Giant grant hasn’t spurred giant improvements in Georgia education

Four years after Georgia began receiving $400 million in Race to the Top grant money from the U.S. Department of Education, it has not fully met any of the half-dozen goals it laid out in a 200-page grant application, a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.

While progress has been made — test scores and graduation rates are up — those gains can’t be tied directly and solely to receipt of grant money.

State officials and other educators say massive initiatives like Race to the Top take years to show gains.

“You really won’t be able to tell if the funding has been beneficial,” said Ramon Reeves, an Atlanta Public Schools science teacher and president of the Atlanta Association of Educators. “With education, things are long-term. Initiatives take time.”

When Georgia applied for Race to the Top money, it promised to:

• increase its high school graduation rate and college enrollment and success and decrease the dropout rates

• strengthen teacher quality, recruitment and retention

• improve workforce readiness skills

• develop education leaders

• improve SAT, ACT and achievement scores

• implement policies to ensure academic and financial accountability.

Race to the Top recipients in general are not meeting their goals, according to a September 2013 study by Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, a research and policy campaign group that focuses on the impact of poverty on education.

“Many are experiencing substantial setbacks due to unrealistic promises and unexpected challenges,” it said.

In Georgia, the sheer volume of change in a three-year time frame has been challenging. The state has gone to a new set of academic standards called Common Core, which has run into political opposition. It is replacing one standardized test, and is starting a new system to evaluate teachers and principals.

As Georgia works through the kinks of that evaluation system, Georgia Superintendent John Barge announced he is seeking the U.S. Department of Education’s permission to delay full implementation of it.

“The issue I continue to hear is that the timeline for full implementation of the reform efforts has converged and that you are concerned that rushing these initiatives may have a detrimental effect on the quality of the final implementation,” Barge wrote in an Aug. 29 letter to school superintendents.

During a recent trip to Georgia, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the state’s progress with Race to the Top. “I don’t think any of us are satisfied, complacent,” he said. “But absolutely going in the right direction and again very, very proud of the hard work of educators here.”

Some Race to the Top critics — including the retired Irwin County educator who could be the state’s next superintendent — remain skeptical.

Republican Richard L. Woods wrote in a July policy essay for The AJC, “We knew that this would lock us into harmful policies that were developed without crucial input from Georgia’s teachers and parents. A striking example is the Common Core Standards. When combined with the arbitrary deadlines and unfunded mandates that came with these federal dollars, it is clear that the long-term interest of our students was overridden by the short-term infusion of additional dollars during an economic recession.”

State officials strongly disagree, arguing that the grant helped pay for initiatives they couldn’t afford.

Race to the Top in Georgia is like a massive oak tree whose root system extends to programs in school districts and universities across the state. Through June, the state has claimed $273 million of the $400 million set aside for it. Georgia has until June 30, 2015, to claim the rest.

Graduation rates

Last year, Georgia’s four-year graduate rate was 71.5 percent, an increase of 4 percentage points since 2011.

Some districts used grant money to pay academic and graduation coaches. But Georgia’s graduation rate was improving before it began receiving grant money.

The high school dropout rate has largely remained flat, and college enrollment rose in the years before Georgia got Race to the Top money but has fallen in recent years.

Teacher quality, numbers

The grant did not come close to plugging the massive drain of teachers the Great Recession caused. There were about 7,200 fewer teachers in Georgia last school year than in the 2009-2010 school year, before Georgia began to receive Race to the Top funds. Meanwhile, enrollment rose by more than 91,000.

Georgia has not followed through on a promise to establish a merit pay system for teachers, arguing that the fairness and reliability of its new teacher evaluation system needs to be measured first. As a result, the the U.S. Department of Education has refused to release a $10 million chunk of money.

“It’s not like we’re sitting here doing nothing on merit pay. We’ve done a lot of things to move toward merit pay, but we aren’t going to be able to get there within the time frame of the grant,” said Andrews, the Georgia deputy superintendent.

Grant money paid for development of the new teacher and principal evaluation system, which uses student performance and growth to calculate success. The old system was largely based on a supervisor’s observation. Educators have praised the new system as an improvement, though they have concerns about the weight it gives to student testing data.

Georgia also aimed to churn out more teachers, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math. Using Race to the Top money, it contracted with the UTeach Institute, a national teacher-prep program, for projects at Columbus State University, the University of West Georgia and Southern Polytechnic State University, which each got a $1.4 million grant.

