcase just how far the 12 winners have come as they seek to deliver on the promises that won them, collectively, $4 billion. Yet even with billions of dollars and the political cover that came with winning a grant, states are still struggling mightily with one issue that's vexing most other states as well: how to improve teacher evaluations, and the profession as a whole.

The 2013-14 school year is, for the most part, the final year of implementation for the four-year, $4 billion contest that has become one of Obama administration's most important domestic policy initiatives. And it will certainly be a key piece of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's K-12 legacy.

"We are starting to see these investments we made three years ago enter the classroom," Duncan said in a press call Tuesday with reporters, noting that these education-improvement efforts are ongoing despite some "contention and chaos" in state legislatures. (Common core and new teacher evaluations, in particular, are hot-button issues.)

The 2010 contest asked states to devise their boldest plans to improve education in four areas: standards and assessments, data systems, teacher evaluations, and low-performing schools. Now, states leading in this effort, from the department's perspective, are Delaware, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Hawaii—once in danger of losing its grant over teacher-evaluation problems—was highlighted as a "rising star" by Duncan while Tennessee got props for being "most improved" in terms of boosting student achievement. Duncan praised North Carolina and Delaware for their teacher-improvement efforts.

And although the department says it's too early to definitively link student-achievement results to Race to the Top, federal officials do point out that the majority of winning states were in the top quartile in reading improvement on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Still, universally, all dozen winners are struggling the most with implementing big promises to overhaul their teaching professions. Mostly, states are struggling to implement new evaluation systems linked to student growth on test scores. But the problems go beyond just designing and putting new evaluations into practice.

New evaluation systems in Florida and Delaware, for example, resulted in very few meaningful differences in teacher ratings. In essence, nearly everyone in those states turned out to be an effective teacher.

Massachusetts is making only "limited progress" in establishing a new professional development system. Ohio has reported "minimal interest" among its districts in several initiatives designed to improve the equitable distribution of teachers, such as a new teacher exit survey to study attrition. And the District of Columbia. calculated some teacher ratings incorrectly.

Those with the biggest challenges overall, based on the reports, seem to be the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, and Maryland.

"No state is doing this perfectly. Every state is working hard. We do think certain states are further ahead than others," Duncan said.

Georgia is in the biggest trouble. The state is in the midst of forfeiting $9 million of its grant over unfulfilled teacher-evaluation promises, and is criticized in its progress report over "concerns about the overall strategic planning, evaluation, and project management for that system."

The District of Columbia is struggling with turning around its low-performing schools, while Maryland is experiencing significant delays implementing common-core-related programs, according to the reports.

Even though much of the work is done, some states still have lengthy to-do lists, including Florida, which has experienced big delays in implementing common-core-aligned formative and summative assessments. In addition, New York had only spent 35 percent of its $700 million in winnings as of September 2013, in part because of big delays launching a new data portal.

Because of implementation delays, the Education Department is in the process of approving "no-cost" extensions that allow states a fifth year to finish their work and spend their money. Eleven of the 12 winners, so far, have applied for this extra time. The exception: Hawaii.

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