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Race to the Top: Did the $400 million federal grant pay off for Georgia?

Many posters on this blog have been skeptical of Race to the Top, the $400 million federal education grant won under Gov. Sonny Perdue’s leadership.

Georgia earned the grant by promising ambitious and far-reaching goals, including the reform of standards, assessments, data systems, teacher effectiveness systems, certification, educator preparation programs, professional learning and low achieving schools.

Critics contend the grant was too ambitious, citing the bumpy roll-out of new teacher evaluations and the challenges in rating the 70 percent of state teachers in courses without state exams.

For those teachers, Georgia is allowing districts to create alternative measures of student proficiency -- SLOs or student learning objectives.

One problem is the disparity in the expectations of SLOs; a Spanish teacher in one district could be judged on much more demanding standards than in a neighboring district.

T he Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education released a report today on the accomplishments of Race to the Top, and the 50-page report notes many benefits. The Georgia Department of Education asked the Partnership to conduct the review.

As Susan C. Andrews, DOE’s deputy superintendent for Race to the Top, explains: “The purpose of this report is to answer the question that has been asked consistently, ‘When it’s all over, what will we have to show for it? Those who have worked diligently to fulfill the vision of the authors of the grant and the obligations of the scope of work described in the grant desperately wanted to answer this question for you. We did not want to seem disingenuous by describing the results of our own work, so we engaged the support of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, an organization that has broad credibility with many stakeholders.”

Georgia Partnership President Steve Dolinger said, “Georgia is moving forward, but we have to take advantage of this momentum if we hope to make lasting improvements and remain competitive in the global marketplace. It is my belief because of this effort, Georgia is well positioned to undertake new and innovative ways to improve teaching and learning.”

Among the comments and findings in the report:

  • Some of the biggest challenges in implementing the RT3 grant were the sheer scale and scope of the project. Regarding scale, in some cases, Georgia was challenged to saturate the entire state (not just RT3 districts) with large-scale policy changes. Bringing even one major policy change to life can be a formidable task for an administration. Matters of scope compounded scale hurdles, as a confluence of reform pieces required statewide coordination at once. While most of the elements of reforms were already under development or being planned in some way when Georgia applied for the grant, developing and implementing all aspects of the grant at the same time proved to be a challenge.
  • Timing also emerged as a challenge. Leadership (both at the state and local level) has a significant impact in being able to develop and implement systematic change. When awarded in 2010, the RT3 grant supported the strong – and complex – vision that was already in progress under the leadership of then Gov. Sonny Perdue and State School Superintendent Kathy Cox. However, in 2010, Georgia elected a new governor – Nathan Deal – and a new state school superintendent – John Barge, neither was involved in creating this vision for Georgia. Due to these leadership changes at the state level, the bulk of the required implementation staff was not hired until late spring of 2011, despite year-one grant commitments beginning in 2010.
  • One of the key lessons learned during this process was the importance of communication. Many teachers and school and district leaders initially did not understand the relevance of the individual reforms or how they all fit together. Initial frustration was high especially in the classroom, where all individual projects came together. In response to districts’ frustrations, made clear by ongoing grant evaluation, the state changed its communication and training strategy and began to communicate the full vision whenever addressing a particular section
  • The development and implementation of the SLOs have proven to be one of the more challenging tasks undertaken within the RT3 scope of work. In general, educators at all levels are supportive of the SLOs and the goal of having growth measures for non-tested subjects. However, concern over their validity and reliability is widespread. There is also shared concern about how to achieve comparability of rigor and standards across districts.
  • District leaders have reported not fully understanding the approval process of the growth targets and confusion over the level of necessary rigor. Teachers’ concerns have centered on the SLO development process, feeling they do not have the right skills to be developing high-stakes assessments. Assessment professionals and psychometricians, people who are skilled in measurement, developed the statewide assessments for tested subjects with high levels of rigor by piloting test items and aligning with standards. With many teachers and instructional specialists developing their own SLOs, by contrast, consistency in how teachers of tested and non-tested subjects are to be evaluated is being questioned.
  • The creation of transparent, fair, and rigorous teacher and leader evaluation systems based on student growth models is a key accomplishment of Georgia’s RT3 grant. Based on these assessments, the state has done a considerable amount of work to strengthen the teacher and leader pipeline and focus on the equitable distribution of teachers across the state.
  • The implementation of the new effectiveness systems is on track but has faced some obstacles. While GaDOE has provided resources for local districts, the development and implementation of the student learning objectives – the SLOs – presents a substantial challenge. GaDOE has provided test banks, resource libraries, and administrative guidance to districts. But, considering the number of teachers and courses covered by SLOs, developing and implementing valid and reliable indicators with realistic – yet rigorous growth projections across all of those domains is daunting. This is especially important considering that personnel decisions will be based on the implementation of these indicators.
  • The overall capacity of the state and districts to implement the new systems is also a challenge. GaDOE has requested a no-cost extension for the RT3 grant, which will allow for additional personnel to train and support school districts. In order to ensure fidelity of training and implementation, GaDOE has increased the number of statewide trainers and has established collaborative partnerships with the RESAs.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.