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Is the Race to the Top A Race to the Bottom?

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When it was announced more than four years ago that Delaware was one of only two states in the country to win $119 million through the first round of the federal Race to the Top competition, there was a feeling of First State pride. It seemed as if everyone was beaming over a one-time cash infusion that would help make the state’s public education system “world class.”

But was winning Race to the Top money really a gift from above or just the latest in a line of failed reform attempts?

It depends on whom you ask.

Those running the Race, so to speak, predictably say that it’s too early to tell. They talk about the difficulties that come with a culture change—a change to the public education system that is quite involved. They note that some of the systems that were put in place through the Race have been up and running for only a couple of years.

They hold up success stories like that of Massachusetts as a model and caution that it takes at least 10 years for such a large-scale reform movement to take hold. They say that effort must be sustained and not scrapped after a few years for the next big thing. Race supporters will tell you that while it has required a lot of time and hard work, there are indications that Delaware is headed in the right direction.

 

ILLUSTRATION BY ERIC WESTBROOK

Critics say there’s been little change, that the Race is a flop. They point to national and state test scores that remain largely flat—the same with graduation rates and dropout rates. They will remind you that Delaware ranks among the top states in the country for per-student spending—Delaware Department of Education puts the figure at $12,421—but remains near the middle in student performance.

Others say Race to the Top has been driving a new set of controversial curriculum standards—the Common Core—that will lead to yet another new statewide student test, the third in five years. They are also wary of how the state will share and use information that is being collected about students—from test scores to their discipline records to God knows what.

While Race to the Top can be the most convoluted of topics, at least one thing about it is very clear—the spin from all sides is passionate and never-ending.
 

Race to the Flop?

Nearly four years after the state and its public school districts started drawing on Race to the Top funds, we ask whether Delaware’s Race has succeeded or failed.

But when can it fairly and reasonably be determined whether the program was a success in Delaware? And who is in a credible position to make such a statement? What measurements should be used? Did the Race create the kind of widespread reform and innovation that it intended to inspire? Did it move education forward or throw a monkey wrench into already occurring reform?

If you ask the leader of the state teachers union about Race to the Top, the answer is far from positive.

Frederika Jenner, president of the Delaware State Education Association—the union that represents 8,000 public school teachers in the state and about 12,000 employees total—says Race to the Top has added too much to teachers’ plates.

 

  Baltz Elementary School teacher Marissa Kursh Cohen works with her pre-kindergarten class. Red Clay Consolidated School District started its pre-k program with the help of Race to the Top funding.

One of the requirements of the Race helped activate the stickiest of wickets—a new component of an assessment that ties teachers’ performance evaluations to student achievement, namely how the students improve on a statewide assessment from the beginning of a school year to the end.

Jenner says a less-than-smooth implementation of that new component during the 2012-13 school year didn’t help already overburdened teachers. She says Race to the Top has added stress and helped create a widespread morale problem among the state’s educators.

How much of a factor could that play in the ultimate success or failure of Race to the Top?

“Some people will look upon this as a failure if student test scores don’t improve to a certain degree, or if a certain number of teachers aren’t fired, or if we don’t reduce the number of struggling schools,” Jenner says. “Speaking for our members, I think overall, they’re not going to see that Race to the Top has been a truly positive experience for them. It’s been very challenging for them.

“They’re very skeptical about the overall success of Race to the Top, from their own personal experience.”
 

The Race is On

In February 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The act provided $4.35 billion for Race to the Top—a competitive education grant intended to assist public school districts and charter schools in implementing statewide education reforms.

fter an involved and intense application process in which the state and its public school districts drew up strategic plans for how they would use the money, Delaware in July 2010 began receiving its $119,122,128 share. Half of the money was distributed to individual districts, in part according to the percentage of low-income students enrolled in each district, and half went to the state Department of Education.

The state created a very ambitious set of goals as it developed its application, which mentions “world class results” and notes that the state “intends to lead the nation in student performance.”

 

Teachers Kathleen Thomas (from left), Peggie Birch and Elizabeth Boaman participate in a professional learning community meeting at Caesar Rodney  High School in Camden.

It is widely agreed that the work of Vision 2015—a coalition of leaders in government, business and education that had already made some strides with its own reform plan—helped the state win the grant. Vision 2015’s goal is to help the system “regain the competitiveness that students will need to succeed in a 21st century world economy.”