By 2020, UTeach expects 430 graduates ready to launch their teaching careers. So far, however, only two UTeach alums are in Georgia classrooms. And that projection of an additional 430 presumes that UTeach remains in Georgia after Race to the Top money is gone.

Grant funds also expanded the state’s data system which help provide targeted assistance. Since January 1, 2011, 131,491 educators have tapped into the system.

College, career readiness

Race to the Top money helped establish classes in science, technology, engineering and math, and paid for professional development courses for teachers of those classes.

Last year, for example, 779 students enrolled in a new Robotics and Engineering Design curriculum available in six school districts including Rockdale, Cherokee, Atlanta Public Schools and Gwinnett.

Jin Yi, in her third year of teaching at Lilburn Middle in Gwinnett County, moved from seventh-grade math to a robotics course. Recently, she oversaw her class of eighth-graders as they plotted the movements of a robot to see how they might design a better foot for the machine.

Yi said the class has helped her and her students. “You hear kids say this all the time, ‘When will I use this? How will this help me in the work world?’ It’s good for them to see that.

“For me, it was changing from an academic teacher to a connections teacher. It’s putting me in a different comfort zone. It’s definitely a challenge.”

How much such classes change things for young people remains to be seen, though. Andrews said employers will eventually let state officials know if the workplace readiness skills of Georgia’s students have improved.

School leadership

State and school district officials say one way to improve student performance is to improve the quality of principals.

Twenty-six school districts agreed to test programs paid for with Race to the Top money. Many also received money from the federal School Improvement Grant program, created to turn around persistently low-performing schools. Schools had to agree to embrace one of several ‘turnaround’ models, and those models included replacing the principal.

New principals, however, haven’t always meant improved academic performance. Thirty of the 40 schools considered the state’s lowest achieving when Georgia began receiving grant funds remain on that list.

McNair High in DeKalb County is still one of the state’s lowest-achieving schools. New principal Loukisha Walker said Race to the Top money has helped lay a foundation for future success, she says.

Teacher morale was low. That’s beginning to change, Walker said. Race to the Top paid for math coaches and professional development.

The school has seen some improvements in American literature, economics and coordinate algebra test scores. Walker said teacher and student attendance is improving and there has been a “culture shift.”

Rachel Ziegler, a regional superintendent who oversees the group of DeKalb schools that includes McNair, said: “Race to the Top really was a start. It gave us the opportunity to put into place programs that are making a difference.”

Educators say it’s unrealistic to expect fast, dramatic improvement at long-struggling schools. That view was captured in a 2012 Race to the Top evaluation prepared by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

“Many interviewees believed that dramatic school turnaround could not occur in just three years,” the report states. “They believed that if the turnaround time was lengthened to between five and seven years, it would allow a cohort of students to matriculate through a school. As one school improvement specialist stated about progress at his school, ‘Right now, it’s in the jello and its firm, but it’s not concrete yet … It is a different culture, but it is still fragile. They have to be allowed to hang onto the components they have worked to put together.’”

Test scores

It’s not clear if Race to the Top can be credited with boosting test scores. They are up in some areas, but not dramatically.

The state’s composite ACT score of 20.7 in 2013 was unchanged from the year before and a tenth of a point higher than it was in 2011, even as the number of students taking the ACT has risen. Usually, more students taking a standardized test lowers the overall average.

More Georgia students take the SAT than the ACT. Georgia’s most recent SAT scores dropped seven points from last year, to 1445, as participation nudged up a bit to 77 percent.

Academic accountability

Grant money helped create webinars and tutorials to get teachers up to speed on the Common Core nationwide academic standards.

A new, harder-to-pass standardized test and classes pegged to Common Core are tougher. Those standards remains controversial, but many teachers say they understand them and feel prepared to teach classes pegged to them. That understanding, Andrews said, may be the biggest accomplishment of Race to the Top.

But she and others argue that for continued improvement, Georgia will have to pick up where the federal government leaves off.

“Educational improvements take time. There is no silver bullet or we would have done it already. Just like yesterday was the best day to plant a tree. You have to begin the work,” Andrews said.

Through June, Georgia had claimed $273 million of the $400 million it is eligible to receive through the federal Race to the Top grant program. The state has spent this money in a variety of areas, including:

Standards and assessments: $25.1 million

Data systems to improve instruction: $37 million

Getting better teachers and principals: $26.3 million

Turning around the lowest achieving schools: $24.8 million

Grants to expand teacher recruitment and science, technology, engineering and math learning: $22.4 million

Allocations to districts: $137.3 million

By Wayne Washington – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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