Race to the Top Progress Report Raises Concerns

The federal Department of Education has released a report on its current “Race to the Top” grant winners, now in the third year of a four-year grant, with some troubling results. The Washington Post reports that District of Columbia, Maryland and Georgia are cited as not doing well with their use of grant money, although none have been ordered to give back federal dollars.

According to Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown, Arne Duncan said the report is mostly good, but with some concerns.

There are 12 states currently receiving federal money in the “Race to the Top” initiative to improve state education. The money must be used to improve teacher evaluations, improve data collection and use, turn around failing schools, and move toward implementing Common Core standards.

The new report criticized the District of Columbia for falling behind on deadlines for better use of data to track students’ progress over their school years. Perhaps most importantly, it cited the District’s unambitious approach to failing schools:

Federal officials said the District’s greatest failure was that it moved to improve only one of 13 low-performing schools that it had committed to turn around under the terms of the grant.

Georgia, by contrast, is considered “at high risk” in carrying out its planned goals and has not kept strictly to its plans and timetable for improving teacher evaluations. The plans were to use a combination of classroom observation, student growth, student surveys, and a reduction in student achievement gap, but the state has not been able to do everything as planned; the Department was also concerned that Georgia may be moving to make further changes before there has been enough time to see how earlier reforms have worked.

Maryland had proposed to improve their use of student data, to help assess the state’s instruction levels. The state was also supposed to develop a new teacher evaluation, but when the new program was tried, state officials did not collect and use its reports and data. Additionally, two of Maryland’s 24 counties are not participating at all. Montgomery and Frederick Counties did not want to use student scores as part of teacher evaluations. Montgomery County’s Superintendent has even called for a moratorium on standardized testing, arguing that it takes away energy from classroom teaching.

All of the troubled states point to problems with staff retention and hiring. Maryland was without a state superintendent of education for a year, and during that time, the programs drifted. The District of Columbia, too, complained of turnover in its administration which made it more difficult to keep up with their ambitious goals. They have not found it easy to hire qualified people to manage data analysis, a key component in all of these programs.

Maryland now has a Superintendent of Education as of July. She reports that she has tried to make up for lost time since her appointment:

In a statement, Lowery said Maryland is moving ahead. “We have made further strides since this report was completed,” she said, noting that test scores are starting to reflect the impact of the federal grant money. Of the 16 low-performing schools that Maryland is working to turn around, all have met state goals in math and 12 have met state reading goals, Lowery said.

Besides Maryland, Georgia and the District of Columbia, other grant winners and participants are Florida, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. Each state developed its own plan for complying with the federal goals outlined in the original proposal.