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Some Race to the Top 'Silver Medal' Winners Behind on Promises

Three of the four states that won smaller, second-round Race to the Top grants to improve K-12 education—Colorado, Kentucky, and Louisiana—seem to be generally sailing along on their plans, according to a series of reports released by the U.S. Department of Education Friday. But four other states—Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—have experienced more-significant delays and course-corrections, the department reported.

All seven states in what's formally known as Race to the Top Phase 3 have made some sort of adjustments to their plans, said Ann Whalen, the director of the Education Department's implementation and support unit, on a press call with reporters in advance of the reports' release.

But even though some have made more changes than others, all seven can point to successes. 

"No one has this 100 percent right," Whalen said, "but all are making significant progress."

Some background: In December of 2011, the Department awarded $200 million to seven states that narrowly missed winning a slice of the much bigger, $4 billion pie for the original version of the contest, financed in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus. (Can't keep all these various version of Race to the Top straight? Here's your roadmap.)

This "Silver Medal" round wound up rewarding states that many folks expected to be big winners in the initial Race to the Top contest, including reform darlings Colorado and Louisiana, and Kentucky, the first state to adopt Common Core State Standards. Other winners included Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

These consolation-prize grants were a lot smaller than the first round, ranging from $17 million for Colorado, Kentucky, and Louisiana to nearly $43 million for Illinois. (By contrast, the Race to the Top "Classic," or first-round, states got much larger sums, ranging from $75 million for the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Rhode Island to $700 million for New York.)

The second-round states were charged with picking just one or two aspects of their original Race to the Top plans and running with them. Nearly all of the states choose to focus some resources on improving standards and assessments and getting ready for the transition to the common core, and they are having varying degrees of success in that area.

For those keeping score at home, this is actually the second batch of reports on the program. (You can check out the Year 1 reports, which cover 2012, here.)

Here's a closer look at states' high points and challenges:

Arizona is using its grant, in part, to help smooth the transition to more rigorous standards. But, during the second year of the grant, the state saw some delays in getting its process for vetting instructional resources up and running. And Arizona has pushed-back its timeline for an electronic clearinghouse to help teachers share instructional resources. But it's been able to beef up regional centers aimed at providing professional development to teachers making the transition to common core.

Colorado is using its money, in part, to get ready for common core  and to bolster the transition to a new educator-evaluation system. The state has run into some problems when it comes to helping districts develop "multiple measures" for the student-growth part of its educator-evaluation system. (That's something many states around the country are wrestling with.)

But Colorado has also had a lot of successes, including creating a new data dashboard, providing $120,000 in grants to help bolster math and science education, and helping districts examine assessments to make sure that their measures of student growth are fair and reliable.

Illinois hit a snag finding a contractor to help districts develop tests to gauge student growth and improve classroom instruction. And procurement problems have also slowed the state down when it comes to getting mentoring programs for beginning teachers up and running. The Land of Lincoln is also behind the eight ball when it comes to helping teacher-prep programs train new educators who plan to work in needy schools on the common core.

But the state has been able to partner with seven community colleges to do a better job aligning high school STEM curriculum with college expectations.

• The first state to adopt common core, Kentucky, has used much of its grant to help districts get ready for the new standards and offer more rigorous instruction in general. That includes expanding access to Advanced Placement courses for underserved students and creating a bank of test items to help districts develop formative assessments aligned to the standards. The state is still trying to figure out how to use "qualitative data" (like educator feedback) to make its instructional support system work even better.

Louisiana has also had a lot of success so far in using its Race to the Top funds to get districts ready for common core. For instance, it's provided "tool boxes" to districts that include everything from sample assessment items to video instruction. New resources have come out monthly. But the state is falling short when it comes to access to AP courses. 

New Jersey has used part of its grant to provide supports to its lowest-performing schools, open new charter schools, and provide professional development on the common core standards. But the state is behind on a number of fronts, including launching a statewide instructional improvement system. And hiring delays meant New Jersey took longer than originally planned to develop a model curriculum in social studies, as well as model accommodations ("scaffolds" in edu-speak) for students with disabilities.  

Pennsylvania may be in the worst shape. It is using part of its grant to put in place a new educator-evaluation system and has made some progress on that. For instance, in the 2013-14 school year, all districts implemented some aspect of that system, including new rubrics for observations. But the Keystone State is also struggling with a host of problems, including when it comes to internal communication among Race to the Top staff and project managers. Pennsylvania is also behind on giving educators more access to student data, and it's not clear if the state has the ability to get feedback from districts on the quality of its resources. 

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