Where Are We In the Race to the Top?
While debates over guns, immigration and debt are increasingly consuming the attention of Congress, the federal issue with the most direct implication for states remains education.
Congress’s failure to reauthorize and improve the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known in its most recent form as No Child Left Behind, is increasingly moving the center of gravity in federal education reform out of the hands of Congress and onto the plate of the grant and waiver programs administered by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Recent U.S. Department of Education reports point to both the impact and limitations of the grant and waiver process for achieving broad-based reform.
The recent second year reports from the Department of Education’s Race to the Top program explain how states are taking action to raise educational standards. In its second phase, 11 states—Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Tennessee—and the District of Columbia have received $3.4 billion from the federal program to implement sweeping reforms in education. States have focused on college- and career-ready assessments, building data systems to enhance teacher instruction, supporting teachers and school leaders, and improving low-performing schools.
States have found unique and innovative ways to aid teachers and leaders. In Delaware, 9,000 educators have received professional development training and 27 Teach for America participants have been placed in the state’s classrooms. In Florida, struggling schools received grants to hire 800 new teachers. Hawaii has created a new Human Resources Information System to help ensure the most qualified applicants are put into the state’s schools. Rhode Island created an innovative teacher mentor program where every new teacher receives 75 minutes per week of instruction. Tennessee has completed the first year of its teacher residency program pairing novice and veteran teachers. New York’s new teacher database—EngageNY.org, which provides college preparation resources to teachers—already has received 8 million views.
States also enhanced their curriculums and gave resources directly to local school districts. North Carolina supported 72 instructional coaches in low-achieving districts. Forty-five states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which set the first national framework for educating students in grades K-12 in English language arts and math.
Maryland created two model lesson plans for English language arts and math in each grade level to better assist the state’s teachers align their lessons to the common core-based curriculum. Lastly, Massachusetts added 17 Priority Partners, which are education organizations designated to help low-achieving local school districts improve. These Priority Partners have been recognized by Massachusetts as groups that have been effective in helping improve the student body’s social, emotional and health needs, the use of data and district support systems, or ensuring students are given the maximum possible learning time.
While states have made real progress in implementing reform, measuring student improvement is much more complicated. Given the untenable goals of the original No Child Left Behind legislation—including a provision that all children, regardless of learning disabilities or limited English proficiency, must reach grade level proficiency by the 2013-14 school year— the Department of Education has invited all states to apply for waivers covering 10 separate education act provisions, including the onerous 100 percent proficiency requirement.
To date, 44 states and Puerto Rico have applied for waivers and the U.S. Department of Education has granted 34 requests.
The funding provided through Race to the Top has clearly catalyzed a broad set of state reforms and the waiver process has now mandated states to develop their own systems of accountability. Waivers, however, offer temporary relief to the untenable requirements of No Child Left Behind while leaving in place uncertainty over what final form of standards will be deemed acceptable either by the Department of Education through waivers or by Congress in some future bill. Only reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act can provide the long-term certainty needed to pursue evidence-based reforms and adopt effective standards.