Georgia faces challenges in Race to the Top

Georgia was identified Friday as one of three Race to the Top grant winners struggling the most to make good on education reforms promised in exchange for a share of $4 billion.

At the midway point of the four-year grant program, the U.S. Department of Education said most of the 12 grant winners are progressing satisfactorily, with the exception of Georgia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Georgia’s biggest challenge comes with its rollout of a new evaluation system that rates teachers and school leaders based in part on student progress, the agency said in its new report.

That’s no big surprise. Last July, the U.S. DOE declared that Georgia was “at high risk” of being ordered to repay $33 million of its $400 million Race to the Top grant that was dedicated to the new evaluation system.

That threat still holds, though state officials say they’re made “quality progress” on four of five conditions set by the DOE last July.

“We knew that a small part of our Race to the Top program would remain on high risk status,” said Jon Rogers, spokesman for Georgia’s Race to the Top program. “The final condition, which is using feedback and data to improve our educator evaluation systems, is dependent upon the completion of the teacher and leader evaluations being done in our current school year.”

In its report, the U.S. DOE said a majority of grant winners had the most difficulty in two areas: implementing the new teacher-and-principal evaluation systems and launching sophisticated data systems capable of identifying students at risk of academic failure.

“This is really hard work, and there will always be bumps in the road,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a conference call with reporters.

In Georgia’s case, federal officials said the state has strayed too far from its original plan to move from a system that rates all teachers as satisfactory or unsatisfactory to one that identifies top, low and average performers and is based on classroom observations, student growth, a reduction in the student achievement gap and student changes.

The Year 2 report found that Georgia is behind schedule on some projects and has made changes to the evaluation system without knowing what’s working.

The new teacher-and-principal evaluations are slated to roll out statewide in 2014-2015.

The evaluation systems are being piloted in 50 school districts — including Gwinnett, Clayton, DeKalb and 23 other districts that partnered with the state on its Race to the Top grant application in exchange for a $200 million share of the $400 million.

The current pilots started before the state had results on a shorter pilot that ran from January to May of last year, involving about 5,800 teachers. In December, state officials acknowledged that the results of that pilot “skewed to the positive,” with initial data showing less than 1 percent of teachers were classified as ineffective and one in five got the top rating of exemplary.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said Friday his group wants state officials to “take the time to listen to feedback from educators, make the mid-course adjustments that are warranted, and constantly communicate with all stakeholders.”

“If the timetable to accomplish that raises concerns from the U.S. DOE, so be it,” he said.

The new federal report shows Maryland also struggling to implement its teacher evaluation system, while the District of Columbia was flagged for being slow on its school turnaround initiatives.

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