Feds unhappy with Georgia teacher evaluation system

The federal government remains ticked off with Georgia for breaking its promise to tie teachers’ pay to the academic performance of their students, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Education.

In evaluating how Georgia is using its $400 million Race to the Top education improvement grant, the department praised the state for upticks in reading, math and English/language scores. The report underscored the wide range of tactics Georgia has used to enhance teacher training and to help low-performing schools. And the small increase in the state’s graduation rate was noted, too.

But Georgia’s refusal to implement the teacher evaluation system it promised when it was awarded the grant in 2010 was mentioned several times in the 24-page report.

“This change in scope to the state’s plan significantly decreases or eliminates reform in one of the education reform areas and results in the grantee’s failure to comply substantially with the terms related to this portion of its Race to the Top award,” the report states.

The federal government has begun the process of withholding $10 million in grant funds from Georgia as the state moves ahead with plans this fall to implement a different type of teacher evaluation system. The report does not mention any other sanction Georgia could face.

In fact, Georgia could still receive the $10 million if it adopts a teacher evaluation system the federal government determines to be in line with what the state initially promised.

The system Georgia is moving to this fall will tie teacher bonuses to student performance, but the state’s Race to the Top application promised a merit pay system that would use student performance to make permanent changes in teacher pay.

State Superintendent John Barge was not superintendent when Georgia applied for the Race to the Top grant. He and other education leaders in Georgia remain opposed to implementing a merit pay system, arguing that they want to make sure the effectiveness measures used in the evaluation process are fair and reliable before teacher pay is tied to student performance.

“It is critical that the metrics of the evaluation system be right before we connect performance to compensation,” said J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent for Gwinnett County Public Schools. “That is why GCPS has been involved with Race to the Top, working to help develop and implement a better evaluation program for educators. Our goal as a district is to build on this work and put in place a sustainable evaluation and reward system.”

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program was set up to help states make ambitious changes to improve academic performance and close the achievement gap between various groups of students. In Georgia, the $400 million grant — awarded in 2010 and paid out over the next four years — is shared by the state Department of Education and 26 local school districts that agreed to implement some of the changes the state promised in its grant application.

Wednesday’s report provides a broad overview of Georgia’s academic performance from the 2010-2011 school year to the 2012-2013 school year. Notably absent is specific data on the performance of the 26 districts participating in the program.

Instead, the report highlights statewide improvement in reading, math and English/language arts scores. It also points out that Georgia’s 2012 graduation rate of 69.7 percent is 2.3 percentage points higher than it was the year before.

Georgia had 40 schools in a special category for poor academic performance when the state won the Race to the Top grant, according to Jon Rogers, communications director for the Race to the Top program at the Georgia Department of Education. Today, that list is down to 30.

DeKalb Superintendent Michael Thurmond, whose district is participating in the grant program, said: “The grant’s impact on education outcomes is being studied. We are hopeful that achievement will improve as teacher and leader quality improves and as the curriculum is taught with fidelity.”

Susan Andrews, deputy superintendent of Race to the Top implementation at the Georgia Department of Education, said the report shows that the grant is helping the state make improvements.

“While educational reform work is never easy, we are pleased with the significant progress that our state has made as reflected in this report,” she said.

By Wayne Washington
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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