Now, it was time for Vision 2015 to join the Race. The general targets of the two, in terms of goals and identification of the key movers of education reform, are similar. They focus on areas like higher curriculum standards, improved early learning, and better quality teachers and leaders. The primary difference is that the Race has teeth, in that it demands accountability. States and districts signed contracts that stated what they were to accomplish, such as revising the teacher evaluation system to tie student growth to a teacher’s performance.

Paul Herdman, president and CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware and a founding member of Vision 2015, says the Race injected much-needed funding into the Vision 2015 reform plan.

“It was a good catalyst for keeping us going and sort of taking it to the next level,” he says. “If we look back at that original set of ideas that were released [through Vision 2015, originally called Vision 2012] in 2006 … we’ve done an internal analysis here, and about 70 percent of the big ideas that we put forward have actually gotten moving, and much of that is because of Race to the Top.”

The Race, overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, focuses on four key areas: standards and assessments, data systems, effective teachers and leaders, and low-performing schools. The goal is to encourage “states to achieve significant improvement in student outcomes, including making substantial gains in student achievement, closing achievement gaps, and improving high school graduation rates; and ensuring students are prepared for success in college and careers.”

Delaware’s original goals, stated in its Race application, include: “More than half of the state’s students will be proficient or advanced on the National Assessment of Educational Progress; the achievement gap will decrease by 50 percent no later than the 2014-2015 school year; all students will meet state standards; graduation rates will rise; and more students will enter and be successful in college.”

 

Red Clay Consolidated School District Superintendent Merv Daugherty (left) and Deputy Superintendent Hugh Broomall feel their district has made the most of its Race to the Top funds.

In order to achieve these goals, the state embarked upon an ambitious effort that touches many aspects of the educational system, from improving existing data systems to hiring coaches to help teachers use student data in the classroom, and using coaches to help students stay on their graduation track. The plan focuses on early childhood learning, improving poorly performing schools, increasing curriculum standards, increasing professional development for teachers, and better preparing students for college and careers.

The grand idea is that the Race to the Top grant would inspire change that would eventually be institutionalized in the state’s public education system.

Folks like Herdman, who have studied reforms of the past in Delaware and elsewhere, say it’s important to keep things in context. After all, Delaware’s public education system has been under some kind of reform for more than 50 years.

“This rapid cycle of introducing new ideas and then rejecting them is natural and has been repeated many times to no effect,” Herdman says. “So, if we want to see lasting change for our kids, we should look at the few states, like Massachusetts, that are internationally competitive and realize that they developed solid strategies and stuck with them over time.”
 

Race to Results

The state and districts have had their share of success stories. And Mark Murphy, Delaware’s secretary of education, reports that DOE continues to get a green light from the U.S. Department of Education. 

“We are on track to meet the targets that we set in Race to the Top,” says Murphy, who signed on as secretary in 2012, about halfway through the Race, when Lillian Lowery left for the top post in Maryland. “We are on track with the vast majority of those goals.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s annual report on Delaware, released in February and posted on the Race to the Top website, reflects that while the state hit some snags, the feds were generally pleased with Delaware’s progress. But that report, the most recent available, is from the second year of Race to the Top, the 2011-12 school year.

 

The U.S. DOE’s report on Delaware’s third year of the Race will not be released until early this year. In the meantime, the Delaware DOE submitted its most recent report to the feds in October, but would not share it with Delaware Today because, a DOE spokeswoman says, it is not considered a public document as it is a draft being worked on by the state and feds.

Murphy concedes that Delaware is far from perfect. He notes that the percentage of Delaware students enrolling in college has trended downward during the past five years. He also says the state’s efforts to turn around 10 of its worst performing schools—what it calls Partnership Zone schools—is failing overall.

“There are some schools where we’ve seen really significant gains, and that’s wonderful,” Murphy says. “Some schools are going backward and others are making incremental progress. So when you ask the fundamental question of when you put $1 million or hundreds of thousands of dollars into a school and you don’t see significant gains for kids, then that’s a problem that we’ve got to tackle in a new and different way.”

If you look at key statistics, there has been some improvement in some areas, but there are plenty of flat results and even backward movement in others as the Race has progressed.

For example, the state’s high school dropout rate, according to the state DOE, was at 3.9 percent during the 2009-10 school year—the year Race to the Top was announced. The dropout rate dipped to 3.7 percent the following year, but returned to 3.9 percent for 2011-12. Rates from last school year were not available at press time.

A look at the change in the state’s high school graduation rates yields similar results. The graduation rate for 2009-10 was 86.7 percent, which dropped to 78.5 percent the next year, then reached 79.6 percent the year after that.

When the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math tests were released in November, a Delaware DOE press release highlighted the fact that Delaware students made gains in fourth-grade math and reading, as well as eighth-grade math.

 

But a closer look at the NAEP—known as the “Nation’s Report Card”—results shows that the percentage of students considered proficient or advanced in fourth-grade math was two points lower (42 percent) than in 2011 (the NAEP test is administered every two years). In 2011, 39 percent of students were proficient in eighth-grade math compared to 33 percent on the most recent test. The results are similar in reading. Overall, 42 percent of Delaware students are considered proficient, which ranks the First State 27th in the country. Delaware’s stated goal is that more than half of its students will be proficient or advanced.

Also on the NAEP, the black-white achievement gap numbers remained the same, while the white/Hispanic achievement gap closed by a mere point.

Herdman, of Vision 2015, again calls for patience. He admits to being a glass is half full person.

“We moved in the right direction, but it wasn’t a massive move,” he says. “I’m not going to over-defend the numbers. It’s really for the department to kind of explain exactly where they are in terms of their metrics. I think there has been movement. I wish it was even more aggressive. We could see a massive move in the next two years, but it’s still an aggressive goal.”

How does one gauge the Race’s success or failure in a fair and accurate way? Murphy tends to look at the big picture.

“If we’re grading on a curve, we’re at the top of it,” he says. “If we’re grading against the standard, we’re still at the top, but we may not be hitting all of those standards.”

When asked when we will know whether Race to the Top is a success, Murphy says, “I think we have early indications right now. I think it’s not a when we will know, it’s a continued and constant question. We know that a number of the efforts in the educational community now exist that didn’t exist before.”

 

He points to a new, “more rigorous program to help people become school principals, and a teacher evaluation system with feedback being provided to teachers based on whether or not their students are gathering greater skills and knowledge.” He says these are things that didn’t exist before Race to the Top.

Murphy also cites performance indications like a rise in the number of students who are showing proficiency on the state assessment since the beginning of the Race. He says in the past year, DOE has seen more students (grades three through 10) meet their growth targets than the year before.

“So when we look at the success of Race to the Top, I think you can look at it from multiple angles,” he says. “You have to ask yourself: Is the educational context better? Are there better programs, better systems, better standards—these things that wrap around our children.

“And then you have to ask: Is it better for kids? Are we doing a better job educating our children? And we’re certainly on a strong path there in terms of gains and achievement.”
 

Race to the Controversy

The state’s 19 school districts and nearly as many charter schools signed on with Race to the Top initially, but the Race has experienced a few well-publicized dust-ups.

A couple of school boards—from the Capital School District in Dover and Christina School District in New Castle County—have tangled with the state over Race to the Top initiatives. Christina’s school board first bickered with the state DOE over how it would handle assigning teachers to certain schools and later did battle over how the district would use Race funding for teacher incentives in its high-needs schools. The state eventually withheld Christina’s fourth-year share of funding—$2.3 million.

 

More recently, the Capital School District board passed a resolution saying it doesn’t support the new teacher evaluation system. That issue was still playing out at press time.

According to Jim Hosley of the conservative Caesar Rodney Institute, Delaware, through Race to the Top, adopted requirements that had not been developed in exchange for more taxpayer money. He says those involved didn’t understand how the program would work and had little evidence that students would be better prepared.

Hosley likens the Race to the Affordable Care Act, with local school boards signing off on something they didn’t have time to study. “From my perspective, it was like voting for a health care bill,” he says. “You had to pass it before you knew what was in it.”

The Delaware-based Caesar Rodney Institute is a self-described state think tank that examines state policy in economics, energy, healthcare and education. Hosley says CRI works with a network of state policy groups across the country. Retired and living near Lewes, Hosley says he spent 40 years in industry primarily running factories and operations for companies.

Hosley and CRI are among a faction in Delaware that strongly opposes the national, research-based Common Core State Standards. 

Some, like Hosley, say the Race was a way to force the Common Core State Standards on states. He says that the Race required a curriculum component that those involved knew would ultimately be filled by Common Core. Murphy and some superintendents say that the Race is in no way tied to the standards. They argue that more than 40 states have adopted the standards, including many states that have not received Race to the Top funds.

A Delaware DOE document dated August 2011 that outlines the Common Core State Standards states that “a critical component of Delaware’s Race to the Top plan is implementing rigorous college and career ready standards and linking them with standardized assessment.”

 

Delaware DOE describes the standards, limited to math and English language arts for now (although Next Generation Science Standards are on the way), as providing a clear benchmark for what should be learned in public schools throughout the country. The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers coordinated the initiative. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell served as chair of the initiative for the Governors Association and helped drive the national effort.

Critics, like the Delaware Education Reform Coalition, oppose the standards in part because they say they are a federal mandate handed down by corporations and bureaucrats. They say that these types of decisions should be made at the local level and involve parents. Markell says the standards were developed at the local level and started by states.

Regardless, Delaware adopted the Common Core standards in English language arts and math in August 2010, and the state has been rolling them out in grades K-12 ever since. During the first two years of Race to the Top, the state trained 9,000 educators (94 percent of all teachers) on how to teach Common Core. Delaware DOE, through what it calls data coaches, has also offered additional professional development on Common Core that deals with new writing rubrics and aligning literary texts to appropriate grade levels.

Simply put, the Common Core approach focuses on critical thinking rather than simply rote memorization.

Smarter Balanced, the new statewide test tied to the Common Core standards, is expected to replace the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System—which replaced the Delaware Student Testing Program just a few years ago. The Smarter Balanced assessment is scheduled to undergo a pilot phase this spring before being launched fully next school year—although Jenner says that teachers have not been informed officially of whether the new test will be used next school year.

No matter which side you’re on, it will be interesting to see how students perform on the new test—as well as how teacher evaluations that are tied to students’ performance and improvement play out. Some have questioned how the system can close the achievement gap while simultaneously raising curriculum standards.

 

In the meantime, teachers say they are spending more time showing how they’re complying with all of this and less time actually teaching.

“We have a big, bureaucratic education system and it demands attention,” Hosley says. “And it takes attention away from the classroom.”

In the October issue of DSEA Action!—the teachers union’s official publication—Jenner writes about “disturbing trends” among that state’s educators, including: “Highly effective teachers are being recruited to take on a staggering number of tasks; more educators are seeking jobs outside of public education; more staff are on stress-related medical leave; and good teachers, close to retirement, are leaving sooner than they ever intended.”

She mentions that, “by 2009, educators were already complaining about ‘too much on one’s plate.’”

“By the middle of September this year,” she writes, “we were hearing reports of members feeling overwhelmed, experiencing change-fatigue, and their genuine concern about expectations to do it all: comprehend new standards, develop
new curriculum, redesign lessons, implement new pedagogy—all the while making good on goals set this fall for next spring, with so many initiatives underway.”

Kathleen Thomas, in her 29th year as a teacher at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, says she talks to teachers who have given up going to the gym or their children’s soccer games because of the extra work. She also says she no longer encourages her students to become teachers.
 

Race to Sustain

Many would agree that one of the positives of Race to the Top is that it has forced those in public education to think outside the box. Now, those same folks are going to have to think outside the funding to sustain successful initiatives as the Race reaches its financial finish line.

 

Murphy, the state secretary of education, says his department is applying for an extension to be able to push unused funds into the 2014-15 school year. At press time, he said the state was still determining how much money might be available. Meanwhile, superintendents say they’re going to have to be creative, and in some cases scrap other initiatives to develop financial sources to keep the successful facets that they’ve put in place.

Merv Daugherty, superintendent of Red Clay Consolidated School District, represented his fellow superintendents on the original committee that sought the grant. Daugherty is a firm believer that Race to the Top has been a good thing.

“There were a lot of benefits to the grant,” he says. “Some of the negative sides of the grant that people talk about are, ‘You’re going to run out of money.’ Well, I would rather have that money for four or five years than never have the money, because our responsibility was to build a level of capacity that we could sustain.”

Red Clay, the state’s largest district with 30 schools and more than 18,000 students, received about $2.3 million during each year of Race to the Top. Daugherty says Red Clay developed its strategic plan around the Race, knowing that the district would have to find a way to make new programs and efforts sustainable. The district has applied for additional funding through a federal Race to the Top-District program. 

Programs that Red Clay cites as successful include the creation of academic deans to oversee instruction and help teachers with professional development, a career readiness program and its full-time pre-K program, which were all funded through the Race. Daugherty says Race funding has also helped the district to provide additional training to teachers.

The district scrapped a study hall and a driver’s education course in order to create a school day SAT prep program for 10th-graders and also added a free, 10-week evening program. In return, Daugherty says, Red Clay led the state in 2013 with 41 percent of its juniors meeting the SAT college readiness benchmark score of 1550. Only 19 percent of the state’s juniors hit that mark.

 

Susan Bunting, superintendent of the Indian River School District—the state’s largest district geographically—agrees that the Race helped her district do things that it otherwise could not afford to do. As she puts it, it helped the district “to look beyond the horizon.”

The district, with a focus on career and college readiness, added an international baccalaureate program at Sussex Central High School and established Indian River High School as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) high school. The programs are available to all of the district’s students, regardless of feeder patterns, due to school choice.

Bunting says the district also used Race money for expanded professional development for administrators and teachers, and after-school programs for SAT prep and STEM, and it created a parent center.

As far as state-mandated Race initiatives—what Bunting likes to call “required opportunities”—she says the development coach program was successful. Under the initiative, experienced educators are assigned to specific schools to help newer principals handle teacher evaluations.

Bunting says the state funding of the SAT for all high school juniors was especially beneficial to her district, in which 65 percent of students are what she calls “economically challenged.”

“It’s been a boon to those students because some of them find out that they actually do have the ability and with one SAT in their record, they could get over the hurdle.”

Thomas, the longtime teacher at Caesar Rodney High School, was a panelist at the Vision 2015 Conference, held at the University of Delaware in October. Thomas, the Delaware Teacher of the Year for 2004-05, spoke during a session called “Beyond Race to the Top.”

She says the Race helped to increase teachers’ communication with policymakers, other educators, administrators and office employees. She also cited professional learning communities—where teachers of various subjects meet, examine data and discuss teaching strategies for 90 minutes each week—as a positive that was enhanced by the Race.

 

“In some places, it made a huge difference,” Thomas says. “People were able to work together to develop true team goals, team assessments and some things where they could really get in there and work with their students.”

Thomas adds that Race programs, coupled with other school, district and state initiatives all happening at the same time, have taken their toll on teachers and school leaders. “It’s been a little bit cumbersome for everyone in the school family that’s working so hard,” she said.

Murphy holds up the state’s longitudinal data system as a lesser-publicized yet positive result of Race to the Top. The state worked with Harvard University to track students over six years and then developed a way to get those results to teachers in the classroom. “So, if you’re an 11th-grade teacher right now, you can see how your children have performed over many years and whether they are on track right now or not on track. That was not the case a couple years ago.”

On the other hand, Thomas says, it’s too early to tell if the state’s work with research-based data is helpful to teachers, calling it a work in progress. Thomas would like to see the state continue to focus on teacher preparation programs, as well as teacher induction and teacher mentoring.

Addressing teacher recruitment and retention, Thomas says Caesar Rodney High loses about 40 percent of its teachers within the first five years after they are hired. “So teachers like me, we’re constantly training newbies,” she says. “We get them through those first two or three or four critical years, and some of them are seeking employment elsewhere. Whether they are leaving Delaware to teach or they’re leaving the profession, we need to keep those resources with our children.”

Murphy agrees that under the Race to this point, teacher preparation, teacher recruitment, hiring and retention have not changed significantly. But he says work is under way on all of this, including a leadership preparation program and a website launched last year that will make it easier for the state’s districts to recruit and hire high-caliber teachers. All districts and charter schools are expected to use the site by 2016.
 

Race to the Future

Bill Budinger, founder and former chairman and CEO of Rodel Inc., which created the Rodel Foundation and, in turn, Vision 2015, has kept a watchful eye on Delaware’s public education system. He’s still involved with the foundation at the board level and is pleased with Race to the Top’s progress.

 

He says the Race is significant because it helped to bring in “outside talent” like Murphy, the Boston Consulting Group and others who brought fresh ideas to Delaware.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with in-house talent,” he says, “but it tends to be parochial. We tend to deal with the same problem in the same old way, and if we keep that up, we’re likely to get the same old solution.”

As to whether the Race will ultimately be successful?

“We aren’t going to know the answer to this for another 10 years,” Budinger says. “When we started our efforts through Rodel, one of the things that we hoped to find, in our naiveté, was a magic bullet that would have an immediate effect on the kids.

“We were looking for quick results because the stakes were so high,” he says. “And we’ve come to recognize that it’s just not possible. Nobody anywhere has succeeded in getting quick results across the system. We’re after long-term, sustainable results that really represent a change in the way our children view education.”

Hosley, of the Caesar Rodney Institute, makes no bones about it. He says the nation’s public education system is broken and it’s up to the local community to step in and help fix it. He says big-money programs like Race to the Top are not the solution.

“I still think it needs to be local school districts supporting strong principals and good teachers and building good parent-teacher relationships is where the real difference is going to be made,” he says.

“My concern is there is going to be another one,” Hosley says, referring to Race to the Top. “It’s going to be called Race to the Top of the Skyscraper, or something like that, four or five years from now, and we’re going to have to spend more money. That’s been the history.”   

» R​eturn to the January 2013 issue. 

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